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Jeremi Suri: Texas Higher Ed Conflict "Doesn't Have to Be This Way"

Jeremi Suri is well positioned to comment on efforts in Texas, Florida, and other states to curb universities’ diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and, in some cases, to reform or eliminate tenure. He’s written about the historical underpinnings of today’s diversity-oriented discord, and as a professor in the history department and public-affairs schools at the University of Texas at Austin, he’s had a front-row seat to lawmakers’ deliberations in the state over bills that seek to prohibit diversity training, ban the instruction of certain topics related to race and gender, and create a posttenure-review system for faculty members.

Suri has also seen much of this happen before. In 2011, he worked in the history department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, when the state’s then-governor, the Republican Scott Walker, slashed colleges’ budgets and weakened tenure protections — revisions that have become models for conservative legislators today. Wisconsin faced a pronounced case of brain drain as Walker’s policies took hold; scholars fled for more-welcoming environments, and the university slid from 10th among recipients of National Science Foundation grants in 2010 to 16th in 2021.

Among the academics leaving Wisconsin at the time was Suri. Already a prominent historian, he was often sought after by other institutions. But seeing thousands of people occupy Wisconsin’s Capitol in protest of Walker’s legislation — which would ultimately strip faculty members and other state employees of many of their collective-bargaining rights — he told The Chronicle at the time that he knew he had to leave. The offer from the Texas flagship proved enticing. Now, a dozen years into his stint in Austin, the similarities with the trouble he saw in Wisconsin are hard to ignore. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What parallels do you draw between what happened a decade ago in Wisconsin and what we’re seeing in Texas and other states now?
In both cases, you have Republican legislatures that are angry that a lot of the work that comes out of universities challenges their ideological positions, and challenges the interests of their funders. In the case of Wisconsin in 2011, a lot of the work the university was doing was calling for the state to increase its funding to communities that had been underfunded. Of course, that’s exactly what someone like Scott Walker and others felt threatened by. In Texas, it’s less about the economics. It’s much more about the racial issues, the DEI issues. There’s a clear politics to this. That’s obvious, but it has to be said: These are not arguments about education.

It’s tempting to use Wisconsin in 2011 as a historical comparison to today. But do you think that does a disservice to what’s happening now?
Yeah, I think it does, because the challenge in Wisconsin is that it has very limited resources. It has to make some very difficult decisions about how it uses its money. In Texas, the choices don’t have to be as harsh. You could justify some of the budget-cutting in Wisconsin in 2011, but that’s not the case for Texas today at all.

In Wisconsin, it really was one party versus another. The Republican Party in Wisconsin in 2011 was a party that really felt alienated from the university, and the university felt completely alienated from the Republican Party. It’s very different in Texas now. Texas is obviously a state dominated by Republicans. Most Republican leaders recognize the importance of the university, feel a connection to the university. It’s actually just the leaders of the Republican Party who are doing this. So I don’t feel there is the same grass-roots opposition or anger at the university in Texas that there was in Wisconsin.

Is that discouraging to you?
Yes and no. It goes both directions, because I do think that there’s a way to get beyond this, if we can get beyond the current leaders in the state. But it is frustrating. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education