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Ever since Gov. Greg Abbott set his eyes on the Governor’s Mansion nearly a decade ago, he’s been outspoken about wanting to see Texas’ public universities rise in national rankings.
“One of the areas that disturbs me is the fact that five of the top 10 public universities in the country are from California, with none being from Texas,” he said at a press conference in 2014.
Since then, many schools have made strides. According to U.S. News and World Report’s 2022 list, the University of Texas at Austin is tied for 10th in the nation; Texas A&M University is tied for 26th.
But another Texas university doesn’t appear again for nearly 50 spots.
In this year’s legislative session, with $33 billion in surplus state funds to potentially throw around, lawmakers say they’re determined to elevate the next tier of schools. They’re proposing a new multibillion-dollar funding stream to help the University of Houston, Texas Tech University, Texas State University and the University of North Texas better compete on the national stage as research powerhouses.
Yet as Texas lawmakers appear poised to make a historic financial investment in these schools, they are simultaneously advancing a slew of bills that would threaten faculty tenure and defund diversity programs — decisions that educators and students say would sabotage Texas’ lofty research goals and damage its reputation nationally.
“You cannot have it both ways,” said Brian Evans, vice president of the Texas Conference of the American Association of University Professors.
Organizations that represent faculty in the state say that if Texas weakens or eliminates tenure, research superstars won’t want to accept jobs in the state and doctoral students who help conduct vital research will enroll in programs elsewhere. And if diversity offices close, they add, some faculty and students might feel unwelcome, making it more difficult to attract and retain them.
At a press conference last month about Texas’ quest to become the national leader in semiconductor development and research with the help of the state’s universities, Abbott broadly dismissed concerns that some higher ed policies that he has supported — like eliminating diversity, equity and inclusion programs — could negatively impact Texas universities’ research potential.
“Whatever policies we have in this state has not deterred them so far and I don’t think it will in the future,” he told reporters.
Faculty members disagree. They particularly worry that the federal and private organizations who dole out coveted research funds may overlook applications from Texas, since many grants often require researchers to show how they’re improving diversity in their field or on the research teams.
“If you’re silent on [diversity] or don’t address diversity, you can’t compete for these grants,” said Brian Korgel, director of the Energy Institute at UT-Austin. “There’s an expectation from granting agencies and companies that we’re doing that kind of thing at the university and it’s very important to them.”
Texas’ pursuit for research dominance
When Abbott became governor, he showed universities that he was serious about boosting their research capabilities when he championed legislation that set aside state money just to help them recruit the best and brightest researchers to their universities. The fund started in 2015 with $20 million.
It was dubbed the Governor’s University Research Initiative, and schools have since used that money to lure nearly two dozen scientists, engineers and other faculty with competitive salaries, brand-new labs, state-of-the-art research equipment, money to pay research assistants and other perks.
When the first group of researchers were recruited to Texas with the help of those funds, Abbott compared the impact they would have to Sam Houston’s imprint on the state.
“What these individuals are doing is far more than just creating the next generation of science, technology, engineering and math,” he said. “They are partnering together with private enterprises, with federal government grants, creating teams that create more jobs, that empower the next generation of the Texas economy.”
In the last decade, lawmakers have allocated tens of millions of dollars to help universities attract federal and private research funding, which in turn elevates their reputation and ranking.
Under Abbott’s watch, the number of public and private universities in Texas that are considered Tier 1 research universities has risen from four to 11, with more public Tier 1 research universities than any other state in the country. Tier 1 is a designation reserved for schools with the highest level of research activity on the nationally recognized Carnegie classification scale and is based on metrics like how much schools spend on research, the number of research staff on payroll and how many doctoral degrees are awarded each year.
Yet many Texas public universities aren’t where they want to be. After UT-Austin and Texas A&M, the next Texas schools to appear in U.S. News and World Report’s latest ranking are the University of Texas at Dallas and the University of Houston, in 72nd place and 91st place, respectively.
For years, leaders at UH, Texas Tech and other universities have argued that their schools need more money for research investment to improve their standing.
“We are at a point where we need a permanent, sustainable and flexible fund to take our research capabilities to the next level,” University of Houston System Chancellor Renu Khator told state lawmakers last month.
Schools like UH and Texas Tech have long said the solution is to give them access to the state’s Permanent University Fund, a $32 billion endowment fund that provides hundreds of millions in funding for UT-Austin and Texas A&M annually.
Texas A&M and UT-Austin have used their political capital to stave off those demands, not wanting to divide the pot with more universities. But the calls to provide more money to other schools resurfaced with a vengeance in the summer of 2021 when UT-Austin made the surprise announcement that it was leaving the Big 12 athletic conference. The move especially angered Tech fans who felt it would hurt the university’s pocketbooks by jeopardizing lucrative television contracts or conference championship access.
The decision also enraged West Texas lawmakers, who filed legislation during a special session that year to amend the PUF and reallocate funding to emerging research institutions. The bill failed, but both Abbott and Lt. Gov Dan Patrick said they’d support creating a separate fund for those schools. This session, Patrick made the idea a legislative priority.
According to current House and Senate versions of this legislation, the new endowment would start with an amount between $2.5 billion and $3.5 billion, with plans to add $100 million annually from the state’s rainy day fund, and would help fund research at UH, Texas Tech, Texas State and UNT. If lawmakers greenlight the endowment, voters would have to approve it first before it’s created.
“This is a significant investment in higher ed institutions in Texas,” Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, told the Senate Finance Committee when she explained the bill to lawmakers last week. “The state must continue to support institutions that do not have alternative sources of revenue to further achieve national prominence as major research universities.”
Political attacks on higher education
But as lawmakers hash out the details of the proposed endowment, some Republicans are also considering a wave of legislation that could largely reshape how state universities operate — and codify their political agenda into state law in stronger ways than ever before.
Legislation passed last session restricted how K-12 teachers could discuss race, racism and social justice in the classroom. Conservatives say they were targeting critical race theory, an academic discipline that studies how racism shapes policies and societal structures —which they have adopted as a catchall term to describe a perceived liberal bent in lessons about race.
Patrick pledged last year to expand that ban to higher education after a group of UT-Austin professors passed a resolution defending their academic freedom to determine what is taught and discussed in their classrooms without outside influence. A bill proposed this session, Senate Bill 16, would prohibit faculty from compelling students to “adopt a belief that any race, sex, or ethnicity or social, political, or religious belief is inherently superior to any other race, sex, ethnicity, or belief." The bill could come up on the Senate floor for a full vote as soon as this week.
Conservatives have long criticized universities as liberal bastions of elitism. These political attacks gained new fervor under former President Donald Trump, who accused universities of silencing conservative-leaning voices and said liberal professors indoctrinate students with left-wing, radical ideas.
It is a characterization of higher education that many faculty and students reject as inaccurate.
“I teach, I don’t compel or attempt to compel students to believe anything,” said Karma Chávez, an ethnic studies professor and member of the Texas AAUP Conference. “My job in the classroom is to bring cutting-edge research and important forms of cultural expression for consideration to compel students to think critically, not to believe one way or another.”
Patrick then went a step further last year, vowing to eliminate faculty tenure. Another bill filed this session, Senate Bill 18, which would prohibit Texas universities from offering tenure to newly hired faculty, was approved by the Senate education committee last week. A source familiar with conversations about the bill said its language could change as lawmakers are expected to introduce an amended version on the Senate floor before a vote is taken.
At the start of the legislative session, in an escalation of their efforts to limit conversations about race in classrooms, Republicans widened their sights and targeted all campus programs, trainings or offices that work to improve diversity, equity and inclusion, often referred to as DEI.
Under Senate Bill 17, universities would have to eliminate all offices and programs that promote diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. Those hiring new faculty or staff would not be able to ask job candidates about their diverse set of experiences or perspectives or how they would work to create a campus where everyone feels welcomed. Training that discusses race, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation could not be required.
Universities created these offices to ensure they are serving students of all backgrounds as higher education has tried to become more welcoming toward underserved groups like students of color, first-generation college students and LGBTQ students. Universities’ missions to help more Texans get some kind of certificate or degree after college became more important, especially as people of color became the majority of the state’s population.
But conservative lawmakers and advocates say DEI initiatives require potential or current employees and students to subscribe to progressive political views, squelching certain types of free speech and prioritizing social justice over merit and achievement.
“There’s a big difference between what DEI programs claim to do and what they usually or actually do,” Adam Kissel, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation who focuses on higher education reform, said during a hearing from the Senate subcommittee on higher education last week. “The fundamental mistake of DEI is to categorize people by group identity rather than as unique individuals. Diversity programs use identity as a proxy for the actual viewpoint diversity that makes colleges flourish.”
Both the House and Senate’s budget proposals include riders that prohibit state universities from using money for DEI programs.
Republican lawmakers say universities need to make sure they cultivate a culture of diverse ideas to thrive.
“I think we can all agree that in order for Texas to lead in research and innovation, for there to be equal opportunity for all, we must promote all individuals on their merit, not particular political litmus tests beyond that,” said Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, as he laid out his bill to ban DEI programs last week.
But opponents argue that if the goal is to advance Texas’ universities, these bills would have the opposite effect.
Concerns about faculty recruitment
When Texas State University President Kelly Damphousse testified in a Texas House committee last week in favor of the new endowment that lawmakers are considering, he said the funds would help his university and others hire additional research faculty and staff to run labs, write grants and recruit graduate and doctoral students.
“The investment we’re discussing today will attract future researchers to Texas who will bring a positive return on investment for many decades to come,” he said.
But ever since Patrick declared war on tenure last year, faculty and university leaders have been adamant that eliminating the practice in Texas universities would make it nearly impossible to recruit top researchers — contradicting lawmakers’ other efforts to advance higher education in the state.
“Tenure is a national institution, it’s not just something that exists in a vacuum in Texas,” said Andrea Gore, vice president of the American Association of University Professors chapter at UT-Austin and a professor. “If that institution no longer exists in Texas … they will go to another state, or they’ll go private.”
Tenure is meant to help protect academic freedom in a university by guarding faculty against being fired or punished in their pursuit of new ideas or controversial research. It gives them job security as they conduct research that can sometimes take more than a decade to see results.
Critics of Patrick’s plan to end tenure say it ignores the mechanisms that already exist to hold tenured faculty accountable.
Tenure is often awarded to professors after a lengthy approval process. Once a professor receives it, they continue to undergo annual performance and periodic tenure reviews, typically every five or six years. Faculty with tenure can still be fired if they violate university policies, and the benefit can be revoked in certain circumstances, like when someone is accused of plagiarism, sexual harassment or research misconduct.
Without tenure, faculty say any offer Texas makes to recruit new talent just wouldn’t compete against an offer from a school that can guarantee that job protection. It also opens the door for universities out of state to reach out to Texas faculty and offer them a golden ticket. They say even just threatening to reform or change how tenure works on Texas campuses can make it difficult to recruit and retain faculty.
“We get great faculty,” said Korgel, who works at UT-Austin. “They’re constantly being poached or trying to be poached from east and west coast schools. We have to do everything we can to retain them, and these sorts of conversations don’t really help.”
Grad students take pause
Alexandra Salazar, an ethnic studies Ph.D. student at UT-Austin, said she has fielded multiple questions recently from potential students and faculty about the legislation proposing to end tenure and ban diversity and equity programs. She said they worry whether the bills would restrict how certain areas of history are taught or force schools to eliminate entire programs of study.
UT-Austin did not respond to a question about how they are interpreting the impact of such legislation if it passes.
Salazar, who emphasized she spoke for herself and not on behalf of the university, pointed to SB 16, which says faculty cannot “compel” a student to adopt certain political beliefs. The bill’s language is extremely vague, she said, which has created confusion among students and faculty about how this legislation would look like in practice.
“What do you mean by that? What does ‘compel’ mean?” she said. “I think there’s still questions that are emerging from that as well.”
Students say they are also concerned about how eliminating or changing tenure could create uncertainty for faculty and graduate students who enroll in a program to work with a specific faculty member.
And there are other bills that might make potential students reconsider whether they want to study in Texas.
Evans, who teaches engineering at UT-Austin but also noted he didn’t speak for the university, said he learned from some faculty at the engineering school that a Ph.D. candidate from China turned down an offer this year because of the proposed legislation that would ban Chinese people from owning property in the state.
“They’re going to look for a place where they can work and thrive,” Evans said. “And they got all the options. They have global options.”
Difficulty getting research grants
There are also concerns that the proposed bans to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on campus might make it harder for Texas professors to attract the federal and private funding that state lawmakers desperately want to see Texas schools get.
Many federal grants from institutes like the National Science Foundation or agencies like the Department of Energy require applicants to detail how they are making efforts to increase the number of diverse students in science and engineering fields or how their research is benefiting underrepresented or underserved communities.
“It’s really difficult to get funding from NSF or DOE … if you’re not addressing diversity in some way in those proposals,” Korgel said.
This research funding is vital to university budgets.
Overall, Texas public universities brought in about $5.4 billion in research funding in 2020. During the 2020-2021 school year, 22% of UT-Austin’s budget came from research funding, which added up to around $740 million. In comparison, 10% came from the state general revenue.
Gore, of UT-Austin and the Texas Conference of AAUP, said she recently submitted a grant proposal to the National Institutes of Health that required a statement explaining how she prioritizes diversity in her work. She said she chose to talk about her efforts to increase the number of women in STEM fields and make sure she creates a laboratory in which graduate student researchers and staff feel comfortable sharing their different backgrounds and perspectives.
At a Texas Senate hearing Thursday on SB 17, which would eliminate DEI offices, Gore said she recently learned her proposal received a perfect score and will bring in $7.4 million to her university.
“It would definitely not get funded if I was not able to make a strong statement about the DEI activities that I do to diversify my own research area in my lab, but also what the university gives us,” Gore said.
Texas lawmakers recently declared they want the state to be a national leader in manufacturing semiconductors and to establish the state’s public universities as the leaders for cutting-edge research and training in this industry.
Last summer, the U.S. CHIPS Act included $11 billion specifically for research and development of these chips, which are used to power everything from cellphones and home appliances to bank ATMs and cars.
Early copies of the state budget include $560 million to launch the Texas Institute for Electronics at UT-Austin, which would become a key hub to help position Texas as the nation’s semiconductor leader.
“What we will be doing this session with our investments is just to expand that even more and elevate our research status even more,” Abbott said at a press conference last month. “That will be a magnet that will attract semiconductor manufacturing, as well as research and development.”
UT-Austin faculty say getting that money is also a top priority for them, but they worry how a ban on DEI programs might harm their chances. The federal CHIPS legislation asks universities that apply for this research funding to conduct activities that would address barriers to recruiting people from underrepresented groups in STEM fields.
“You cannot go get the CHIPS money without having a [diversity, equity and inclusion] statement,” said Evans, vice president of the Texas Conference of AAUP. “And the people who are writing the proposals have tenure or are on the tenure-track getting tenure. So if you get rid of DEI, get rid of tenure, we’re not going to get any CHIPS money to the universities.”
Korgel, who heads the Energy Institute at UT-Austin, said he spends a lot of time building stronger research and educational relationships between the university and energy companies — and promoting diversity is often a priority for them.
“Every company I deal with cares about diversity, diversity of students coming out of university, how do we increase the diversity of the pipeline, of folks they're going to hire,” he said. “They really press us as a university to do more, sometimes they put money into it. A lot of times it’s an expectation that if the university is not going to think about diversity, equity and inclusion and accessibility, then who is?”
Disclosure: Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, University of Texas - Dallas, University of Texas at Austin, University of Houston and University of North Texas 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.
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