Commentary: UT-Austin craters before political winds regarding immigrants

The UT Tower at University of Texas in Austin, Texas. (Kevin Ruck/Dreamstime/TNS)
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Colleges and universities have a variety of missions in society, but one of them is not capitulating to politicians’ whims, as the University of Texas at Austin recently did by abolishing its scholarship support program for undocumented students.

Historically, universities often have been sanctuaries that political police cannot enter. That was the kind of respect accorded to colleges and universities. The idea is that universities and colleges help shape society’s future, to which diversity of thinking and diversity of students and faculty contribute.

UT’s Monarch Program, which the university abolished this year, came about as an initiative to offer support systems for undocumented students and educational programming for the broader community. The program offered annual scholarships in the range of $500 to $1,000.

UT claims its actions are because of the legislature’s recent ban on formal, institutional Diversity, Equity and and Inclusion programs and a 1996 federal immigration law. The DEI ban has nothing to do with undocumented students. Legislators, when they were drafting the anti-DEI law, did not mention undocumented students. That was not their goal. Nor has the 1996 law posed any problem for UT until 2024. Higher education programs across the country for undocumented students have lived with the law, as had UT, for 30 years.

UT’s response ought to be creative in accomplishing its mission rather than being a well-greased weathervane for political winds. Other universities are doing it. So can UT, if it wants.

More than 427,000 undocumented students across the country (about 2% of the total students) are enrolled in higher education, approximately 58,000 people in Texas. Ten percent of them are in graduate-level programs.

Undocumented students by all accounts perform well and have higher GPAs in their first two years of college than other students. In the last two years of four-year programs, when studies become more intense and difficult, the GPA levels went down. The studies indicate that one reason is the students’ need to work to support self and family, which makes a demand on their hours.

Undocumented students have a more difficult time economically sustaining themselves and their families because their lack of necessary work status in this country relegates them to low-paying jobs. They are part of the underground economy that is paid little and whose workers are subject to employers’ arbitrary machinations and can be terminated at will without recourse.

Punishing documented students punishes society. Immigrant status is ultimately irrelevant. It’s to the community’s benefit that everybody be as educated as possible and skilled in the art of critical thinking and learning. Honing one’s skills in higher education contributes back to society. UT apparently doesn’t believe this.

What is the point of making academia more difficult and perhaps prohibitive for undocumented students who generally are in this country through no intention of their own but whose parents and relatives brought them here? Don’t we want an educated society as broad-based as possible? Making it more difficult and punishing undocumented students undermines this goal. American history is rich with the contributions of immigrants.

Ever since Gov. Rick Perry’s tenure, some Texas politicians have been intent on exerting more influence over academia. The response of academia, if true to its mission, should be to push back, not surrender.

Many, including myself, believe there is a war on education afoot, driven by the idea of buttressing a two-tier society, one tier of privilege and education and the other of non-privilege and as little education as possible. Why is UT-Austin playing into this?

One would hope that UT faculty and administrators would step to the plate and do what is right for the sake of the community and to keep academia free from legislators’ partisan agendas.

The University of Texas at Austin brags about being the flagship, the leader, of Texas higher education. It appears the flagship has lowered its mast and is adrift in the roiling ocean of political whim. Shame on UT-Austin.

Jim Harrington is the retired Founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project.

James C. Harrington