The Austin Chronicle

Legislators, NAACP, and Professors Condemn UT’s Mass Layoffs

By Lina Fisher, April 11, 2024, 3:51pm, Newsdesk

At the Texas AFL-CIO headquarters Wednesday evening, legislators, the NAACP, and a university professor united against UT-Austin’s handling of Senate Bill 17’s ban on DEI-related programs at public universities, calling for President Jay Hartzell to reinstate the more than 66 faculty and staff laid off April 2.

Rep. Ron Reynolds, HD-27, chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, began, “Our diversity is our strength. This state has overcome a lot of things like Jim Crow, where people of color couldn't enter these institutions. We've grown because of our diversity. You don't want to be on the wrong side of history.”

The Texas State Conference of the American Association of University Professors is calling on UT to reinstate the positions. Staff who lost their jobs “were formally in DEI positions prior to January 1, 2024, but had pivoted before January 1 to comply with SB 17 after a university-wide audit in summer and fall of 2023,” explained Dr. Brian Evans, an engineering professor at UT and president elect of AAUP.

“So why is it that in less than 90 days those programs that had been approved are no longer OK?” asked Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP. The UT layoffs followed a March 26 letter from the author of SB 17, state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, to chancellors and regents at various universities, in which he threatened that funding could be rescinded or legal action taken if universities didn’t comply further than “merely renaming” DEI offices. “That letter asks for fodder,” Bledsoe said. “I want some bodies, that’s what it says.”

Texas legislators feel that UT’s layoffs are an overreaction. They also feel that the authors of the law made false promises on the House floor: In a clip in which Rep. Nicole Collier, HD-95, asked questions of SB 17’s House sponsor Rep. John Kuempel, HD-44, he assured her that no staff would lose their jobs as a result of the bill, and that student programs would not be cut.

Because the university has refused to confirm the actual number of layoffs, AAUP is relying on people to come forward on their own. Those people have indicated that the number may actually be as high as 130. So far, AAUP has confirmed that of the 66 that have come forward, 15 assistant and associate dean positions have been terminated, and more than 40 positions were eliminated as part of the closing of the Division of Campus and Community Engagement (DCCE). AAUP and the Texas NAACP sent a joint letter to Hartzell April 4 condemning the firings, writing that most who have come forward have been women or racial minorities: “We have concerns that these terminations will have a disparate impact on certain populations, possibly in violation of federal law and surely to the detriment of the University’s reputation.” The university has yet to reply.

Evans fears these layoffs will cause students’ quality of education to drop: “Students lost staff who provided academic advising, scholarships, connections with internships, counseling, health services, food pantries, and ways to connect with other students. They also provided support for faculty to submit federal grants for workforce development.” Bledsoe added, “There are many faculty that feel that their research is in jeopardy. It's going to dumb down the university. Chair Reynolds and I have met with a number of very talented Black and brown students that are being sought after all around the state, and they're wondering whether they should come here.”

Thursday morning, the Chronicle received an email from a current UT-Austin student pursuing an undergraduate degree in social work. The 35-year-old black military veteran with PTSD is attending UT through the vocational rehabilitation program. “I was initially excited to go to UT because they have one of the best social work programs in the country. After all of this SB 17 news I'm so disappointed in this school that I'm looking into transferring. I don't feel like UT values me or people that look like me (black and brown people).”

UT students who are part of a coalition called Texas Students for DEI have sent a letter to Creighton, Hartzell, and UT Legal Affairs, inviting them to a student-led town hall April 19 and calling out the university’s lack of transparency and communication around the layoffs and department closures. They expect a response by April 12.

Bledsoe also pointed to a potential exodus of faculty – “If you can be a faculty member elsewhere, where you have academic freedom, where you can do research, that's honest research, to help the public and to help further your career – why would you choose to be at a place where you cannot do that?”

As for next steps, Bledsoe indicated that AAUP is in discussions about potential litigation by those who were laid off. “I think one thing that is obviously clear, is that SB 17 is vague. It's unconstitutional, because you can see the different responses of universities around the state, that they read it differently – a law has to be clear enough to be able to properly conform your conduct.” Reynolds urged students to vote in the upcoming election, as “the only way that we can repeal this kind of discriminatory legislation is if people vote.”

Legislators said they fear that as the state’s flagship university, UT-Austin is a canary in the coalmine for how SB 17 will be implemented going forward. Just Tuesday, UT Dallas’ president announced the firing of 20 people in its Office of Campus Resources and Support in compliance with the law.

“The first thing they did was implement this notion of critical race theory, so they couldn't teach about the history of racism and discrimination. And they tried to take it out of our history books, they tried to ban books,” said Reynolds. “What’s next? This is authoritarianism. This is the kind of affront on our country that we should all be concerned about.”

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