Aaliyah Barlow needed to raise $20,000 by the end of the month.

As president of the University of Texas at Austin’s Black Student Alliance, a student group, the junior is in charge of securing funding for three dozen of her peers to attend an annual conference for Black student leaders within the Big 12 Athletic Conference. For months, she’s been asking different colleges and departments within the university to sponsor their travel, as they’ve always done before.

But this year, it’s been crickets.

President Jay Hartzell’s office — usually their largest supporter — didn’t return emails, she said. Neither did other typically supportive departments. At least one other department flatly said no.

She was told it was because of Senate Bill 17, the new state law that bans diversity, equity and inclusion offices, programs and training in Texas public universities.

As of Friday, Barlow said she and her peers have raised about $6,000, which will cover half the students originally set on attending. Instead of renting a bus, they now plan to drive the 14-hour trip. Or they’ll meet up with another school along the way to take their bus to the conference.

“It’s been really frustrating, especially since we’ve been getting money from these places every single year,” Barlow said. “We’re just a student organization … so I assumed we’d be okay. But that’s not the case, unfortunately.”

Students walk past the former Multicultural Engagement Center during a passing period on Feb. 20, 2024.
Students walk past the former Multicultural Engagement Center during a passing period on Feb. 20, 2024. Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune

Situations like Barlow’s are playing out on college campuses across the state. At UT-Austin in particular, feelings have been fraught with students and advocates saying the school is going above and beyond what’s required by the state’s DEI ban.

Since the law went into effect at the beginning of this year, UT-Austin has closed a beloved multicultural center that housed several student organizations sponsored by the school and ended a scholarship program for undocumented students. This month, the undergraduate college canceled a lecture on finding mentors in higher education through the lens of the LGBTQ student experience after university lawyers argued it could be construed as diversity training. Some students say university officials have gone back on their word, often with little explanation, after promising that certain programs would not be impacted by the ban.

“I don’t think people even understood for real what it was until January 1, when they came back and they noticed the [Division of Diversity and Student Engagement] is not here anymore. They noticed the Multicultural Engagement Center letters have been ripped off the wall of this room,” Barlow said. “It wasn’t taken seriously because I don’t think people really understood how severe it was until it was already in effect and it was too late.”

Critics of the law say the ban’s language is vague and universities’ legal teams are advising their clients to play it safe with their interpretation of it. They believe the tendency is to overcorrect, which is ultimately harming students and faculty.

“It’s becoming a tool to usher in a colorblind university system in a way that is evasive of the history of race discrimination, evasive of state-sanctioned exclusion, not to mention attacks on the queer community,” said Antonio Ingram II, a lawyer with the Legal Defense Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based legal organization that focuses on racial justice.

UT-Austin officials have provided little information to students and faculty who have demanded more transparency about how they are interpreting the law. They did not respond to interview requests or a list of written questions.

Amid that silence, students are scrambling to fill the financial gaps and continue traditions the university used to support.

Aaliyah Barlow helps to lead the Black Student Alliance meeting at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 19, 2024.
Aaliyah Barlow helps to lead the Black Student Alliance meeting at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 19, 2024. Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune

Texas’ DEI ban

Early last year, conservative think tanks started to home in on DEI offices, accusing them of indoctrinating students with left-wing ideology and forcing universities to hire people based on how much they support diversity efforts rather than on merit and achievement. Republican lawmakers agreed and have introduced legislation targeting these offices across the country. Texas became the second state to ban DEI offices, programs and training at public universities, following Florida.

“DEI programs have been shown to be exclusive, they have been shown to be ineffective and they have shown to be politically charged,” state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, the ban’s author, said on the Senate floor last year. “Many of these programs have been weaponized to compel speech instead of protecting free speech.”

Over the past few years, DEI offices have become increasingly common at universities. They are typically charged with boosting faculty diversity and helping students from all backgrounds succeed.

These offices often coordinate mentorships, tutoring and support programs to help students from underrepresented groups feel welcome and find a community on their campuses. They also provide spaces for a wide range of student groups to gather, from students of color and LGBTQ students to students with disabilities and veterans. In addition, these offices help departments cast a wide net when searching for job candidates and ensure that universities don’t violate federal discrimination laws.

Student talk, sit and read on the South Mall a the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 22, 2024. The UT Tower is located north of the South Mall.
Students gather at the University of Texas at Austin’s South Mall on Feb. 22, 2024. Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune

Faculty and students have argued that banning universities’ DEI efforts would make it harder to recruit and retain top faculty and could lead some students to feel unwelcome and unsafe on campus. They also argue it walks back years of progress toward making sure that everyone, especially underrepresented students or those previously barred from entry, can succeed in school.

Texas’ DEI ban states that public colleges and universities cannot create diversity offices, hire employees to conduct DEI work, or require any DEI training as a condition for being hired by or admitted to the university. All hiring practices must be “color-blind and sex-neutral,” the law says.

The law also lists some areas that it should not affect, including course instruction, faculty research, student organizations, guest speakers, data collection or admissions. It specifies that it does not apply to any “policy, practice, procedure, program, or activity to enhance student academic achievement or postgraduate outcomes that is designed and implemented without regard to race, sex, color, or ethnicity.”

In preparation for the law’s implementation, UT-Austin administrators shared with students and employees guidance from the University of Texas System, which oversees the school, about what is permitted under the ban. For instance, system guidance states that while student organizations are exempt from prohibitions, some of those groups may shut down based on the extent of institutional support they receive from the university.

“As with all new laws, I fully expect that there will be divided opinions on our campus about both the law itself and its eventual impacts on our University,” Hartzell wrote in a December letter to the campus community. “But it is the law, and with compassion and respect for all of our community members, we will comply.”

Students walk in and out of the William C. Powers Student Activity Center at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 22, 2024. A sign saying 'Make it Your Texas' is on the windows above the entrance.
A sign reads “Make it Your Texas” above the entrance of the William C. Powers Student Activity Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune

“What they said wouldn’t happen, happened”

The DEI ban’s exclusions led students like Guadalupe — a UT-Austin junior who is undocumented and asked to be identified only by her middle name out of fear of making her immigration status public — to believe that some of the programs she relied on throughout her time at the university would not be affected.

She mentioned the Monarch Program, which provided support and scholarships to students from undocumented families or with fluid immigration statuses. It was founded in 2016 by a UT-Austin graduate student, but the university took it over, hiring its first full-time employee in 2021 and funneling university funding for the first time just last year.

Guadalupe stumbled into the program shortly after her laptop died three years ago, a few weeks into her freshman year. She was able to borrow a laptop through Monarch’s technology lending library until she saved enough money to buy a new one. Ever since, she’s worked with the program to help other students like her stay in school and graduate.

But last month, UT-Austin eliminated the program without a public explanation. According to The Dallas Morning News, internal documents show UT-Austin believed the program violated the state’s DEI ban and federal law.

Guadalupe said she was surprised UT-Austin ended the program, especially because university officials gave students reassurances last fall that SB 17 would not affect it. She’s also frustrated the university didn’t give the program a chance to adjust to the new law.

“All these different programs were being [told], ‘This is how your program does not comply with SB 17, this is what you need to change,’” she said. “And that was just not a conversation that was had about Monarch.”

Students also argue SB 17 should not apply to the Monarch Program since it did not implement any race or gender-based programming.

“People who are undocumented come from very different backgrounds,” Guadalupe said. “You can’t just point at undocumented folks and be like, ‘oh, this is specifically like [for] the Latino community or the … Asian community,’ because it’s a very diverse group.”

In late January, a group of university department chairs sent a letter to UT administrators asking for clarity about the decision to end the Monarch Program.

“We recognize the immense challenges that SB 17 has created for your offices, but we hope that the process of compliance will not result in throwing out too many babies with the proverbial bath water,” the professors wrote.

They did not receive a response.

Since Monarch was canceled, a student-run organization called Rooted, which also provides support for undocumented students, has taken over some of the services that the program used to provide.

Victoria Uriostegui poses for a photo in the Student Services Building at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 20, 2024. The wall behind them reads, "You belong here."
Victoria Uriostegui at the Student Services Building at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 20, 2024. The wall behind them reads, “You belong here.” Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune

Victoria Uriostegui, a UT-Austin junior and a member of Rooted, said watching the university eliminate Monarch without warning or explanation was exactly the kind of repercussions she warned lawmakers about when she testified against SB 17 at the Texas Capitol last year.

“What they said wouldn’t happen, happened,” she said. “Programs that were not supposed to be impacted are impacted. And I think that’s just what makes it more infuriating that many students continually testified about these chilling effects. Now we’re seeing them come.”

One less safe space

Aneesha Tadikonda felt seen in the university’s Multicultural Engagement Center.

Home to six student groups — Afrikan American Affairs; the Asian Desi Pacific Islander American Collective; the Latinx Community Affairs; the Native American and Indigenous Collective; Queer and Trans Black Indigenous People of Color Agency; and Students for Equity and Diversity — the center served as a meeting place for students of various underrepresented backgrounds and identities.

When she was a freshman, it was a place she felt comfortable asking for help as she navigated the daunting first year of college. Staffers there knew she wanted to go to medical school and would send her free study guides for the exam required to apply and discount codes for study materials. She made friends through movie screenings and book clubs. But she especially loved the opportunity to network with other Asian American students and leaders on and off campus.

“I heavily depended on [the center] for finding a community of people that had the same goals as me,” Tadikonda said. “Outside of class, that’s very difficult to find, especially as someone who’s really involved with activism and their identity.”

Students like Tadikonda were shocked when they learned early this year that the center was abruptly shut down in response to the state’s DEI ban. The university didn’t send out any formal communication to students regarding the center’s closure.

When students returned to campus from winter break, the space was still open for students to work in, but the staff was gone and the center’s name was removed. Since the ban does not apply to student organizations, the culturally specific groups once housed within the center were allowed to continue operating, but only if they disaffiliated from the university and stopped receiving financial support from the school.

Just like with the Monarch Program, students said the MEC didn’t get a chance to make changes to comply with SB 17. The center’s staff was given notice of the center’s closure about 10 days before the ban went into effect, students said.

Students are demanding that the university reestablishes the center in a way that’s compliant with SB 17. They feel that shutting down the center went beyond the requirements of the law and pointed out that other Texas universities, like the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of North Texas, kept their versions of the center open.

“I think our proximity to the Capitol is a large part of it. I think donors are a large part of it. But I would 100% say it’s an over-compliance,” said Kelly Solis, a UT-Austin senior and co-director of Latinx Community Affairs.

Kelly Solis poses for a photo in the former Multicultural Engagement Center on Feb. 20, 2024. Solis is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin and Co-director of the Latinx Community Affairs organization.
Kelly Solis, a senior at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the Latinx Community Affairs organization, at the former Multicultural Engagement Center on Feb. 20, 2024. Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune

The MEC was originally founded in 1988 by students who felt the university lacked proper support systems for Black and Hispanic students. Ten years later, the university’s Office of Student Affairs absorbed the center and gave it two full-time staff members.

The MEC’s abrupt closure has left students with the burden of preserving programs that previously received university funding and have been essential to their college experience.

That includes one of the most anticipated events that the six student groups within the MEC helped organize each year: cultural graduation ceremonies, which are smaller celebrations hosted for Black, Hispanic and LGBTQ students, among others.

“It’s such a big accomplishment when you come to UT, and maybe as a first generation student or a child of immigrants … and be away from home for the first time,” Tadikonda said. “It breaks my heart that now we have to work 100 times harder just to give people what they deserve, to give them the recognition that they might not get in a university-wide graduation.”

Organizers said these ceremonies highlight themes, like family, that are important for the groups they represent and that aren’t always part of university-wide graduations. For instance, families are invited to participate in GraduAsian, the ceremony that commemorates the achievements of Asian students. In the past, speakers have publicly thanked them for attending and helping graduates through their college journey.

The former Multicultural Engagement Center on Feb. 20, 2024. While some DEI wall art has been removed from the space, others remain.
The former Multicultural Engagement Center on Feb. 20, 2024. While some DEI wall art has been removed from the space, others remain. Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune

The student groups that used to be housed at the MEC now say they’re unclear if they can even reserve space on campus to host their events.

“People are scared, people who work for the university,” Solis said. “They might want to give us money or might want to provide resources in some way for our events, but don’t know if they can. So just out of fear, uncertainty and a lack of transparency, they might just say, ‘Sorry, we can’t provide anything at this time.’”

The student groups have created GoFundMe pages seeking donations to help cover the expenses of hosting celebrations for this year’s graduating class. The university’s alumni organization, Texas Exes, recently announced that they’d host cultural graduations for students, according to The Daily Texan.

Ariana Seeloff, a senior and co-director of the Afrikan American Affairs Collective, said this particular class — whose high school graduations were disrupted by COVID in 2020 — are determined to host these celebrations.

“To have this happen four years later, and not be able to have a proper send-off from college for these degrees that we’ve worked so hard to earn, it’s unimaginable,” she said. “This senior class deserves to be celebrated.”

But students say it’s unclear what will happen to culturally specific graduations after this year.

Lecture or training?

Paige Schilt, a former lecturer at UT-Austin, was thrilled when she was invited by the university’s undergraduate college to give a talk this semester about how to find a mentor as a student navigating higher education for the first time.

Schilt, a therapist, teacher and writer, planned to lean on her own personal experience as a LGBTQ student as she found ways to advocate for herself as a scholar. Staff and administrators were excited about the lecture, she said.

But in mid-January she got an email saying that UT-Austin’s legal office had raised concerns the lecture could violate SB 17 because it “would fall within a prohibited training, activity, or program.”

SB 17 prohibits mandatory diversity training, which is defined as training developed in reference to race, color or gender identity. But Schilt said her lecture was not training. SB 17 does not prohibit any DEI-related scholarly research or creative work, and faculty are still allowed to share it on campus.

Schilt said she tried to work with the undergraduate college to shift the lecture’s format and instead give a reading from her memoir in progress in the hope of appeasing the university’s lawyers, but was unsuccessful. Ultimately, her talk was replaced with another lecture.

“I was really sad and discouraged to think that this law was having such a chilling effect, that basically any person from one of the marginalized communities targeted by SB 17 speaking from their own experience was now, by definition, a training,” she said.

Lecturer Paige Schilt poses for a photo outside of the the Center for Women's & Gender Studies on Feb. 19, 2024. The CWGS room is located inside of Burdine Hall.
Lecturer Paige Schilt planned to talk about how to find mentors as an LGBTQ student navigating higher education for the first time, but her talk was replaced with another lecture after UT-Austin’s legal office had raised concerns the lecture could violate SB 17. Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune

Lauren Gutterman, an American Studies professor who focuses on LGBTQ issues, said she felt the university’s response to Schilt’s lecture was a misinterpretation of the law.

“This makes no sense to me as the lecture was not a training, it was not required, and it was not limited to any one group of students,” she said. “The only grounds I can see for their concern is that it had to do with LGBTQ+ issues.”

Schilt, who taught a class on LGBTQ history at UT-Austin last semester, said it was painful to watch students’ disappointment and sadness last semester when the university reorganized the Gender and Sexuality Center, which is now called the Women’s Community Center.

“As a teacher who had a strong connection with my students, it was really hard to kind of help them navigate through all the feelings that they were having about, ‘what does this mean about how welcome I am here?’” she said.

Who will carry the torch? 

In his December message to the UT-Austin community, Hartzell said he would follow up with students in January regarding the implementation of SB 17. He hasn’t done so as of late February.

While student groups are trying to fill in the gaps left by the loss of university resources, they worry about who will help incoming students feel supported and welcomed on campus next year. Many of the students leading these groups will graduate in May.

Student walk up the steps from Speedway towards the UT Tower at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 22, 2024.
Students walk up the steps toward the UT Tower on Feb. 22, 2024. Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune

Guadalupe said entering college can be a stressful and isolating experience. She said she’s scared for underrepresented students who won’t have access to safe places to gather on campus like she did.

“Having not had their support and their resources, my college experience would be completely different,” she said. “I think about how much more they’re going to struggle.”

The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage.

Disclosure: Texas Exes, University of Texas at Austin and University of Texas System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


Kate McGee covers higher education for the Texas Tribune, in partnership with Open Campus.

Ikram Mohamed is a 2024 reporting fellow and a fourth-year journalism and sociology student pursuing a human rights and social justice certificate at the University of Texas at Austin, where she worked at her campus...