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A picture of the tall clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin

The clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin.

RoschetzkyIstockPhoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus

“What starts here changes the world,” is the bold motto of my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin—but these days, the university is trying to turn back the clock at the whims of the Texas Legislature. To comply with a backward-looking, anti-diversity, equity and inclusion mandate known as SB 17—a law that seeks to whitewash a changing state and world—university administrators have closed life-affirming and life-saving resources and laid off dozens of staff members simply for doing the jobs they were hired to do.

What were their jobs? The common thread among the discarded employees is that they previously worked in offices and departments dedicated to making the university a place where all students could access the university’s resources and thrive. In truth, their crime is that they worked for offices frequented by African American, Asian American, Latino, LGBTQ+ and Native American students. Indeed, many of these staff members identified similarly and provided services and education focused around these identities and communities. Though making up a small fraction of the university’s budget, and with staff hardly willing or able to pull off a university-wide campaign of indoctrination to leftist values, the work of these offices mightily disturbed some legislators.

These were life-affirming spaces that provided mentorship, support and validation for populations that weren’t always welcome at UT—historically or presently. And it is not an exaggeration to point out that many of these resources were lifesaving for those who, for instance, were navigating a massive university that looked quite different from their hometowns; those who faced hate or violence simply for being who they are; or even those students who no longer had a home and family to return to.

How do I know? Twenty years ago as an undergraduate at UT, these spaces—chief among them the Gender and Sexuality Center and the Multicultural Information Center—affirmed me and convinced me that I had a place at the university and that I wasn’t lesser than my peers for being part of the LGBTQ+ community. In these spaces, I learned about myself and others, made friends and found community. I was given chances to be a leader, to mess up and learn from it, and to learn more about the world. As a gay man, I was affirmed. As a white person, I learned in a meaningful way what life on campus and in the world looked like for my fellow students who were not white. And, no, I wasn’t made to feel guilty or ashamed, but instead to think about what it meant to walk in another’s shoes, impossible as that may be, and to speak up for fairness and equity.

Despite what you may have heard, the diversity offices and spaces were not exclusive to a particular group. (A new report out from the University of Southern California combats this and other misinformation about DEI initiatives nationwide.) There were no political litmus tests to enter the door or heavy-handed indoctrination to be found inside. Instead, there were approachable staff members ready to welcome students and offer resources and support. There were books and artwork, meetings of student groups, and guest speakers and programming on everything from the history of the university to feminism to sexual health. What happened in these spaces was not scandalous, but the spaces and the employees who ran them became the symbol and scapegoat for larger insecurities about a state and a world that is changing.

I received a phenomenal education at UT. While that learning happened in the classroom, it also happened in the student organizations, panel discussions, and fast-food lunches I had with my fellow students in the spaces now deemed as scary and divisive by political leaders cynically stoking unjustified fears. The spaces that have closed were unremarkable in the best possible sense—no one was forced to use the resources or denied from using them, but the spaces meant the world to many Longhorns over the last several decades. It wasn’t a problem to me or my peers that other students had spaces they cherished at UT that were similarly supported (and in many cases, supported much more substantially) with employees and budgets—think fraternities and sororities, student government, athletics and intramural sports, and the list goes on. There are not similar calls to ban or close any of these resources, nor should there be, despite the fact they primarily serve a subset of the UT population—like any other university department.

I’m saddened and angered by the staff layoffs and closure of the former Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at UT. The mentorship and support I received from the offices in the division propelled me to graduating with honors from the university, then to a graduate degree at Harvard, but eventually back home to Texas where I would work in the division for five years while working on my Ph.D. Many of the supposedly scary diversity bureaucrats who were fired are my friends; indeed, had I stayed at UT instead of becoming a professor in North Carolina, I probably would have been fired, too. These professionals built their careers at the university knowing they’d never be wealthy but they would have rewarding and secure jobs supporting students and making their paths a little easier. The rug was ripped out from under them, and I am upset not only for them, but for the UT students—present and future—who will not be able to benefit from their presence and wisdom. Many talented prospective UT students and faculty will simply go elsewhere.

There are many layers of irony in SB 17. A political party that has dominated Texas politics in recent decades used to claim the banner of freedom, but now seeks to limit and restrict the free exchange of ideas at its state universities. Some ideas, the law leads us to believe, are so dangerous that the legislature must divert its attention from pressing state crises to attend to an invented crisis designed to score political points. College administrators and professors are perceived as so devious and powerful that their efforts must be muzzled by the Capitol. Efforts to purge disagreeable ideas and ban people from engaging in free inquiry are not new, but they never age well. History also teaches us that these efforts manage to ruin the livelihoods and reputations of decent people in the process. To add insult to injury, legislators carry out this agenda while probably not having the slightest idea what actually happened in the DEI-focused offices that have now been shuttered.

The Texas Constitution called for “a University of the first class” to serve the people of the state, but in recent months, the very state government charged with creating and nurturing such a university seems hellbent on destroying it. The Texas Legislature and governor ought to be busy with other work, but they have decided they’d rather try their hand at being amateur university administrators from downtown Austin. Building a first-class state university doesn’t require legislative micromanagement; it requires responsible allocation of public funds—and patience while the university grows and flourishes. It takes decades to build a first-class university, but a strong reputation can be undone overnight. The university, the world it seeks to change— and the people of Texas—are worse off for this cynical political theater.

Ryan A. Miller is an associate professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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