Lessons from AAUP Advocacy in Texas

How a revived AAUP chapter and a coalition of allies mobilized against a legislative assault.
By Karma R. Chávez

This article is part of a series, "Dispatches from States under Legislative Attack."

On February 14, 2022, well into the nationwide assault on the teaching of critical race theory, the University of Texas at Austin Faculty Council passed a resolution affirming the academic freedom of UT’s faculty to teach critical race theory and any other subject in their area of expertise. The next day, Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, a regular foe of university faculty, tweeted that he would put a stop to the arrogance of “looney Marxist faculty” by ending tenure at Texas’s public universities. 

While some colleagues dismissed Patrick’s statement as political bluster, others of us realized that, given the focus on K–12 and higher education as a site of political and cultural contestation, we ought to be prepared for the 2023 Texas legislative session. A Black-led group of faculty members of color reached out to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) for counsel. And a handful of members of the Texas AAUP conference, led by Brian Evans and the late Pat Somers, decided it was time to relaunch the long-dormant AAUP chapter at UT. 

It felt important for UT Austin faculty to be organized for several reasons. First, many of us can literally see the state capitol from our office windows; our proximity to political decision-making means that we will be the Texas faculty members doing the most on-the-ground advocacy through office visits with representatives and their staffers and testifying before committees. Second, because Patrick identified our governance body as the catalyst of his ire, many of us felt responsible for leading the charge. Third, as the flagship state university, we hoped that our influence in the form of prestige, fellowships, and grant dollars would carry significant rhetorical weight with legislators.

In the fall, six AAUP members formed the executive committee of the new UT Austin chapter, with Brian Evans elected as president. Evans’s unparalleled energy and commitment to faculty governance and academic freedom, as well as his long-standing relationships with the Texas AAUP conference and his membership in other state organizations such as the Texas Faculty Association, the Texas State Employees Union, and the Texas Association of College Teachers made him an ideal leader. He began holding meetings and working with the rest of the executive committee to recruit new members to the AAUP. Throughout the legislative session, the Texas state federation of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) became a significant partner to us, providing training and daily guidance on legislative advocacy strategies based on many years of building legislative coalitions to support public K–12 education.

As the legislative session was gearing up in the late fall, Texas AAUP members, in concert with Black Brown Dialogues on Policy (BBDP), the NAACP LDF, the Texas Black Legislative Caucus, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, and the state organizations listed above began meeting with legislative office staff to argue for the importance of Texas public colleges and universities to the economy and culture of the state and, especially, the crucial roles of tenure, faculty governance, and diversity in ensuring that Texas universities can recruit and retain the best faculty. When the session began in January 2023, the number and frequency of these meetings accelerated, and more UT faculty members were brought into the fold so that we could advocate from a variety of vantage points. As the bill-filing portion of the session wore on, it became clear that a number of bills being introduced would be very bad for higher education. Most notably, Patrick, who also serves as president of the senate, announced his top-priority bills, which included four that we found particularly objectionable: Senate Bill 15, which would prevent trans women from competing in collegiate sports; Senate Bill 16, which would ban the teaching of critical race theory; Senate Bill 17, which would ban diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) offices, officers, and statements; and Senate Bill 18, which would ban further granting of tenure at Texas’s public colleges and universities. The latter three formed the primary focus of the AAUP’s advocacy. 

Our strategy involved several components. First, we worked to build our local membership base, including people Evans referred to as “AAUP enthusiasts”—those who were curious about the Association but not yet members. We also connected with AAUP members and other allies around the state to gauge what was happening on other campuses and how we could support their efforts, keeping information constantly flowing. We met regularly with both allies and opponents in the state legislature, building close relationships with key staffers in our allies’ offices. At the same time, other AAUP chapter leaders and I made ourselves regularly available for local and national media interviews. We published op-eds and wrote a series of white papers and other policy documents about the proposed legislation and why it made for bad policy, making these materials widely available on our website and on Twitter and sharing them with legislators. We also testified and rallied others to testify before senate and house committee hearings, making sure that we collectively touched on all the different arguments against the bills. In the case of SB 17 and 18, we waited more than twelve hours to testify, finally giving our two-minute speeches well after midnight. Our AAUP chapter worked with the BBDP, the NAACP LDF, Texas Students for DEI, and Texas AFT to draft amendments to bills, and our legislative allies matched them to legislators. We kept pressure on our university and college administrators, holding formal and informal meetings and demanding access to information about their strategy and what they had learned. With the AFT, we held a teach-in about how to reach out to legislators. We built relationships with student organizers as well, especially Texas Students for DEI, and supported their events. And, as a part of the National Freedom to Learn action on May 3, we joined the Black-led group of faculty members of color in a rally at the capitol attended by more than two hundred people, garnering nationwide coverage. The NAACP LDF bussed in students and faculty members from Houston, and supporters from all over the state attended. After the rally, they met with their elected officials. 

The legislative session ended on May 29. SB 16 died in the house. A version of SB 17 was passed and signed into law. It eliminates all DEI offices at public colleges and universities, makes diversity statements in hiring illegal, and eliminates any program that targets a particular group based on race, color, ethnicity, or sex. SB 17 does not touch admissions, student-led organizations, classroom instruction, and research. However, at the eleventh hour, an amendment to protect research grants was removed. While public university faculty members in Texas can still apply for grants that include a DEI component as a part of the application, the impossibility of having a legal DEI infrastructure to implement the DEI aspect of a grant during and after its completion will likely mean that Texas faculty members will be far less competitive than faculty from universities and colleges with a DEI infrastructure in place. A version of SB 18 was also passed and signed, and while it did not completely abolish tenure as proposed in the original bill, it codifies into law several additional pathways to termination. For example, it includes the ability to terminate a tenured faculty appointment based on a faculty member’s protected speech outside of the university if that speech negatively affects the university’s reputation. Each campus, university system, and community college district can add layers of due-process procedures and narrow the broad definitions of grounds for termination.

The 2023 legislative session offers several key takeaways that will be useful both for Texas faculty members in the 2025 legislative session and for colleagues around the country who face a similar onslaught of legislative attacks. First, it is important to be organized well in advance of a legislative session. Getting people activated once a session has already started is not as effective as being organized in advance, and it puts a huge strain on organizers who scramble to build people power while also battling the legislature. Second, one of our greatest challenges was realizing that we did not face a rhetorical situation. What I mean by this—and I am a scholar of rhetoric—is that we could not depend on our ability to use evidence to advance an argument, because good arguments mattered very little to our opponents. Time and time again, whether in offices or in hearings, we found ourselves in situations that were ostensibly deliberative but in practice purely ideological. While it is important to make those good arguments and to advocate to elected officials as a matter of public record, such advocacy will likely not move the dial, and we need to rethink some of our approaches to advocacy and activism with this reality in mind. Third, we should have focused our attention on alumni, particularly powerful alumni. At UT, hundreds of thousands of alumni are members of a group called the “Texas Exes.” We believe that these alumni, especially business and community leaders, have a much stronger voice than we do, and in the future we will work to build strong relationships with alumni groups and ensure that they understand our arguments and help to lobby state legislators. Fourth, we should have also focused our attention on sympathetic business associations and community leaders who benefit from having world-class higher education institutions in the state. Building relationships with key actors in those sectors and encouraging their advocacy would likely be persuasive to elected officials.

After the session, we encouraged our collaborators from around the state to host social events to mourn losses and celebrate successes. Several such gatherings happened. Sharing social space with political and workplace allies, some of whom we had met only virtually, strengthened our sense of solidarity. We plan to stay focused on building capacity in the time before the next legislative session in 2025, and we feel much better prepared to face whatever challenges emerge. 

Karma R. Chávez is Bobby and Sherri Patton Professor and Chair in the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where she also serves on the executive committee of the AAUP chapter. Her email address is [email protected].