When Texas lawmakers scheduled a hearing this week about two bills that could alter tenure and eliminate diversity, equity, and inclusion offices, the higher-ed community had a lot to say.

Hundreds of witnesses — mostly faculty members, as well as some administrators and students — showed up to testify on SB 17 and SB 18 before the Higher Education Committee in the Texas House of Representatives. The event lasted over 10 hours and didn’t adjourn until 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday.

Both bills are a part of a landslide of legislation introduced this year to reform higher education in Texas, including efforts to prohibit diversity training and ban the instruction of certain topics related to race and gender, among other priorities.

Tenure elimination in particular has been a key legislative priority for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, who has previously said that some professors “hide behind” tenure in an effort to “continue blatantly advancing their agenda of societal division.” The Texas Senate voted last month to get rid of tenure for new faculty hires.

A different version of SB 18 emerged at the hearing on Monday, and the tenure ban was gone. State Rep. John Kuempel, a Republican and chair of the Higher Education Committee in the House, said the substitute reflects that faculty tenure is a necessity for the state’s colleges to remain competitive.

Instead, the new legislation would require in-depth performance reviews for all tenured faculty members at least once every six years. The proposal echoes an effort in Florida to revamp post-tenure review, which has drawn criticism.

Meanwhile, to the proposed ban on diversity offices, in SB 17, lawmakers have added some exceptions — allowing colleges’ governing boards to approve diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts that are required for federal grants or accreditation.

No witnesses spoke in favor of the tenure bill. Two voiced support for the diversity-office ban.

Here’s what else people had to say at the hearing.

As The Chronicle reported last week, even the prospect of eliminating or weakening tenure has already affected faculty recruitment and retention.

Julie McCormick Weng, an assistant professor of English at Texas State University, said colleagues are going on the job market because they fear pursuing a long-term career in a state that does not support tenure. The revised bill, Weng added, still sends a message that the Texas Legislature believes there is an issue at the state’s colleges that requires state intervention.

“The mere optics of this bill are already having a detrimental effect on our universities and their reputations,” Weng said. “If any version of this bill is passed, I worry that it would result in a profound faculty exodus.”

“We all want greater political diversity in higher education. Please do not eliminate” the protection of tenure.

Other faculty members said they had seen competitive candidates drop out of the hiring processes at Texas universities because of SB 18.

“People turn down jobs for lots of reasons, but from what these candidates told me, the uncertainty around tenure was a big factor in our failure to hire this year,” said Daniel Brinks, chair of the government department at the University of Texas at Austin.

Brinks said he’d made job offers to six candidates for two faculty openings this year, and all six declined. Another professor in the department informed Brinks last week that he’d be leaving.

While lawmakers have moved away from banning tenure for now, the list of reasons to fire tenured faculty are vague and confusing in the new House version of the bill.

That bill proposes that tenured faculty may be dismissed for exhibiting “professional incompetence,” engaging in “unprofessional conduct that adversely affects the institution,” and violating university policies, among other things.

Brian L. Evans, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, and president of the campus chapter of the Association of American University Professors, said he welcomed the changes in the bill but stressed that the language around dismissal of tenured professors needs to be clarified.

“‘Violating university policies’ could be a reason for dismissal, so we’re concerned that could be used in all kinds of ways — many unforeseen,” Evans said.

Stephen McKeown, an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at Dallas, said he worried the vague language in the revised SB 18 could be used to fire conservative faculty members who speak up about their beliefs. Tenure, McKeown said, is “vital” for conservative faculty members, because most of the people who make hiring and firing decisions on college campuses lean to the left politically.

“We all want greater political diversity in higher education,” McKeown said. “Please do not eliminate this protection.”

The state’s colleges will continue promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion even without designated offices.

College administrators who were invited to testify by the committee said that SB 17 may require universities to take a different approach, but the administrators stressed that they are committed to diversifying their campuses and supporting students.

Michael R. Williams chancellor of the University of North Texas system, said that while the majority of the system’s campuses do not have their own DEI offices, that has not stopped them from pursuing diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“This is the path that we’re on regardless,” Williams said.

LaToya Smith, vice president for diversity and community engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, said it is hard to say what the impact of the bill would be if passed.

“There could be a chilling effect,” Smith said. “There could be potential issues with recruiting students.”


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