In his first public comments since the University of Texas at Austin laid off around 50 employees that used to work in diversity, equity and inclusion programs, President Jay Hartzell tried to explain the fragility of the moment.

Like universities across the state, UT-Austin has scrambled to comply with Senate Bill 17, the new state law banning DEI offices, programs and training at public universities. After closing a multicultural center and ending a scholarship for undocumented students, Hartzell believed the flagship university was in compliance when the ban went into effect in January.

But Hartzell now felt the initial changes would not be enough to placate Republican legislators, who have put higher education under a microscope, he said on a Zoom call with faculty on Monday.

“The legislative climate toward higher education has been moving. And it’s moved even since the bill was passed in June,” Hartzell said. “We have to make choices to worry about the long-run future of the university.”

Many faculty had turned their cameras off. Instead of faces, Hartzell stared back at red-and-black virtual backgrounds in the Zoom grid that read“No DEI=Not Our Texas,” a form of silent protest from the faculty.

At a time when Republicans have become increasingly critical of the culture at higher education institutions, Hartzell and other university leaders must balance the concerns of the students and faculty who breathe life into their campuses, and Republican leaders that provide critical funding that keep the lights on. State legislators have already identified enforcement of the DEI ban as a legislative priority for the upcoming session.

SB 17 is part of an effort from conservatives to get higher education in Texas to veer away from what they call an overly liberal direction. The lawmakers believe DEI programs and training have indoctrinated students with left-wing ideology and forced universities to make hires based on their support of diversity efforts rather than on merit and achievement.

Leaders like Hartzell are trying everything they can to preempt interference from the state, with many campuses believing their administrators have gone far beyond what’s required. That has created a climate across Texas in which students and faculty fear what comes next.

State pressures

State Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, the law’s author, warned university leaders in a March letter they could lose millions in state funding if they fail to comply with SB 17. They should be prepared to explain how they are in compliance to the Senate Committee on Education at a May hearing, Creighton said.

“From my standpoint, and the members of the Senate Education Committee, it’s important that we feel comfortable knowing that the discriminatory DEI efforts are no longer in place,” Creighton told The Texas Tribune.

He said his office has received reports of efforts to “subvert compliance” but did not offer specific examples.

In the letter to school leaders, the Conroe Republican had a litany of questions for the University of Texas System, the Texas A&M System, the University of Houston System and others. Among the questions the schools have to answer by May 3: “How has your institution ensured that there are no DEI offices or officers on campus, or no individual or organization performing the duties of a DEI office or officer?” and “How has your institution worked to ensure that DEI training is not required for students, staff and faculty?”

Creighton is ready to escalate a fight for the state’s political heavyweights. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, has singled enforcement of the DEI ban as a high priority in the upcoming session. Gov. Greg Abbott also said last month that more laws will be passed to make sure schools are stripping DEI from their campuses.

“We’re monitoring what our universities are doing,” Abbott said at a summit of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Conservative lawmakers and activists in Texas and across the country have increasingly railed against higher education. In their view, universities have lost their way, taken over by a mob of far-left administrators, faculty and students pushing liberal agendas and silencing conservative perspectives.

“One of the most damaging, discriminatory and weaponized outcomes of DEI units on our university campuses were the leftist political oath that applying professors would have to agree to sign before they can even get an interview,” said Creighton. “We’re headed in a much better direction.”

University of Texas doubles down

Because of heightened scrutiny from the state, presidents within the UT System are facing internal pressures from the board of regents, who are appointed by the governor. At the Zoom call with faculty, Hartzell said regents have been adamant that “we need to not only comply with the law, but also act in ways that restore and raise public confidence.”

“It’s not just ‘Are we compliant with SB 17 in the short run?’ but also ‘What are the choices we make and how do we demonstrate to our state and others that we are good stewards of the resources for which we’ve been entrusted?’, Hartzell said.

UT-Austin laid off 49 employees, Hartzell said, and disbanded the Division of Campus and Community Engagement, an office that was dedicated to supporting students who struggle the most to access education.

Last week, the University of Texas at Dallas followed in the flagship university’s footsteps. Twenty staffers were told their positions would be eliminated.

“Our actions ensured that we were fully compliant with SB 17 as of January 1, 2024, the effective date of the legislation. Since then, we have continued to evaluate our SB 17 response,” UTD president Richard C. Benson wrote in a letter to the campus.

The layoffs at both universities came as a shock to many. Benson had told The Dallas Morning News last year that “no one will lose a job at UTD” because of the DEI ban. And students and faculty believed UT-Austin finished making changes to comply with SB 17 last year, when all DEI roles were eliminated and people in those roles were asked to resign, retire or transition into other positions on campus.

In many ways, the language of the new bill hinted stringent enforcement practices would be coming. As part of SB 17, a state auditor is expected to conduct compliance audits at least once every four years at each institution, and schools have to prove to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board that they are in compliance before they can spend any state money.

As part of those enforcement practices, UT-Austin has already received an out-of-compliance note from the coordinating board, according to Andrea Sheridan, the deputy to the president for governmental affairs and initiatives.

“We were able to make the adjustment and correct it and everything worked out fine. But a lot more of these are coming in,” Sheridan said.

As Texas’ higher education agency continues to collect complaints of non-compliance with SB 17, Sheridan wonders how this will factor into the state audit.

Staff fear they’re next

A day before Creighton sent out his letter to universities, students at College Station exited their lecture halls and seminars to be met with a protest from their peers: “DEI till we die! DEI will die!”

Texas A&M University closed the Office of Diversity last year, reassigning staff that supported the office. The university also said at the time hiring practices and training requirements would be revised to comply with the new law.

​​There has been little to no subsequent communication from A&M’s administration about the potential for more changes. It’s hard to not assume the worst, Autumn Borowski, a sophomore at Texas A&M and a protest organizer, said.

“Part of the reason that we protested was because we want more communication from A&M and that still has not been given to us,” Borowski said.

Some days, Borowski feels emboldened. Other days, she just feels anxious.

“Students are all scared of faculty being fired, even professors being fired because of SB 17,” Borowski said. “Thinking that those effects might carry on over to A&M is very, very scary.”

The anxiety is also palpable 100 miles away among current University of Houston staff, Jamie Gonzales said. She used to work at the LGBTQ Resource Center, which the college shut down to comply with SB 17.

The University of Houston was one of the first to respond to the state law back in August. The college also replaced its multicultural office with a center for student advocacy.

“Staff members at University of Houston – after what happened with UT – have some real fear around are they going to be firing people,” said Gonzales. “Because the senators are pressing for more to happen, people have a real fear of losing their jobs.”

Annie Xia contributed reporting for this story.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University, Texas Public Policy Foundation, University of Texas – Dallas, University of Texas at Austin and University of Houston 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.

Reporter covering pathways from education to employment for the Texas Tribune in partnership with Open Campus.