IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

UT Austin students protest school’s DEI layoffs amid state ban

The university sparked controversy last week when it laid off nearly 60 employees to comply with Texas’ new DEI ban earlier this month.
Students protest layoff at the University of Texas at Austin on Monday, April 15, 2024.
Students protested DEI-related layoffs at the University of Texas at Austin on Monday.Madison Morris

Some 200 students at the University of Texas at Austin disrupted a virtual faculty council meeting conducted by university president Jay Hartzell on Monday to oppose the school’s decision earlier this month to lay off nearly 60 employees who worked in diversity, equity and inclusion-related positions on campus. 

When Hartzell and other university officials logged on to the meeting, they were met with scores of students, all sharing a black background that read “No DEI = Not Our Texas” in red letters. 

“We wanted to show them that we want transparency, we want communication from him, we want his support. We want him to address us and to clarify his questions about [State Bill] 17 compliance and the changes he’s been sweeping through our campus,” Christian Mira, of UT Austin’s Queer Trans Black Indigenous People of Color Agency, said of Hartzell. “If he’s going to claim that everything he does is for the students, it’s on our shoulders, it’s our burden to disprove that. We’re not happy with the direction the university’s going in.”

In a message to the school community on April 2, Hartzell announced that UT Austin would close its Division of Campus and Community Engagement and no longer fund programs or activities that support DEI, in accordance with SB 17, a Texas law passed last June that essentially bans DEI efforts at higher education institutions. On Monday, he confirmed reports that 57 employees who worked in DEI positions had been laid off, with eight moved from the positions back to regular teaching jobs. A spokesperson for the university, Brian Davis, confirmed the numbers and, when asked about specific allegations from students and faculty, referred NBC News to Hartzell’s initial message to the university community. 

Hartzell wrote in his initial message that the university had begun a “multiphase process” to make changes required by the new law. As a result, UT Austin leaders have broadened some programs, redistributed others and closed DEI programs altogether.  

Critics of the layoffs said they were blindsided by the news and that Hartzell has not answered their many questions. 

“People are really frustrated. It feels really unfair,” Karma Chávez, the chair of the university’s Mexican American and Latina/o Studies program, told NBC News. “The folks that I’ve spoken to, I think, are mostly pretty angry. I think there’s also a sense of feeling pretty disillusioned with the workplace.”

Chávez said that those impacted by the layoffs are mostly people of color. “Largely those are Black and brown, queer and trans folks. It’s been pretty intense. It really doesn’t feel like the university has the back of anyone who used to do this kind of work,” Chávez said. 

The department that was shuttered provided resources for “those who may face the most significant challenges” in accessing education. In addition to layoffs, the university shut down several student support programs like Monarch, which helped undocumented students with college applications, financial aid and internships. The division also housed the Women’s Community Center, previously called the Gender and Sexuality Center, and it is not on the school’s list of programs to relocate, according to the Austin American-Statesman. The university’s beloved Multicultural Engagement Center, which students have called a “home away from home,” also shut down in January after SB 17 went into effect. 

Students protest the layoffs of employees in DEI-related positions at the University of Texas at Austin on Monday, April 15, 2024.
Faculty members, students and staffers are calling for accountability and a reversal of the firings.Madison Morris

Backlash to the layoffs and changes have been swift. A group of professors with the school’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors sent a letter to Hartzell last week demanding that the job cuts be reversed. The professors argued that the DEI layoffs were discriminatory and violated the employees’ right to freedom of expression. The Texas Legislative Black Caucus condemned the decision and the Texas NAACP released a statement asking for transparency from university officials and more information about the terminations. 

Faculty members, students and staffers are calling for accountability and a reversal of the firings. Students have consistently spoken out against the shuttering of the programs they said supported them through college life. 

“It’s beyond Black and brown students. It’s also students who have disabilities who are sad. There are students who represent different genders and sexualities who are sad,” graduate student Zion James told NBC News. “Overall, the campus morale is sad. We don’t know what to do. We don’t know where to go, or how to move forward.” 

James lamented losing staff and faculty who he’d come to call mentors and friends. “I feel like I’m being robbed of my family,” he said. 

On April 8, a week after Hartzell’s initial message, at least 100 students gathered for a demonstration on campus with signs like “Not Our Texas,” condemning the DEI changes. At least 500 students, staff, alumni and campus organizations signed a letter demanding transparency from university and state officials on the matter. 

“That there is a very present and active student body of marginalized students who are not just going to sit here and accept these changes that are happening without our buy-in, without our consent, without at least attempted collaboration,” said Amanda Garcia, a member of Texas Students for DEI

Texas follows Florida to become the second state in the country to ban DEI initiatives in higher education. The Texas bill, which went into effect on Jan. 1, states that DEI promotes “differential treatment” on the basis of “race, color, or ethnicity,” a common talking point of conservative activists working to end the programs in several industries. 

In the weeks since the UT Austin changes, about 20 staff members at the University of Texas at Dallas were also laid off to comply with the law, according to the Dallas Morning News.  

Chávez and Mónica Jiménez, assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the university, were among a group of UT Austin professors who spent months pushing back against SB 17 during the last legislative session. Jiménez said university officials met with groups of faculty and others who opposed DEI changes. She said officials told them that the university would move employees into other positions, restructure departments and rename programs and divisions but implied that people would not lose their jobs. 

“To hear now, four months after implementation, after people have already done the hard work of learning new jobs and put into new positions, that they were going to be let go anyway, it’s been really frustrating for all of us on campus,” Jiménez said. 

Chávez shared similar sentiments.

“They did say, ‘We’re going to do everything possible to make sure — that’s not our goal here to make anyone lose their jobs,’” Chávez recalled. “I never felt really confident about that, but I wanted to be able to take them at their word. Now it’s clear they were lying.”