“Wokeness” is often associated with small liberal arts colleges and the Ivy League, but it’s also found a home at one of the largest public universities in one of the reddest states in the country: the University of Texas at Austin.
The state’s flagship public institution now subjects faculty to “mandatory training in anti-racist pedagogy and cultural competency.” Its medical curriculum requires students to “examine” the “intersectionality” of their “multiple identities.” Several of its programs require the completion of diversity, equity, and inclusion courses, and incorporate so-called DEI principles into faculty hiring. At UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering, for example, tenure and promotion decisions must “explicitly consider efforts related to DEI.”
These measures are summarized in a Jan. 20 report by John Sailer of the National Association of Scholars, a conservative education nonprofit. They indicate that DEI can come for any university—including in states like Texas where political leaders have sought to purge critical race theory from public classrooms.
“Red states are just as bad as anywhere else,” said Sailer, who has written extensively about DEI programs in higher education. “When I think of places that have really robust and invasive DEI bureaucracies, I could name Berkeley and University of Michigan, but I could also name UT Austin.”
The University of Texas did not respond to a request for comment.
Even in Republican strongholds like Utah, which hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since the mid-’80s, DEI’s march through the universities has been swift. The Utah public university system in 2020 adopted an “anti-racist,” “equity lens framework” that uses “Critical Race Theory as a cornerstone.” One school in that system, Weber State University, has pledged that “a commitment to equity-minded and inclusive practices” will be a prerequisite “for 100% of university positions” by 2025.
The University of Tennessee is likewise mandating DEI statements on class syllabi, creating minors in “social justice,” and requiring “DEI and cultural competency content in courses,” according to the school’s diversity action plans.
Such initiatives run up a large tab on the public’s dime. In Florida, where Republican governor Ron DeSantis (R.) has declared war on wokeness, public universities spent 15 million taxpayer dollars on DEI initiatives in just the past year—enough to cover in-state tuition for thousands of students.
Much of this money ends up lining the pocketbooks of diversity officers, who are typically better compensated than adjunct professors and even some tenured ones. Ohio State University alone has 132 DEI administrators—many of whom make six figures—for a total payroll cost of $13.4 million.
It might seem odd for state schools to embrace policies that taxpayers and their elected representatives oppose. One reason they’ve done so, Sailer said, is the incentives created by the federal government. Universities depend on agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation for research funding—and that funding is increasingly tied to DEI.
The Department of Energy, for example, now requires all grant applicants to submit an “equitable research” plan that explains how their work will “promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.” As the largest federal funder of physical science research, the agency wields significant influence over all major universities, including public ones.
For Sailer, these incentives make it unlikely that DEI bureaucracies will be reformed from within. The problem won’t go away without external—and political—shocks.
“It’s politics that created DEI initiatives in the first place,” Sailer said. “And once the bureaucracy is in place, it won’t stop on its own.”
The upshot, he added, is that state lawmakers have a legitimate role to play in tamping down DEI. Though liberals and libertarians have blasted GOP efforts to curtail critical race theory in public schools—saying the efforts pose an unacceptable threat to academic freedom—Sailer drew a distinction between silencing professors and regulating administrators.
“DEI officers don’t have academic freedom,” he said. “It is not a violation of academic freedom to prevent them from dictating ridiculous things to faculty; if anything that would protect academic freedom.”
At least one Republican administration seems sympathetic to this philosophy: DeSantis in December required all public colleges in Florida to report their expenditures on DEI, and this month the state’s lieutenant governor Jeanette Nuñez said her office was looking to “curb” those initiatives.
The presidents of Florida’s 28 state colleges have also pledged not to fund any program that “compels belief in critical race theory” or similar doctrines.
These colleges may teach about critical race theory, the presidents made clear in a Jan. 18 statement, but only if they present it “as one of several theories and in an objective manner.”
Texas could be on the cusp of doing something similar. A bill introduced to the Texas House of Representatives in December would bar the state from funding “any office of diversity, equity, and inclusion” at public universities. The law’s sponsor, Texas state representative Carl Tepper (R.), has argued that it would reduce the influence of DEI in higher education—and save families money.
“The cost of college has been skyrocketing,” Tepper told the College Fix in December. “Parents of state university students don’t want their money spent on political indoctrination or party politics or reverse-racism.”
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