Self-inflicted wounds from the culture wars

There is little that Texas state legislators like doing more than passing a bill to help people who own and run businesses in Texas.  They will pass such laws even if the result hurts Texas citizens, as it publicly reinforces the perception that Texas leaders are “reactionaries uncomfortable with delivering an equitable society.”  Case in point, as elaborated by Chris Tomlinson in today’s Houston Chronicle: the current effort to outlaw diversity, equity and inclusion programs which Republican leaders claim discriminate against white people, even though those leaders are likely to “drive away private investments in higher education and disqualify the state for federal programs worth billions” if they succeed.  (Not online yet, will post the link when available)

Last week the GOP majority of the Texas Senate approved a bill to prohibit all Texas public colleges and universities from even having DEI programs or staff.  (Democrats were unanimous in opposition, for what that’s worth here in Texas).  The bill must still pass the State House before it could be signed by the governor, but the governor is already on board.

[Governor Greg] Abbott has argued DEI programs sound good on the surface but that they have been manipulated to pass on potential job applicants because of their race. He sent warnings to colleges and universities in February, which was followed by schools like the University of Texas, Texas A&M University and the University of Houston all announcing that they would step back from DEI programs or review how their programs work.

Despite that response by the big state schools, State Senator Brandon Creighton and his Senate colleagues have taken action.  Why?  Well, Creighton has said “while he is all for diversity, DEI programs have gone too farratio3x2_1200, and are actually excluding some job candidates and ultimately not succeeding in increasing the diversity of college faculty.”  So, his plan for achieving more diversity is to kill the programs that are designed to achieve more diversity.  Not to improve the programs so that they work better and achieve the result he claims he wants, but to drive a stake through their hearts so they can never rise from the grave.  Cue the law of unintended consequences.

When it comes to correcting generations of discrimination, inequity and exclusion, though, Texas Republicans think historical injustices will fix themselves.  Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are pushing Senate Bill 17 and other bills to make programs intended to correct past wrongs illegal.

They don’t care that a ban on diversity, equity and inclusion, known as DEI, will drive away private investments in higher education and disqualify the state for federal programs worth billions.

When companies pay the fee to join the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute, DEI programs for students and faculty are among their top concerns, institute director Brian Korgel told me.  Federal and private grant applications always have DEI sections.

“Companies expect us as universities to play a role in terms of fostering the diversity of the student body, both in admissions and in terms of graduation and retention,” he said.  “For a single investigator applying for a science grant from the National Science Foundation, you really need to address diversity in some way in your proposal; otherwise, it becomes a real challenge to get the work funded.”

The Energy Institute has joined the Center for Houston’s Future, Exxon, Sempra and other companies to apply for a Department of Energy grant to build a hydrogen hub along the Gulf Coast.  But the application asks about DEI efforts.  The Legislature’s anti-DEI laws imperil that application.

In tandem with their valiant fight against DEI programs, Republicans in Austin have opened a second front against those who would defend DEI: academics, like Jeremi Suri of The University of Texas, who Tomlinson quotes arguing the similarities between the political leaders of today and those of post-Civil War America who fought to protect white privilege.

But Suri can reach such conclusions without fear of retribution thanks to the principle of academic freedom and tenure.

Abbott, Patrick, Creighton and their GOP allies intend to end those, too.

Professors who violate SB 17 can be placed on unpaid leave and fired, while universities will lose state funding and face $1 million fines.  Creighton’s Senate Bill 18 would end tenure, and Senate Bill 16 would make it illegal for Suri to teach the ideas in his book.

University deans already complain that the Legislature’s anti-intellectualism makes recruiting the world’s top minds to Texas difficult.  But ending tenure and fining professors for breaking with white supremacist orthodoxy will make it nearly impossible.

The best minds want to work at the best universities.  The best companies want to recruit from the best universities.  If the best professors take their research and go, corporations will follow them.

Culture wars may make good politics for the right, but they will also have consequences for the state’s economy.

So: you can’t have programs designed to try to overcome white privilege and promote greater diversity, can’t even teach about it, but you can be fired in contravention of the principles of academic freedom and tenure if you do.  Give Texas Republican leaders credit: they can be thorough when it comes to attacking the outward manifestations of their own inner demons.