STUDENT VOICE: Bill targeting DEI offices in public universities has a chilling impact on students

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When I made the challenging, life-altering decision in April 2023 of where to pursue my Ph.D., the University of Texas at Austin seemed like the best fit.

As an underrepresented student, I felt assured by the school’s diverse faculty and student population, along with their embrace of a robust diversity, equity and inclusion mission, and looked forward to continuing my research on improving the quality of mental health care for all families.

Then came Texas Senate Bill 17, which became law on January 1, making it illegal to have DEI offices and programming in public universities. This bill also outlaws mandatory diversity training and does not allow departments to ask prospective faculty about their commitment to building diverse campuses.Texas is not the only state to pass such a bill.

Legislation that bans many DEI initiatives in our universities is already having a significant chilling effect on students like me, creating concerns over the potential impact on the quality of our education and raising questions regarding whether Texas even wants us.

Had the Texas bill passed before my decision to attend UT Austin, I would most likely not have chosen to come here. For me, as a new resident of Texas and a first-year Ph.D. student planning to learn, teach and research for the next four to five years, this bill, now law, creates a hostile environment.

Given that top-ranked programs fight for the most qualified applicants, states that adopt these policies have to realize that they will discourage top diverse talent from attending their schools.

Related: Beyond the Rankings: The College Welcome Guide

Some educational leaders and policymakers argue that institutions will remain true to their values of welcoming diverse ideas and people — despite the bills and their policies.

I disagree. As a first-generation Mexican immigrant in this country, I believe that establishing structural and transparent mechanisms that offer support and keep schools accountable are the keys to creating and preserving spaces of genuine belonging for students and faculty from diverse backgrounds.

I align most with the view expressed in UT Austin’s Change Starts Here strategic plan: Tangible benefits for students and the greater community cannot be accomplished without “creating processes and policies that cultivate a diverse, equitable, and inclusive campus.”

My abuelita taught me that “mas hace una hormiga andando que un buey echado” (“an ant on the move does more than a dozing ox”).

During my post-master’s work at the Yale Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine, I vividly remember navigating a difficult situation with the support of the chief diversity officer.

While no institution has it all figured out, that experience allowed me to appreciate the tangible benefits of having DEI structures in place.

Lawmakers, university presidents, deans and all those who decide on and carry out educational policies should understand that students like me are no longer settling for simply being allowed into higher education institutions. We now demand what we all deserve: structures and mechanisms that support our educational growth.

Related: STUDENT VOICE: Poor and first-generation transfer students often don’t feel welcome on college campuses

While many academics may genuinely hold values that align with diversity, equity and inclusion, fear of the retaliation empowered by legislation like Senate Bill 17 (e.g., losing their campus positions, department appointments, etc.), and a sense of powerlessness, may override those values.

But my Abuelita taught me that “mas hace una hormiga andando que un buey echado” (“an ant on the move does more than a dozing ox”).

This expression, or “dicho,”reminds me that while I may be no more than a tiny ant compared to massive systems, I can still act. Additionally, coming from a multigenerational migrant farmworker family taught me the importance of planting seeds.

That is why I am confident that if enough of us collectively call for additions to DEI efforts (e.g., expanding DEI offices and resources), we can help reverse the backlash against DEI.

During this liminal period, as we decide if we will move forward or backward as it pertains to DEI, we must remember the new message introduced by the University of Texas at Austin: “What starts here changes the world.”

We need decision-makers to plant seeds that bear fruit to nurture all community members and have roots strong enough to break the concrete foundations of inequitable systems.

Hector Chaidez Ruacho is a doctoral student at The University of Texas at Austin Steve Hicks School of Social Work and a recipient of the Graduate School Recruitment Fellowship and Graduate School Mentoring Fellowship.

This story about DEI and universities was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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