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UT Austin lays off communications staff amid 'crises' following protests, DEI changes

The "structural changes" come after months of turmoil at one of the state’s largest public universities and amid scrutiny of institutions of higher education by Republican lawmakers.
Patricia Lim
KUT News
The "structural changes" come after months of turmoil at one of the state’s largest public universities and amid scrutiny of institutions of higher education by Republican lawmakers.

UT Austin has let go nearly two dozen employees responsible for communications and marketing after a turbulent academic year, according to multiple sources who described the news as abrupt. Their last day is Aug. 31.

A vice president informed affected employees in the University Marketing and Communications department of the layoffs two weeks ago, saying they were necessary so the university could focus on “managing reputational issues and crises.”

This is according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the changes. They asked to remain unnamed because they worried about future job opportunities or weren’t authorized to speak about the layoffs. Sources said 19 to 20 people were laid off — about a quarter of the department, according to an online list of employees.

Mike Rosen, a university spokesperson, declined to comment beyond saying the department was going through a “restructure” and positions had been eliminated. He would not confirm the number of employees impacted.

The move follows months of turmoil at one of the state’s largest public universities and amid scrutiny of institutions of higher education by Republican lawmakers.

In April, UT Austin laid off dozens of staff to comply with a new state law banning diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, programs. That same month, university officials called in police to respond to two pro-Palestinian protests on campus.

Officers arrested more than 100 people, including some students who now face criminal charges and university discipline. University spokespeople had struggled to communicate a clear message about what, if any, discipline arrested students would face.

At the time, spokesperson Brian Davis said students who had been arrested would not be allowed to return to campus. He walked back that statement, eventually saying students could return to campus for “any reason.” A little over a week ago, the university started disciplinary proceedings against some of the arrested students. (Sources said Davis was among those laid off.)

UT Austin President Jay Hartzell’s handling of these events has garnered praise from some of the state’s most notable conservative leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott. But many university faculty and staff have condemned Hartzell’s actions.

Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Emily Reagan pointed to “crises” as the reason for the layoffs in a June 3 email to communications employees, a copy of which was shared with KUT. She said the university would be eliminating several full-time positions, including some that were vacant. She did not say how many jobs were affected.

Reagan’s letter did not mention the protests or DEI layoffs, nor did she specify what crises prompted the changes.

“[N]ow, more than ever, it is critical for our central marketing and communications function to focus intently on managing reputational issues and crises,” Reagan wrote. She added that she would take a new position and the university would start a “national search” for a new vice president, someone who could help “proactively manag[e] issues and crises at the top.”

“It has become clear that we need greater strength in crisis communications, and the crises we have faced have made it difficult to invest properly in our brand, impact and long-run reputation,” she wrote.

It’s not yet clear whom UT Austin will bring in to replace those laid off or how the department will function in the apparent absence of its staff.

Employees impacted by the layoffs were informed on Zoom hours before Reagan’s email went out, according to four people with direct knowledge. One source recorded a portion of the call and provided it to KUT. Details of the call were echoed by a second source who was present.

“This is not a performance-related decision,” an individual whom two sources identified as Reagan said on the Zoom call. “This is a decision to set us up to focus on priorities that the president has outlined for me and for our team.”

Rosen confirmed those who were laid off will stay employed with the university until Aug. 31. According to the Zoom recording, those affected have been encouraged to look for new jobs during their university work hours.

Copyright 2024 KUT 90.5

Audrey McGlinchy is the City Hall reporter at KUT, covering the Austin City Council and the policies they discuss. She comes to Texas from Brooklyn, where she tried her hand at publishing, public relations and nannying. Audrey holds English and journalism degrees from Wesleyan University and the City University of New York. She got her start in journalism as an intern at KUT Radio during a summer break from graduate school. While completing her master's degree in New York City, she interned at the New York Times Magazine and Guernica Magazine.