Texas state senators heard testimony this week on some of the most controversial issues affecting college campuses.

In a daylong public hearing, university system leaders spoke about how their institutions have ensured compliance with the state’s ban on diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Others testified on the rise of antisemitism on campus and the contours of free speech rights.

State Sen. Brandon Creighton, chair of the higher education subcommittee and the author of the state law that bans DEI programs at public higher education institutions, presided over the hearing. Creighton is a Republican from Conroe, north of Houston. 

“DEI ideology mirrors old Marxist talking points, dividing the world into oppressed and the oppressors,” said Creighton in his opening remarks. “DEI advocates believe group characteristics such as race, sex and nationality, define someone’s privilege.”

In the 2023 legislative session, state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 17, which closes diversity, equity and inclusion offices, bans mandatory diversity training and prohibits hiring committees from asking for hiring statements on diversity.  At the beginning of this year, it became law. Colleges and universities scrambled to comply. 

In late March, Creighton wrote to the heads of university systems in the state, including the University of Texas System, the Texas A&M University System, the University of North Texas System, seeking specific answers to how the systems were ensuring compliance with the law. 

Among the questions that he wanted answered prior to the hearing were: “How has your institution ensured that there are no DEI offices or officers on campus?” and “How has your institution acted to comply with the provision which prohibits providing preference on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin to an applicant for employment?” 

“I met regularly with all presidents to review the requirements, the progress they were making on implementation and to respond to questions,” said University of Texas System Chancellor James Milliken. His system has more than 250,000 students at 14 colleges, including the University of Texas at Arlington. “It is an enormous operation, and a change of the magnitude of SB 17 required the work of many administrative offices and supporting staff.” 

Milliken also cited the “enormous financial consequences of violation” as a reason to make sure compliance is a top priority.

Milliken detailed the changes that went into place across all the schools in its system: 

  • 21 DEI offices were closed. 
  • 311 full- and part-time positions were eliminated. 
  • 681 contracts, programs and training sessions were canceled. 
  • Over $25 million was reallocated to other university programs. 

A specific breakdown of what happened at individual universities, including the University of Texas at Arlington, was not mentioned at the hearing. UT-Arlington officials did not respond by deadline on specific ways their campus has been affected.

The effects at the Texas A&M University System weren’t as stark.

“In the process of implementing Senate Bill 17, we confirmed what we initially believed: that the A&M system did not have a large footprint in DEI,” said Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp, who oversees 11 universities in his system, with 28,000 full-time employees.

The system had nine DEI offices, with 27 full-time employees. The offices were shuttered and eight of the full-time employees were separated from the system; the others were reassigned.

The hearing began with testimony from Jewish advocates on the rise of antisemitism on college campuses. Courtney Toretto, policy director for the central division of the Anti-Defamation League, said there was “an unprecedented spike” in antisemitism on college campuses this academic year. She cited a study that found 73% of Jewish college students across the country have experienced or witnessed antisemitism

Levi Fox, a student at UT-Austin, says Jewish students feel less safe, and it has an impact. He’s seen fellow Jewish students take off their Stars of David and remove their yarmulkes. 

“They’re hiding their faith,” Fox said. “It’s horrifying to see my friends be scared to be Jewish. I never thought I would see that.”

Fox recounted an incident that happen to him during a pro-Palestinian protest, where a faculty member told him and a group of others, “They’ll come after you and put you in the ovens next.”

When senators asked for the faculty member’s name, Fox said that he would provide it after the hearing.

Later in the hearing, Creighton asked both chancellors about their thoughts on the pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses. “Do you both recognize … that these were anti-Jewish protests in their very nature?” 

“There were certainly elements of it that (were) fairly anti-Jewish and antisemitic, And so, yes, the answer would be yes.” said Milliken. who later stressed not everyone at the protests was antisemitic, but when the protests crossed a line to threats and intimidation, that’s when it became a problem.

Higher education reporter at Fort Worth Report in partnership with Open Campus.