September 8, 2023 - 7:00am

Texas A&M University has found itself in the midst of a complex cultural and legal battle over Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. In June, Texas legislators restricted university DEI activities, banning DEI offices, training, diversity statements, and identity-based preferences in hiring. Officials at Texas colleges responded by conducting audits of their initiatives, quickly dropping high-level DEI positions and recruitment initiatives. 

Texas A&M then rekindled the controversy thanks to its botched hiring of a journalism director who was recruited by university officials prior to the state’s adoption of anti-DEI laws. But after the state restricted DEI activities, her hiring terms came under question and eventually fell through.  

To both proponents and opponents of DEI, this was a sign that the new anti-DEI legislation, which stipulated that institutions did not have to require diversity statements or have a DEI office, might actually have some teeth. The era of the DEI monopoly in American higher education may be ending. But this will also depend on the level of commitment from state lawmakers to end such initiatives.

Texas is one of just a handful of states that have successfully banned at least some types of DEI programmes, along with Florida, Tennessee, and North Dakota. Lawmakers have introduced bills in more than 20 states, but most have either failed or been tabled. In states where bills have not yet been passed, public pressure against DEI has still resulted in some action by universities. For instance, all Arizona public universities eliminated diversity statements even though the state legislature failed to pass any anti-DEI laws.

Not all universities are so compliant with public demands, though — even in conservative states. The University of Arkansas, for instance, dissolved its DEI division. But it did not fire all of the staff. Instead, the University reshuffled these employees throughout other departments and rebranded their duties as part of “improving student success”. This was clearly an attempt to pre-empt possible legal restrictions against DEI while ingraining the practices into the University’s operations.

Other universities have taken similar measures to keep DEI around while making it harder for lawmakers to dismantle it legally. The University of Texas at Austin has renamed job titles to avoid detection; for instance, “Outreach and Inclusion” director became “Outreach and Scholarships” director. And it’s no surprise that these tactics keep appearing across the country; there are even organisations dedicated to crafting strategies for universities to work around legal restrictions, such as the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. Its director, Adrianna Kezar, told Inside Higher Ed in June:

When DEI work is dispersed across the institution, without any central office or specific budget, that makes it much harder for Republican lawmakers to target.
- Adrianna Kezar

The political process can influence public universities, but private universities remain difficult to crack. Cornell University president Martha Pollack has doubled down, claiming that DEI and free speech can “coexist”. This comes in the wake of Cornell’s adoption of a free expression initiative, showing that the university has no intention of confronting the well-established contradiction in values between free speech and DEI. 

It’s heartening to see legislative wins shortly after the anti-DEI craze of the past year, but dismantling this ideological bureaucracy will be a marathon, not a sprint. There will be legal challenges, in addition to universities engaging in evasive tactics. Lawmakers need to be willing to revisit these issues as the circumstances evolve and address as many loopholes as possible.

Neetu Arnold is a Research Fellow at the National Association of Scholars and a Young Voices contributor.