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The limits — and uncertainty — of the new Texas law banning DEI at public colleges and universities

Courtney Balderas–Jacob, interim program manager for the Dreamers Resource Center talks with Emmanuel Quiroz, a DACA recipient in this file photo from 2018.
Joey Palacios
Texas Public Radio
Several Texas universities have closed centers for LGBTQ+ students and undocumented students due to SB 17, but UTSA officials say their LGBTQ+ programs and Dreamers Resource Center remain open as usual for students. In this 2018 file photo, the first Dreamer center manager speaks to a student.

Students and faculty at public universities across Texas are grappling with the effects of a new state law banning diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.

To help them navigate the impact, two San Antonio professors organized a symposium on the topic Friday at Trinity University.

Antonio Ingram with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund told symposium-goers that the DEI ban needs to be seen in the context of a national movement to revert back to colorblindness.

“There's a concerted effort that's happening across this country right now in many states, such as Florida and Texas, to really, in terms of higher education, excise, race and gender identity and sexual orientation from a university setting,” Ingram said.

And, he warned, if that movement gets its way, fewer students of color will earn degrees that put them in positions of power in our democracy.

“If you create a situation where Black and Brown and queer students no longer feel safe or supported in these universities, you're really hamstringing the ability for these spaces to produce the next generation of teachers and professors and politicians and doctors,” Ingram said.

Different institutions in different parts of the state are interpreting the law differently. The University of Houston shut down its LGBTQ resource center in August, and UT Arlington closed its stand-alone LGBTQ programming this semester. UT Austin closed its center for undocumented students this semester. But according to UT San Antonio Chief Communications Officer Joe Izbrand, UTSA’s Dreamer Center and LGBTQ+ programs both “continue as normal.”

Miriam Sobre, one of the symposium organizers, teaches intercultural communication at the UTSA and researches legislation focused on race and identity in education. She said in her research she’s found those laws to be ambiguous by design.

“What these bills do is they are not actually saying, ‘We're going to fire you. You're going to get in big trouble. We'll blacklist you and you'll never teach in this wherever again.’ Instead, they're designed to create an environment of fear and uncertainty.”

But Ingram said there’s a lot of exceptions to the Texas DEI ban that can be used to continue supporting students. Student groups are not affected, and the new state law doesn’t impact what professors can teach or research.

“We really need to be cognizant of all the ways in which students and professors still have agency to cultivate environments that are going to make everyone feel welcome and safe in institutions that still have a long way to go oftentimes in that mission,” Ingram said.

Still, because the implementation of the DEI law, SB 17, varies from institution to institution, Ingram said students have different rights and privileges depending on where they attend college.

“It’s very problematic,” Ingram said. “This is about people who are 18, coming from communities that are already not super welcoming, now, being in a place that says, ‘OK, we welcome your queerness, we welcome your Blackness.’ They think they can breathe a sigh of relief. And then they get to these schools now. And actually, ‘No, we're not going to support this part of you. We're not going to, as the state, provide you with dignity and belonging.’ And I think that's why this is a very dangerous moment.”

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Camille Phillips can be reached at camille@tpr.org or on Instagram at camille.m.phillips. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.