By Aswad Walker
Kevin Johnson, a doctoral student at Texas A&M University, was beyond excited about his upcoming presentation at the school’s 4th Annual Race, Inclusion and Social Equity (RISE) Conference, on March 24. However, he was saddened upon receiving word that the conference was “postponed.”
“It’s not just that I don’t get to make a presentation, because there’s other opportunities I have to share my data and engage with others; it’s sad for the university itself because these are the sorts of discussions and presentations we should be having,” said Johnson, who earned his undergraduate degree from TAMU 40 years ago, before recently returning to work towards a Ph.D.
The conference is part of TAMU’s RISE Initiative, a yearlong program that provides students with a better understanding of race, identity and social equity in higher education.
The initiative includes an annual conference and fellowship opportunity which allows selected student leaders to attend the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity, conduct research, and present findings to the campus community at the RISE Conference.
But with no reason given for the postponement of this year’s gathering, individuals are speculating that the decision to “pause” the conference may be related to Texas A&M’s moves to distance itself from all things Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI).
The news of the postponed conference came just weeks after an op-ed – “How Texas A&M Went Woke” – by right-wing Boise State University professor and conservative think tank member Scott Yernor who called for TAMU and all Texas universities to defund and dismantle all DEI policies.
Yernor contends such policies are part of an evil “woke agenda” hell-bent on destroying America and eroding universities’ intellectual integrity.
“Knowing what’s going on is the first step. Action to change it is the second step,” wrote Yernor. “We call on the political actors of Texas—from the governor to the Board of regents—to cut DEI budgets, to add enforcement mechanisms to Texas bans on racial preferences, to redirect the university to a mission emphasizing professionalism and meritocracy, to close down units on campus that are too infused with DEI mandates, and to undertake other efforts to return Texas A&M and other universities in Texas to a mission consistent with American principles.”
There is no admitted link between Yernor’s op-ed and the decision to postpone the RISE conference. However, on March 2, less than a month after Yernor’s piece, TAMU System Chancellor John Sharp directed leaders of its 11 universities and eight agencies to stop asking job candidates for statements about their commitment to DEI.
“No university or agency in the A&M System will admit any student, nor hire any employee based on any factor other than merit,” Sharp said in a directive sent to university leaders.
Sharp may have been responding to Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s “warning” to state agency and public university leaders that the use of DEI initiatives — policies that support groups who have been historically underrepresented or discriminated against — is illegal in hiring.
As of yet, Abbott and the Texas Legislature haven’t outlawed conferences that discuss racial and social equity. However, Texas’ Senate Bill 3 in 2021 was passed and has become known as the “anti-critical race theory law,” making state public school teachers wary of discussing issues conservatives deem to be controversial (i.e. race, diversity, inclusion and social equity).
And though Abbott’s door slam on DEI initiatives related to hiring doesn’t mention shutting down conferences such as RISE, Yernor’s Clairmont Institute-backed article calls for exactly that.
Less than a week after Sharp shut down DEI initiatives on all TAMU System campuses, Johnson received news that his presentation would, best case scenario, have to wait until further notice. Worst case, neither Johnson’s nor the other RISE presenters’ sessions on creating a more equitable society will take place at all.
“In the climate that we’re in currently, it appears that DEI is in the public and political discourse. And it is something that people need to maybe get together in the same room and talk things out. But it seems as though there are sort of top-down decisions being made, and then you end up with an email that says, ‘Oh, by the way, your conference is not gonna happen.’”