The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the use of race-based affirmative action at the federal level left college applicants of color in the lurch. Now, college students across the nation are also facing state-level laws curtailing or banning the application of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) standards. DEI efforts and organizations provide financial support, community, and resources to those who have been traditionally underrepresented in higher education spaces, such as students of color and students of diverse gender and sexuality backgrounds. In short, DEI initiatives ensure that those of diverse backgrounds will be treated equitably and be included on campuses that were traditionally not designed with them in mind; attacks on their implementation are a serious threat to equity in education.

In states like Texas, students find themselves at the center of newly enacted state level anti-DEI legislation. State-funded institutions are no longer legally able to provide them with the DEI support they need in order to feel like part of the campus community and equitably access educational opportunities.

Texas Senate Bill 17 (SB 17), which went into effect at the start of the year, bars state-funded institutions in Texas from using institutional funding to support DEI initiatives and organizations. At The University of Texas at Austin (UT), the state’s flagship institution, the enactment of the bill has already led to defunding of cultural graduation ceremonies, cultural welcome weeks, and scholarship programs for undocumented students; the closure of campus centers for students of color; the repurposing of the center for gender and sexuality; and the repurposing of a center originally dedicated to supporting Black men on campus.

In this commentary, we will use the implementation of SB 17 at UT as a case study for the consequences of anti-DEI legislation. UT is located in the state’s capitol of Austin. Austin has earned a reputation for being a beacon of liberal values, in an otherwise red state. In fact, UT likely attracts its largely left-leaning students and faculty in part for this reason. As we will see, the determined students and faculty of UT are fighting back. While their efforts are both valiant and admirable, they can only go so far under the new law, and they should not be necessary in the first place. The situation at UT is a warning for others about the dire situation they may find themselves in if they do not work to halt the implementation of anti-DEI laws in their own states.

An Accessible State Flagship

To help understand what UT is losing because of SB 17, it’s worth mentioning the reputation it’s developed and the community it has built leading up to its implementation. UT is a selective institution that is highly sought after by college applicants. It is Texas’s flagship school, ranking among the top ten public universities in the nation, and it was named a top-ten “dream college” among 2023 college applicants.

While admission to the institution is both highly selective and highly sought-after, students across the state of Texas benefit from an increased chance at accessing UT through the Top 10 Percent Law, or Texas House Bill 588. This law guarantees automatic admission into any state-funded institution for students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class, and automatic admission into the state flagship for students who graduate in the top 6 percent of their high school class.1 Thus, it is a mechanism for ensuring geographic diversity at Texas institutions, and, as a function of enabling geographic diversity, the law also creates room for socioeconomic and, to an extent, racial diversity.

The Top 10 Percent Law is particularly important for creating access to higher education for students who might otherwise have difficulty being admitted. For example, students in the top 6 percent of a high-performing, well-resourced school in suburban Dallas, the top 6 percent of an underfunded high school in rural West Texas, and the top 6 percent of a low income border town high school would all be guaranteed automatic admission to the state’s flagship institution.

Diversity without Equity and Inclusion

A current strength of UT is the diversity of its student body. Created in 1883, UT is a historically white university, and it has long been a predominantly white institution (PWI). However, its current racial composition is such that only 33 percent of students are white. Hispanic students make up 25 percent of the student body, and in 2020, the U.S. Department of Education designated UT a Hispanic-Serving Institution. Asian students make up 22 percent of the student body and Black students compose 4.5 percent of the student body. While racial and ethnic diversity can be improved, particularly in regards to the representation of Black students, UT Austin is a relatively racially diverse college campus. Unfortunately for the students of UT, SB 17 has created a climate in which the institution cannot officially support its diverse student body with initiatives that promote equity and inclusion.

Failure to comply with SB 17 would jeopardize state funding for UT and risk further harming students. Accordingly, UT has made great efforts to comply with SB 17. The institution stated that it “will continue to work within the law to ensure the campus continues to be a welcoming place for community members of various perspectives and experiences.” Compliance and inclusion are at odds though, and students have already begun to feel the negative effects of the legislation on the campus climate.

Perhaps one of the most pernicious and devastating examples of the effects of SB 17 on the UT student body is the rebranding of the Heman Sweatt Center for Black Males, whose original website has now been suspended, to the Heman Sweatt Center for Collegiate Males. The space was dedicated in honor of Heman Sweatt, a Black man who was denied admission to UT Law School on the basis of his race. With the help of the NAACP, Sweatt took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court where it was ruled, in 1950’s Sweatt v. Painter, that a separate law school could not provide an equal education. This case of school desegregation in higher education was pivotal in paving the way for school desegregation at the K–12 level in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Over seventy years later, 2024’s SB 17 takes higher education backwards by requiring this center, which has been critical for the support and inclusion of the few Black men at UT, to make itself available to support all male students at UT. Equality is achieved when everyone is given the same resources. Equity is achieved when we account for the fact that each person has had different experiences and is then given the resources they need in order to achieve equal outcomes. By supplanting equity with equality, UT denies Black men the access to opportunity they deserve at the institution.

What’s more, some students have stated that UT has taken actions in response to the legislation that go beyond what is required by the law. Undocumented students at UT were previously supported by the Monarch Program, and university officials had assured students that this program would not be affected. SB 17 specifically applies to DEI programs that engage with gender and sexuality, color, and race. Although the Monarch Program provided resources and scholarships to undocumented students regardless of their gender, sexual identity, color, or race, UT closed the center after SB 17 was enacted. The closure completely removed resources and scholarships that supported students who are already subject to the anti-immigrant policies and practices in the state of Texas.

As UT and their team of legal experts work to comply with SB 17, they appear to be exercising an abundance of caution, and possibly going beyond the requirements of the new law, in order to avoid state sanctions. The culture of fear that this law has created at the institutional level ultimately weighs most heavily on the student body.

There Are Few Legally Sanctioned Options for Students and Faculty

SB 17 does not affect student-run organizations, academic freedom, or alumni. While these avenues cannot make up for the accountability, safer spaces, and pathways to career advancement that are lost under anti-DEI legislation, students, faculty, and alumni are doing their best to exploit them.

Student-run organizations that hold registered student organization status and are not sponsored by the institution are not subject to SB 17. Thus, one way students can maintain or create access to DEI groups is by self-organizing and self-funding. Indeed, some student groups are already working to self-sustain by setting up online fundraising accounts. Undoubtedly, it is challenging for students to create and sustain DEI communities on their own and in the absence of official institutional support. After all, these are college students, often from underrepresented backgrounds, working to earn their degrees in a climate unable to support them. To add insult to injury, UT has a large endowment, and that money now sits out of reach for these students.

SB 17 also does not affect academic freedom on campus: “Faculty instruction in their assigned courses, practicums, seminars, and executive education programs is not subject to the prohibitions of this policy.” The UT Chapter of the American Association for University Professors has been vocal in communicating this exception, and has created resources to guide faculty in the continued use of their academic freedom in the wake of SB 17. The retention of academic freedom on a campus that cannot officially support DEI initiatives is critical. UT faculty have retained the power to support safety and inclusion in their classrooms via their curricula and the ways in which they direct their classes.

Here too, however, the severing of institutional funding is a serious obstacle. Perhaps one of the most important channels through which funding can be secured at this time is through UT alumni, who are completely unaffected by SB 17. Indeed, alumni have already begun answering calls to donate and organize to support cultural graduation ceremonies and other discontinued DEI efforts.

What’s at Stake?

Students, faculty, and alumni can and will do what they can, but they cannot replace what SB 17 has erased: integrated institutional and financial support for equity and inclusion at the university. Student safety and comfort during their college educations, and access to resources that would have helped better prepare them for professional prospects afterwards, are casualties of the law.

As students, alumni, and faculty work hard to maintain an inclusive campus environment in the absence of institutional funding and support, questions remain for both current and future students. When attending college, finding your community, feeling supported, and feeling like you belong is essential, especially for those who have been historically underrepresented in university settings, for those who have fought to take their place in higher education, and for those who now find themselves present but unsupported. Indeed, students who experience discrimination or feel a weak sense of belonging on campus are more likely to experience mental health symptoms and are less likely to remain enrolled and graduate.

The implementation of anti-DEI laws on campus will also undoubtedly affect prospective students’ decisions about a potential future for themselves at UT. Some students may look at the institution’s overcompliance with the law and opt for enrollment at institutions in states without anti-DEI laws or at private institutions within the state that are not subject to SB 17, creating a loss of talent for the institution. However, for some students across the red state, guaranteed admission to the state flagship via the Top Ten Percent Law may be their goal, their chance at social mobility, or their best option. Those from underrepresented backgrounds who find themselves in the latter category and opt to enroll at UT will have to be prepared to enter an institutional landscape absent many of the critical DEI resources previously available at the state flagship. This will undoubtedly affect their college experience and their preparedness for post-grad careers and opportunities.

UT provides a case study on the potential effects of anti-DEI legislation for students, faculty, and institutions in other states that may soon find themselves living under similar, and in some cases even more restrictive anti-DEI laws. “What Starts Here Changes the World” is the school’s official slogan. Students, faculty, and alumni of UT continue to work to live up to the institution’s goal of positive change making, even in the wake of this deleterious legislation. However, the institution’s fear induced and devastating response to SB 17 serves as a warning for those who still have the capacity to prevent the enactment of harmful state-level anti-DEI laws.


  1. The state of Texas allows special implementation of this law for UT Austin, such that 75 percent of their incoming class be admitted under this law. The threshold is set each year. Currently, students must fall within the top 6 percent of their graduating class in order to gain automatic admission to UT Austin.