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UT Austin students want answers on the DEI-related firings of at least 66 employees

 UT Austin students, who have been organizing against SB 17 before it became state law, have quickly mobilized and launched a "Not Our Texas" campaign in response to the firings of dozens of employees.
Chelsey Zhu
KUT News
UT Austin students, who have been organizing against SB 17 before it became state law, have quickly mobilized and launched a "Not Our Texas" campaign in response to the firings of dozens of employees.

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Christian Mira is a senior at UT Austin, and while his last year should be about making good memories with friends, he said this year has been memorable for the wrong reasons. He’s one of many UT students devastated by the university’s decision to close the Division of Campus and Community Engagement and fire at least 66 employees.

UT President Jay Hartzell announced the changes in an April 2 email and said they were part of an ongoing effort to comply with Senate Bill 17. The Texas law, which took effect Jan. 1, bans diversity, equity and inclusion offices and programs at public universities and colleges. His email came one week after Republican state Sen. Brandon Creighton, the author of SB 17, informed university leaders they had until May 3 to submit information on how they were following the law.

Mira said he and his friends "felt pretty betrayed by our university" when they read the email because UT Austin had already taken significant steps to comply with SB 17 when it took effect.

One of those steps included closing the Multicultural Engagement Center. The center had been home to six UT-sponsored student groups, including Afrikan American Affairs and the Native American and Indigenous Collective. UT also ended Monarch, a program aimed at supporting undocumented students. This prompted students to raise concerns the university was making changes not required by SB 17. UT Austin officials also said any staff who had been working on DEI initiatives before Jan. 1, stopped doing so after the law took effect.

Mira said he wasn’t happy with the changes, but to some extent, he had come to terms with them. That’s what made the latest closures and terminations especially shocking, he said.

“At no stage in the process did [Hartzell] reach out to students to say, 'What services do you feel like you need? How can we adapt them into maybe a new SB 17 compliant office?’ or anything like that,” he said. “So, it just feels a lot like the university administration isn’t actually supporting us.”

But UT Austin students still hope to get answers from Hartzell and Creighton. They sent a letter to them along with Amanda Cochran-McCall, the UT vice president for legal affairs, asking them to participate in a student-led town hall on April 19.

The letter requests all three indicate whether they plan to participate by Friday.

As of publication time, neither UT nor Creighton's office has replied to KUT’s request for comment on whether Hartzell or Creighton plan to participate in the town hall. But Mira is holding out hope.

Students fundraise to retain support services

Aaliyah Barlow is a UT junior and serves on the Afrikan American Affairs board. She said after the Multicultural Engagement Center closed, the group had to become a registered student organization instead of a UT-sponsored one.

“That has been really hard because there is no funding for AAA through UT, so all of the funding comes from outside sources,” she said.

Barlow also said it is “heartbreaking” that the university is no longer providing institutional support for New Black Student Weekend, Black Graduation and other cultural graduation ceremonies.

“Doing these kinds of ceremonies, it’s an opportunity to connect with more people that look like you and validate your achievements and validate that you belong here,” she said.

According to university data from last fall, only 4.5% of the student body is Black.

UT grad student Zion James, who also completed his undergraduate degree at the university, describes himself as a product of the New Black Student Weekend.

“I say product because a lot of these welcoming programs for these marginalized communities have a 100% graduation rate,” he said.

James said the lack of university support will be a challenge, but he still expects the program to continue, especially because students managed to keep it afloat during the pandemic.

James said students may feel overwhelmed about how to keep the event going, but he and other alumni can provide guidance. Still, he said the sudden loss of so many staff that worked with student groups, presents a major obstacle.

"Now that we’re losing a whole department of our faculty advisors and staff, who is going to advise all these [student organizations] as they go into the summer for their planning? A lot of these organizations start their planning in April and May,” he said.

But James said he wants students to know they have the power to make UT diverse, equitable and inclusive.

“Don’t get me wrong, everything that’s happening right now is all coming as a shock,” he said. “But now is even more of a time to mobilize and understand and advocate and work together because they have to remember everything that paved the way for them were the students before us and they have to understand that we still have that power.”

Barlow also said she wants students of color to continue to attend UT even though they won't have the same institutional resources she did.

"The whole point of this law is to make it to where less students of color come, and so we need to combat that by encouraging more students to come,” she said.

Democrats and civil rights groups also demand answers

UT Austin students are not the only stakeholders demanding clarity on the changes the university is making in response to SB 17. The Texas Legislative Black Caucus held a news conference Wednesday to denounce the firings. Democratic state Rep. Ron Reynolds, who chairs the caucus, said the law is an affront to Texas’ diversity and efforts to combat discrimination.

“We’ve come a long way to help remedy and provide an atmosphere where all students can feel welcome," he said. "These programs were making a difference."

 Democratic State Rep. Gina Hinojosa speaks at a news conference organized by the Texas Legislative Black Caucus to denounce the organizational changes and staff terminations UT announced on April 2.
Becky Fogel
KUT News
Democratic State Rep. Gina Hinojosa speaks at a news conference organized by the Texas Legislative Black Caucus to denounce the organizational changes and staff terminations UT announced on April 2.

It remains unclear how many UT employees were laid off. UT has declined to share the number of terminations, directing KUT back to Hartzell’s April 2 email.

Texas NAACP President Gary Bledsoe said at the news conference his organization has confirmed the names of 66 people who were terminated. But he expects that number to grow and is asking everyone who has been let go to contact the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors.

Brian Evans, the president-elect of Texas AAUP, said his group has confirmed 14 associate deans will no longer hold those titles but will retain their faculty positions. At least one associate dean received a termination notice.

“There’s also students who were fired in all of this. That doesn’t get as much attention yet, but all those staff have student employees that assist them — they all got fired too or terminated as of May 31,” he said.

Evans said he is concerned the firings at UT Austin will have a ripple effect — and it’s already happening. The UT Dallas announced Tuesday it is eliminating a new student support office at the end of this month and laying off about 20 employees.
Copyright 2024 KUT News. To see more, visit KUT News.

Becky Fogel is the editor and producer of statewide newscasts for the Texas Newsroom. She previously worked for the shows Texas Standard and Science Friday. She got her start in radio at KWBU-FM in Waco.