UT Faculty Council resolutions condemn April 2 former DEI terminations, response to protests

The University of Texas Faculty Council has formally condemned President Jay Hartzell's terminations and demotions last month of more than 60 former diversity, equity and inclusion employees as well as the closing of the Division of Campus and Community Engagement, and it called on the school's chief to reverse those decisions.

"The faculty offer our strongest support to those individuals whose jobs and lives were disrupted by these events and urge the University to provide them with all possible support," the Faculty Council said in a resolution it approved Monday.

On April 2, UT laid off dozens of employees who had served in DEI-related positions before Jan. 1, when Senate Bill 17, which bans DEI offices and initiatives at all Texas public universities and colleges, went into effect. Hartzell announced April 2 a reorganization to streamline services after SB 17 that would result in the closure of the Division of Campus and Community Engagement — formerly the Division of Diversity and Campus Engagement — and the elimination of a "small number" of staff positions.

Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP, speaks at a pro-diversity, equity and inclusion rally April 29 at the University of Texas. The UT Faculty Council has formally condemned President Jay Hartzell's terminations and demotions last month of more than 60 former DEI employees.
Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP, speaks at a pro-diversity, equity and inclusion rally April 29 at the University of Texas. The UT Faculty Council has formally condemned President Jay Hartzell's terminations and demotions last month of more than 60 former DEI employees.

The Faculty Council's resolution states that the staff positions and campus division had been adapted to fully comply with the state's anti-DEI law, and that Hartzell's decisions were done "without consultation of Faculty Council Leadership or other faculty leaders, in violation of shared governance practices, and without due process."

Hartzell, who did not speak publicly about the terminations until a Faculty Council meeting April 15, said at that meeting that he laid off 49 people and demoted eight associate deans two weeks earlier after restructuring student services. He also cited political pressure from state lawmakers to further comply with the law. Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who wrote the anti-DEI law, warned university system chancellors and regents in a March 26 letter that lawmakers can take legal action and even freeze state funding if the schools do not comply with the law.

Hartzell said at the April 15 meeting that he believed UT was compliant with SB 17 by Jan. 1, and that all staff members who were terminated were welcome to apply to open positions at UT and that they'd receive hiring preference.

More: Texas Senate panel holds hearing on DEI, antisemitism. What UT chancellor said of protests

UT spokesperson Mike Rosen told the American-Statesman in an email Tuesday that the faculty's recommendation was not required for the president's decisions, and that the university has been clear about the reason for its actions.

Stacey Sowards, a Department of Communication Studies professor who is the Faculty Council representative for the Moody College of Communication and co-author of the resolution, said SB 17 is also affecting job and student recruitment.

"We really hope that it will bring to the attention of the UT-Austin president that we are concerned about these issues and that there are these negative repercussions and that things that he's taking action on are not going unnoticed," Sowards said. "A lot of faculty and students oppose some of those responses that the university have been taking."

Aside from reinstating the laid off workers, the council's resolution calls for reopening the Division of Campus and Community Engagement "so that it can continue to provide vital and lawful services to all of the students," or create a task force with faculty members and students to decide how to restore student services and resources.

Previous response to protests

At a special meeting May 8, the Faculty Council passed a resolution asking the university for more transparency about the strong police response to pro-Palestinian protests on campus. It also called on UT to provide public criteria for when state troopers would be called for on-campus protests, and to provide amnesty to UT community members involved in protesting.

It said the university "appears to have erred" in striking a balance between committing to free speech and the safety of the community, and UT must prevent errors in the future.

The council did not pass a separate resolution, which was presented May 7, that condemned the police response to the April 24 protest, in which 57 people were arrested, and called it "an unwarranted assault on this right to peaceful protest."

All the April 24 protesters had their criminal trespass charges dismissed.

More: UT graduates describe 'hectic' end to year after pro-Palestinian protests, DEI ban

What do the resolutions aim to do?

After the April 24 pro-Palestinian protest, more than 500 faculty members signed a letter of no confidence in Hartzell, condemning the police response at the demonstration and the April 2 terminations.

Niveen Abi Ghannam, a lecturer in technical communications in the Cockrell School of Engineering who is on the Faculty Council and authored the resolutions, said they were crafted after the letter of no confidence to address faculty members' concerns. She said both the protests and SB 17 effects have contributed to insecurity on campus.

"We also see this overwhelming worry about all the changes," Abi Ghannam said. "Like is this the beginning of UT changing its heart?"

After the April 24 protest, members of the Faculty Council's Executive Committee met with Hartzell and UT's provost about concerns regarding the police response to the demonstration. This meeting happened before the council considered a protest-related resolution.

At the council's Monday meeting, Hartzell addressed the communication concerns about the protest in opening remarks to the Faculty Council on Zoom.

"I want you to know that I hear you," Hartzell said, adding that his goal is to always act in the "best interests" of students and the university, but that he will learn from the experience. He added that the university fully supports free speech.

The council passed the resolution condemning the terminations after Hartzell's remarks Monday, and Rosen said Hartzell would not be made available for an interview with the Statesman afterward.

Abi Ghannam said people "lost a safe space" when the Division of Campus and Community Engagement closed, and she hopes the council's resolution is taken seriously by UT leadership to protect against future actions and repair the damage that has been done.

"I do believe that there is a sense that they want to listen," she said. "And hopefully the resolutions that we pass through the Faculty Council impact the extent to which they are making decisions in ways that may not be serving the faculty and students."

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: UT Faculty Council pass resolution condemning former DEI terminations