While the racial demographics of the students and workforce are becoming increasingly more diverse at Katy’s local colleges, diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at public universities are being scrutinized by state legislators.

During a State of Higher Education address held Feb. 16 at the Houston Community College Katy campus, HCC Northwest President Zachary Hodges said growing diversity is helping economic growth. To accommodate, he said HCC-Katy is rushing to offer English language learning courses.

“Katy is changing. We are seeing [Katy] Asian Town and the positive influence that it has on our community, and what an economic resource that is,” Hodges said of the marketplace of Asian businesses located near the Katy instructional site. “It is a changing world, and we have to do whatever we can to embrace that.”

HCC, University of Houston and University of Houston-Victoria—which all have instructional sites in Katy—have diversity and inclusion offices, services and programs that guide the college systems and promote equitable practices among staff and students.

Despite rising diversity and investment in DEI programs in higher education, a Feb. 4 memo from Gov. Greg Abbott’s chief of staff, Gardner Pate, warned public universities against the use of diversity statements in hiring and the use of taxpayer dollars to establish diversity offices and programs, challenging their legality and citing supposed favoritism of certain demographic groups.

State legislators have also filed bills during the 88th legislative session to prohibit DEI departments and principles in hiring at public universities.

Demographic diversity

Data from UH and UHV show the racial demographics of faculty are not as reflective of the Greater Houston area as their student populations.

Shawn Lindsey, University of Houston’s associate vice chancellor for media relations, said UH’s student body reflects Houston’s shifting demographics. She said Asian, Hispanic and African American residents account for 17%, 39% and 8% of Houston residents, respectively—while Asian, Hispanic and African American students accounted for 22%, 33% and 10.9% of the fall 2022 student body, respectively, per data from the college system.

Meanwhile, fall 2022 data shows 57.2% of UH’s faculty was white.

Following the letter from Abbott’s office, UH Chancellor Renu Khator released a statement March 3 that the college system “will not support or use DEI statements or factors in hiring or promotion” to comply with the law.

But Lindsey said the college does not exclude applicants on the basis of race, color, religion, age, sexual orientation, disability or veteran status.

“The UH system is an equal opportunity employer with a commitment to diversity,” Lindsey said in an email.

Similar to UH, UHV fall 2022 data showed 40.4% of all its student body was Hispanic, while African American students made up 15.1%. However, Hispanic and African American employees make up about 28% and 8% of total employees, respectively.

Data requests from HCC’s office of diversity, equity and inclusion were unanswered by press time, but a spring 2023 fact sheet showed 40.6% of 44,130 students are Hispanic, 27% are Black, 13.4% are Asian, and 12.2% are white.

Per HCC’s institutional profile updated in June, 37% of its employees were Black, 31% were white, 18% were Hispanic, and 11% were Asian.

Political pushback

Despite these numbers, the memo from Abbott’s office called diversity statements—or questions about how one might accommodate diversity at an institution—illegal.

“We celebrate the diversity of our state and the presence of a workforce that represents our rich culture,” the statement said. “In recent years, however, the innocuous-sounding notion of diversity, equity and inclusion has been manipulated to push policies that expressly favor some demographic groups to the detriment of others.”

Similarly, Senate Bill 17, filed March 10 by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would prohibit diversity statements in hiring, ban offices that focus on DEI efforts and expand the powers of boards of regents in hiring top administrators at their universities.

Richard Baker, who serves as the Title IX coordinator and executive director for institutional equity and equal employment opportunity at Rice University, said he believes practicing DEI at college campuses is not inherently discriminatory or unlawful.

“[They ensure] that identity is acknowledged, and that everyone is given an opportunity to participate in the program, activity, initiative, or the organization, at the same rate and level as another person,” Baker said.

Challenges to DEI programs could affect funding for public universities, said Martha Snyder, managing director of consulting firm HCM Strategists.

“Institutions are relying on the state for a fairly significant proportion of their revenue,” Snyder said. “I could see [how] an institution could become very cautious in terms of any sort of initiative that is focused on trying to diversify its faculty.”

In response to Abbott’s memo, Lindsey said UH’s affirmative action, equal opportunity and nondiscrimination statement, and anti-discrimination policy have not changed.

“We can foster diverse and inclusive campus communities and student bodies without violating state and federal employment laws or creating programs that discriminate,” Lindsey said.

Why it matters

If the laws around DEI efforts change this session, Lindsey said the college system would evaluate the law and determine if its policies need to change.

But legislation could impact the work universities have done as well as trends of enrollment decline. For example, one segment of SB 17 would outlaw training and activities designed “in reference to race, color, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexual orientation.”

UH’s diversity programs include an achievement initiative for marginalized males designed to improve the recruitment and retention of Black and Hispanic students. UH references “A Sense of Belonging” by author Terrell L. Strayhorn as a foundation for this program—which correlates a student’s ability to build relationships with faculty and diverse groups on campus to a student’s educational success.

An August report from HCM Strategists identified a decline in college enrollment among young adults since 2011, most notably for Black learners.

Margaret Spellings, president of public policy organization Texas 2036 and former U.S. secretary of education, said 600,000 Black students fell out of the nation’s college system in the past decade. She said she believes challenges of DEI programs should not distract from systemic barriers threatening equitable progress of all learners.

“Whether you are motivated by an economic argument, a business development argument, a human capital argument, a social justice argument—there is a message for you in this data,” Spellings said.