Controversial bills aimed at higher education pass Texas Senate

The Texas Senate has given preliminary approval to legislation aimed at ensuring academic freedom in higher education by preventing college and university professors from imposing particular political beliefs on their students.

The provision has been included in several bills introduced this legislative session, sparking concerns among faculty and university leaders that academic freedom in the classroom could be overly restricted. Senator Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, explained to the Senate on Tuesday that universities serve as learning centers that expose students to diverse ideas and develop their critical thinking abilities.

He emphasized that his bill would not censor the discussion of any subject matters in college classes but would prevent instructors from forcing students to adopt a particular belief or demand adherence to a specific viewpoint.

Senate Bill 16 is intended to prohibit university professors from compelling students to accept a belief that any race, sex, or ethnicity or social, political, or religious belief is inherently superior to any other race, sex, ethnicity, or belief, according to Dallas Metro News.

Critics have raised concerns that the legislation is too ambiguous and could generate a chilling effect that stifles conversations about race and gender in the classroom, rather than promoting open inquiry of ideas. Faculty members who spoke against the bill assured the Senate that they welcomed critical thinking and denied imposing any views on their students.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick unveiled his legislative priorities for the session, portraying SB 16 as a ban on critical race theory in higher education. Over the past several years, conservatives have targeted critical race theory, an academic discipline that examines how racism shapes policies and societal structures, and have criticized perceived liberal inclination in lessons about race and racism. In the previous legislative session, Texas lawmakers approved a “critical race theory ban” that limited certain conversations about race and racism in K-12 classrooms.

During the interim, Patrick pledged to extend that law to higher education after a group of University of Texas at Austin professors submitted a resolution reaffirming their academic freedom to teach critical race theory in higher education. SB 16 does not specifically mention critical race theory, but Hughes stated that it targets the same concepts. Legislators provisionally approved the bill with an amendment that would add a process for students or other members of the public to complain against a professor they think is breaking the law. Faculty members who break the law could lose their tenure or lose their job.

Democratic senators have harshly criticized SB 16, accusing Hughes of crafting legislation based on a “political narrative.” They posed multiple hypothetical scenarios to Hughes as they sought to determine when a professor teaching about an uncomfortable subject or aspect of history might be considered “compelling” a student versus teaching them. In nearly all situations, Hughes replied that those hypothetical situations would be allowed. However, when asked if this bill would permit faculty to teach about the concept of critical race theory, Hughes did not specifically answer.

Democrats also repeatedly requested that Hughes provide examples of the issue his bill seeks to address in Texas universities. Hughes responded by citing vague media reports and referring to comments made by a political science professor who testified in favor of the bill during a Senate subcommittee on higher education meeting last month. The professor, Carol Swain, taught at Vanderbilt University and Princeton University but had not taught in Texas.

SB 16 is one of several higher education priorities of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick that have come under fire from faculty and students, who accuse lawmakers of political interference in the college classroom and campus. Senate Bill 17 would prohibit diversity, equity, and inclusion offices, programs, and training on public college campuses. The Senate higher education subcommittee approved that bill last week. It now goes to the full education committee for approval. Another bill, Senate Bill 18, would remove faculty tenure for new hires. The education committee approved that bill, sending it to the full Senate for a vote.

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