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University of Texas at Austin Fires 60 Staff Focused on Diversity and Inclusion

The layoffs were prompted by a diversity, equity, and inclusion ban that went into effect in January.

The University of Texas at Austin clocktower, pictured on July 5, 2016.

The University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin) announced on Tuesday that it was firing dozens of people who used to work in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs at the university. At least 60 total staff members were laid off — 40 of whom worked in the Division of Campus and Community Engagement, which is closing.

In a joint letter, Texas NAACP and the Texas Conference of American Association of University Professors (AAUP) said that none of the staff who were fired currently work in DEI. The letter also says that the organizations see the layoffs as “potential attacks on First Amendment freedoms” and as clear retaliation that shows that “racial and ethnic discrimination was the clear purpose of this action.”

Professors at UT-Austin saw the firings as a “purge” that disproportionately affected staff from marginalized backgrounds.

“I can’t help but see this as a purge of any staff who have training in DEI — literally like a McCarthy-era purge — because none of the staff who’ve been fired have any DEI in their portfolio right now,” said Karma Chávez, the chair of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies. “All they had is a history of being in a DEI-related position.”

In 2023, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 17 into law. This bill, which went into effect in January, mandated the closure of DEI offices on public university campuses, prohibited compulsory diversity training and limited hiring departments from requesting diversity statements.

“It’s going to fall into the hands of professors who come from marginalized backgrounds — so faculty of color, queer faculty, trans faculty, first gen faculty, immigrant faculty,” Chávez said. “Those faculty who are already marginalized on this campus who already do a disproportionate amount of unseen and uncredited service, they will now be overburdened by this as well.”

The impending layoffs, set to take effect in 90 days or more, appear to be spurred by a recent letter from State Sen. Brandon Creighton (R) to university leaders. Sent last week, the letter cautioned that colleges could risk losing millions in state funding unless they adhere to the law. The Senate Committee on Education, of which Creighton is chair, is expected to convene a hearing in May to assess the extent to which the state’s universities are adhering to Senate Bill 17.

Ahead of the hearing, Creighton requested that university leaders provide details regarding their implementation of Senate Bill 17. One of the questions schools must address is: “How has your institution ensured that there are no DEI offices or officers on campus, or no individual or organization performing the duties of a DEI office or officer?”

Alongside their focus on DEI initiatives on college campuses, Texas lawmakers have approved legislation that restricts how schools address “homosexuality” in certain curricula, eliminates mandates for teachers to teach about the civil rights and suffrage movements and prohibits schools from requiring teachers to cover current events or contentious topics.

“Do folks outside of academia understand what is happening in Texas & elsewhere? The phrase ‘DEI’ has been coined as a threat to students & results in cutting programs that offer supports for students,” Dr. Crystal Garcia, assistant professor of higher education at University of Nebraska-Lincoln said on social media. “These supports are RESEARCH based, cutting them is not.”

Texas, along with Florida and Utah, is among only a handful of states that have approved bans on DEI efforts in higher education and public offices. However, a March investigation by NBC News revealed that Republican lawmakers in more than 30 states have introduced or passed over 100 bills aimed at either restricting or regulating DEI initiatives during this legislative session.

“I have 100% confidence that my department — and Black Studies, and Gender and Women Studies, and Native American/Indigenous Studies and Asian American Studies — that we are next on the chopping block,” Chávez said. “I have no doubt that the ultimate goal is to get rid of all of us who are doing any kind of work that reflects people who do not come from a predominantly white, middle class, heterosexual, Christian background.”

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