March 4 San Francisco State education protest 137 | Steve Rhodes / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On January 1 of this year, a bill went into effect in Texas that banned Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. In the weeks since, numerous public university centers, programs, offices, and student groups in Texas have seen their missions dramatically altered. In recent months, more than 30 similar bills have been introduced across the United States—so what is happening in Texas could give a preview of what may happen in other states.

At University of Texas Austin alone, where I hold a postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of History, we’ve seen the Gender and Sexuality Center painfully stripped of their original mission and have their name changed to reflect the restrictions imposed by SB17, the anti–DEI bill. At least the unit is still open. SB17 also led to the shuttering of the Monarch Student Program, which offered institutional and bureaucratic support to undocumented students; the closing of the Multi-Cultural Engagement Center, which housed six University of Texas–sponsored student groups; and the cessation of the Public Voices Fellowship, a faculty mentorship program in which I was participating. 

Most recently, UT Austin has announced the closing of the Division of Campus and Community Engagement, resulting in the loss of nearly 60 jobs

Student advocacy groups and state-level organizations have lambasted the legislature for passing SB17. From the bill’s inception, cross-institutional coalitions of students, staff, and faculty from Texas colleges and universities kept pressure on the legislature through circulating policy toolkits, lobbying, organizing phone-ins, protesting, offering testimony, and even by drafting their own amendments. Together, these efforts marginally softened the blow of SB17’s more disastrous original proposition. But what did pass was bad enough.

SB17 has exposed the shallowness of DEI initiatives in Texas. It has forced academics like me to ask: If DEI efforts can be effectively removed in one month after decades of struggle, what chance was there, if any, to change the university culture? It also raises provocative possibilities about where we might go from here.

Pressures from students, faculty, and staff during the 1960s forced universities to become more inclusive. Similar pressure led to DEI initiatives in 2020, but anti–DEI and anti–Critical Race Theory bills gravely threaten such progress. 

By effectively undoing the work of decades in one month, the Texas legislature has made it clear that Texas institutions of higher education—and, by extension, the state itself—are not welcoming to people of color, queer and trans people, and undocumented immigrants. 

Conservative Texas politicians have waged war on the most vulnerable populations in the state’s institutions of higher education. The only way to interpret SB17—a law that pulled all systems of support from at-risk populations in the space of a month—is as a convulsive backlash against the growing consciousness of marginalized populations on college campuses who see their education inherently linked to the liberation of their communities in Texas and across the United States. 

But the truth is that DEI was already a compromise forged in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests and the ashes of the radical movements of the late twentieth century.

Starting with Third World Liberation student movements at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley in 1968, multiracial coalitions demanded a non-Eurocentric perspective that could intellectually challenge white supremacist, settler-colonial, and heteropatriarchal systems of power. 

In response, some university administrations created new Black and Ethnic Studies programs and made an explicit commitment to representational progress—that is, accepting more students of color through affirmative action. When the student movements of the late twentieth century sought revolution, they were offered reform through compromise. 

Moving forward 50 years, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery by police officers in 2020 ignited the Black Lives Matter Movement, which had far-reaching impacts on how institutions of higher education performed anti-racism. Rather than systemic change, DEI efforts were the institutions’ bureaucratic compromise in response to justified public moral outrage.

We are now witnessing the unraveling of these compromises. If DEI efforts can be unraveled in such a swift manner and at such a fast pace (as SB17 has done), how progressive were they to begin with? Or, more productively: What are we left with, in the aftermath of SB17, to envision a more permanent approach?

Instead of trying to save DEI as we knew it, what if we turned SB17 into a rallying point, a call to reflect on the long origins of DEI, and its multiple iterations, while simultaneously envisioning a more intersectional approach towards liberation within the American university? 

At a moment when the Texas legislature is sowing fear and misrepresentation about DEI and passing prohibitive new laws, faculty, staff, and students should continue to find coalitional support across rank, race, gender, documentation status, class, and other impacted populations.

The most effective parts of the radical student youth movements during the 1960s and 70s, for instance, were their multiracial and cross-class coalition building. The Third World Liberation Front organized Black, Latinx, Asian American Pacific Islander, and Indigenous student groups to lead a months-long strike until university administration took their demands seriously. 

Beyond universities, various multiracial “rainbow coalitions” popped up across the United States at the same time as the revolution on campuses. They sought to organize communities and unite the working class. In Chicago, Black Panther members Bob Lee and Fred Hampton united working-class Puerto Rican and white communities to advocate against police brutality, substandard housing, lack of healthcare, and poverty. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis at the apex of the Poor People’s Campaign. 

Even more recent campaigns in support of the Black Lives Matter Movements from Asian American and Latino communities in 2020 closely linked the fates of Black, Asian, and Latinx in seeking liberation from systemic racism. 

Multiracial and cross-class organizing still has the potential to radically reframe higher education in Texas and other states. But 2024 is not the 1960s. 

Let’s not squander time fighting to restore DEI bureaucracies. Instead, Texas students, faculty, and staff should engage in a more radical uprooting and reconceptualizing of the university’s foundations. We are now in a position to demand more from the university—and perhaps our past visionaries can illuminate the way.