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University of Texas at Austin students say cultural programs are struggling to stay afloat in wake of anti-DEI law

University of Texas at Austin students continue to make use of a space that housed the school's "Multicultural Center" after the name was removed from the wall. (Photo: Eric Gay/AP via CNN Newsource)

(CNN) — As a first-generation college student, Andrea Morquecho was looking forward to walking in the Latinx graduation ceremony at the University of Texas at Austin this spring.

Morquecho said she has family members traveling from Mexico who would have appreciated the ceremony because it’s delivered in both Spanish and English.

She was also excited to mark the end of her undergraduate career with a celebration of her Hispanic culture on campus.

But the future of the event, along with other cultural graduations, is now uncertain after the university pulled back funding in its effort to comply with a law banning diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in higher education that went into effect in Texas in January.

“I’m very disappointed,” Morquecho said. “I was looking forward to walking across the stage and hearing my name said in the (Spanish) language that it’s meant to be said in.”

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed SB17 into law last year.

It bans public colleges and universities from maintaining diversity, equity and inclusion offices; hiring or assigning anyone to perform DEI office duties; giving preference to any job applicants or employees based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin; or requiring anyone to complete DEI training.

It’s among 11 anti-DEI bills nationwide targeting programs at colleges that have been signed into law since the beginning of 2023, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

UT Austin’s implementation of the Texas law has left several cultural and identity groups on campus scrambling to find funding for special events, meetings and conferences previously sponsored by the school, students and faculty members told CNN.

The university’s Multicultural Engagement Center, which housed many of these groups, has closed.

A lecture from an LGBTQ advocate was canceled, the advocate told CNN. And the university has removed words such as “gender,” “sexuality,” and “diversity” from the titles of some offices, according to faculty and university officials.

Now, some students of color and LGBTQ students tell CNN they are worried about the future of inclusivity on a campus that touts its diverse student population. In the fall of 2023, the student population was 33% White, 25.2% Hispanic, 22% Asian, and 4.5% Black, according to the university’s website.

In 2020, the University of Texas at Austin – which is the university system’s flagship school – met the criteria to be designated a Hispanic Serving Institution, a designation which requires Hispanic undergraduate full-time enrollment to be 25% or more, according to the university’s website.

Brian Davis, a university spokesperson, declined to comment on the impact of the anti-DEI law beyond statements or letters released by university officials in recent months.

In one letter, University President Jay Hartzell said he expected there would be “divided opinions on our campus” about the law. Still, Hartzell said the university would find permissible ways to support students, staff and their sense of belonging.

“It is important to remember that even while we are complying with the new law and policy, many things will not change – including our commitment to attracting, supporting and retaining exceptional talent across diverse backgrounds and perspectives, celebrating the collective strength of our community, and fostering a sense of belonging for all Longhorns,” Hartzell wrote.

LaToya Smith, who was vice president for the university’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, released a letter in December stating her office would be renamed the Division of Campus and Community Engagement.

“While we continue the work to adjust programming to meet SB 17’s requirements and reflect this change in our focus, it is important to reiterate what will not change: our Division’s commitment to fostering access and belonging,” Smith wrote.

‘We feel hopeless’

Black and brown student leaders say the loss of university support for many groups has been discouraging.

Kelly Solis, co-director of operations of Latinx Community Affairs at UT Austin, said the organization hosts several events for the Latino student community throughout the year including a welcome program for freshmen and transfer students and the Latinx Graduation.

Solis said the group is trying to raise money through alumni groups and local organizations to pay for the graduation, but she isn’t sure they will have enough funds to host it. Last year, the university spent roughly $30,000 on the event, Solis said.

Solis said many Latino students rely on Latinx Community Affairs for support because they are coming from families with unique challenges such as mixed citizenship status, low income and language barriers.

“We are all currently going through this grieving process because we feel shut down,” Solis said. “We feel hopeless, like how can we move forward?”

Aaliyah Barlow, president of the university’s Black Student Alliance, said she learned this year the UT Austin would no longer be sponsoring her group to attend the Big 12 Conference on Black Student Government.

Barlow said the conference offers Black student leaders from predominately White universities a chance to network and share experiences and resources.

In previous years, the Black Student Alliance received roughly $25,000 from UT Austin for 40 students to attend, Barlow said. But this year, only 13 students will be attending thanks to funds donated by alumni, she said.

Students are also seeking donations from alumni to host the annual Black student graduation, she said.

Barlow said the Texas anti-DEI law makes marginalized communities feel unwanted on campus.

“It kind of feels like we are not valued and that they (state lawmakers) don’t want us to thrive in these spaces or even attend these spaces,” Barlow said. “There is no longer anything to make us feel safe or make us feel like we belong here.”

Faculty members, lecturer speak out

Faculty members are also being impacted.

Karma Chávez, a Mexican American and Latina/o students professor, said the Hispanic Faculty Association can no longer meet or host events during working hours and are not allowed to use university-affiliated banks accounts or email accounts for the group.

Lauren Gutterman, an associate professor who teaches courses on women, gender, and sexuality, said the university’s Gender and Sexuality Center– which served the LGBTQ community– was renamed the Women’s Community Center.

The university also canceled a lecture by LGBTQ author and advocate Paige Schilt titled “A Queer Path to Leadership: Finding a Mentor to Help You Succeed in Higher Education,” Schilt told CNN.

Schilt said the university contacted her in January saying its legal affairs team believed the lecture fell within the DEI training now prohibited by the state’s law.

“It’s heartbreaking to see that work that’s been done to make space for students being undone,” Schilt said.

Gutterman said she was disappointed to see programs that catered to the diverse community at UT Austin be taken away.

“It’s been an emotionally difficult semester on campus,” she said.

‘A loss for the state’

National advocates for Hispanic students say they are concerned about the long-term effects of the anti-DEI laws.

Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, said he believes the state’s anti-DEI policy is a setback for public colleges and universities as Texas becomes a more diverse state.

The Latino population in the state has increased more than six times the rate of the White population since 2020 and is now the largest ethnic demographic in Texas, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Flores said he worries the law will discourage students of color as well as higher education professionals from choosing colleges in Texas because they don’t feel embraced.

As a result, Texas may lose talent to other states, he said.

“It’s just so un-American to do what they are doing,” Flores said. “It is a loss for the state of Texas to keep dismantling DEI.”

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