During a Thursday hearing before the Texas Senate subcommittee on Higher Education, Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Minneola) explained that while universities should expose students to different ideas, he wanted to make sure that students would not experience discrimination for their beliefs.
“This bill … will establish in statute an express purpose statement for higher education that our institutions should be committed to creating environments where students are equipped for participation in the workforce and society while also respecting intellectual diversity, but not indoctrinating students,” said Hughes.
“It will also prevent any faculty member from compelling or attempting to compel students to adopt a belief that any race, sex, ethnicity, or social, political, or religious belief is inherently superior to any other race, sex, ethnicity, or belief.”
Carol Swain, formerly a tenured professor at Princeton and Vanderbilt Universities and now a Distinguished Senior Fellow for Constitutional Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, testified that the bill was needed since more students were experiencing discrimination.
“Universities are no longer marketplaces of ideas where critical thinking skills are developed,” said Swain. “They have become indoctrination centers that are openly hostile to any ideas associated with Western civilization, in particular Christianity, and traditional American thought.”
Swain said she had witnessed not only compelled speech, but compelled action from university faculty that included urging students to participate in political campaigns or gay pride events.
“You do have problems on your colleges and universities,” said Swain.
“I think some of it is just coming from professors who really don’t know what they’re doing, or they don’t care, or they’re so sure that they’re right and everyone else is wrong, that they’re trampling the rights of other people.”
Hughes’ proposal, Senate Bill (SB) 16, stems from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s list of legislative priorities announced earlier this year, which included finding ways to address the teaching of “critical race theory” (CRT) at publicly funded universities and colleges.
Strictly speaking, critical race theory is an academic discourse that assumes a societal rather than interpersonal definition of racism. While popular or more traditional definitions of racism might define it as inequitable treatment or hatred based on race, critical race theorists see outcome disparities — in wealth, incarceration, health, or university admissions, to name a few concrete examples — as inherently racist results of institutions.
In response to questions from Committee Chair Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), Swain called CRT a form of “cultural Marxism,” but said many proponents of CRT seemed unaware of the underlying political philosophy.
In 2021, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a ban on teaching CRT in the state’s K-12 schools, but the ban did not extend to universities.
Hughes said it was necessary to take a different approach conducive to free inquiry and examination of ideas expected at colleges and universities.
Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) expressed concern over what he characterized as the “vague” language of the bill and suggested it would draw litigation if passed.
“Compelling seems to be a vague term,” said West. “so I want to make certain we have the definition of ‘compelling.’ As the author of the bill, what is the definition of compelling?”
Hughes responded, “Compel: to use force, to use authority, to use power to accomplish an end.”
He continued, “So, it’s one thing for a professor to say, ‘I want you to read the Communist Manifesto; I want you to read Adam Smith; I want you to read Milton Friedman.’ That’s one thing … but to say you must agree with my political position on ‘X’ to get an A in this classroom, to pass this class.”
Atonio Ingram, assistant counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was among four who testified in opposition, saying the bill was “overly broad and vague” and that the language would inhibit classes currently being taught.
“Despite Hughes’ intent, clearly this is going to have a chilling effect on discussions involving race and equity in classrooms,” warned Ingram.
“The bill has no provisions for identifying what does and does not count as compulsion; it does not identify what counts as belief; and it does not identify what counts as adoption,” said Anna Schwartz, who identified herself as a teacher in opposition to SB 16.
During her testimony, Swain asserted that students are not only subject to compelled speech and action but also to punishment for “microaggressions,” which she defined as “perceived insults and threats.”
Last year, a federal lawsuit forced the University of Houston to drop a controversial policy that included punishing students for microaggressions, and in 2020 the University of Texas had to dismantle a program targeting perceived hate speech.
Both public and private colleges and universities in Texas and across the nation have increasingly come under fire for stifling the free exchange of controversial ideas in recent years. In response, a diverse group of professors and advocates announced in 2021 the formation of the new University of Austin with a stated commitment to ideological diversity and academic freedom.
While not directly addressing controversial Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies in higher education, Hughes’ bill drew comments from Swain comparing the two issues.
“DEI and CRT violate the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment and the First Amendment’s freedom of Speech clause,” said Swain.
Patrick has also prioritized addressing DEI policy in higher education, and Creighton along with eight other senators authored SB 17 to prohibit publicly funded colleges and universities “from requiring or giving preferential consideration for certain ideological oaths or statements that undermine academic freedom and open inquiry and impede the discovery, preservation, and transmission of knowledge.”
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Holly Hansen is a reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.