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Texas State University said this month that it is “pausing” its employee diversity training, as it scrambles to understand the impact of a recent executive order by President Donald Trump to ban some forms of anti-racism programming among federal grant recipients that he calls “divisive” and “anti-American.”
Employees were informed of the change in a Oct. 5 email from President Denise Trauth.
“Texas State University receives federal dollars in various capacities including to support pre-college students ... college students via Pell [grants], and our faculty via scores of federal grants,” Trauth wrote, adding in an Oct. 9 email that students receive over $260 million in federal financial aid alone. “We do not want to jeopardize this critical financial support that so many in our community rely upon.”
Other major Texas universities like the University of Texas at Austin and Texas Tech are evaluating the order to ensure policies are compliant, but those schools have not yet suspended any training sessions. A University of Houston spokesperson said in an email that they have already reviewed their training and believe it’s compliant with the order.
Nationwide, the University of Iowa has also suspended training while reviewing the order, as well as some corporations that do business with the federal government.
Trump’s executive order, signed on Sept. 22, requires federal contractors and agencies that receive federal grants to discontinue training that contains “any form of race or sex stereotyping” and other “divisive concepts,” which could include discussions of the existence of white supremacy.
“This ideology is rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans,” the order reads.
The order doesn’t go into effect until Nov. 21, a few weeks after the presidential election. Agencies that don’t comply may risk losing federal funding, but the vague language of the order is making it hard for universities to determine what is and isn’t allowed.
Corey F. Benbow, a graduate student at Texas State and president of the Underrepresented Student Advisory Council, said students weren’t told about the decision to stop the training, an oversight he called disheartening.
Benbow said Texas State still needs to reconcile its recent history that includes not denouncing white supremacist propaganda on campus and arresting students of color after protests.
“This is why diversity programs and this type of training is so important, because it provokes thought and it allows the administration to really embed in their faculty and staff that this is something that is important to Texas State,” Benbow said.
Prior to the order, Texas State offered year-round voluntary diversity training which includes discussions about unconscious bias and microaggressions, Texas State spokesperson Sandra Pantlik said.
Maya Diaz, a Texas State psychology sophomore, said she understands external pressures may have forced the university to pause the trainings, but she also wishes she would have been told by the university leaders.
“As a student who is, you know, queer, I would want to know that my professors or the staff that I engage with aren't being trained right at that moment,” Diaz said.
Legal experts say Trump’s order is likely to be challenged on First Amendment grounds before going into effect next month, or it could be rescinded if Trump, who is behind in national polls, loses the election.
Texas State law professor Lynn Crossett, who has previously taken diversity training from the university, said there’s nothing controversial within the Texas State training, but the vagueness of the order creates a certain amount of risk for universities. Certain interpretations could create trouble for discussions that were once considered legally acceptable, Crossett said.
“It's kind of hard to understand broad definitions like that refer to things like divisive concepts ... does that mean that there cannot be training about implicit bias or unconscious bias,” Crossett said. “That seems to be what the order is designed to try to prohibit.”
According to clarifications on the executive order from The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, unconscious bias and implicit bias training is not allowed if it “teaches or implies that an individual, by virtue of his or her race, sex, and/or national origin, is racist, sexist, oppressive, or biased, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
While their trainings are paused, the Texas State System is working with national higher education organizations to determine how or if their current employee diversity training will be affected, Texas State System spokesperson Mike Wintemute said.
Trauth wrote the university remains committed to supporting an “equitable and inclusive learning, living, and working environment.”
University of Houston Law Professor Daniel Morales said the executive order is a part of a string of attacks on academic thinking on race. The executive order follows a Sept. 4 memorandum from the White House directed at federal agencies, calling them to identify “agency spending related to any training on "critical race theory” (or) "white privilege," calling the concepts “un-American propaganda.”
“For this order to now say … that anything else beyond colorblindness is in fact discriminatory toward whites is really to deny reality and stifle racial progress,” Morales said.
Morales said universities are well-positioned to fight orders like these. While he said it’s a problem that some universities are canceling diversity training, students shouldn’t worry about long term effects because the order will likely be challenged.
But for Benbow, at Texas State, the damage by the university has been done.
“This is a predominantly white university that was never built for myself to get an education or for students of color to get an education,” Benbow said. “When we have these systems in place that have been oppressive, depressive and suppressive, it is incumbent upon us to do something about it. And that’s what these trainings do, they do something about it.”
Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.