Last year’s issues aren’t going anywhere

Over the last school year, the University of Texas community has experienced a range of challenges — from the continued blowback of national conversations surrounding gun rights and sexual assault to outright hostility among students about race. As we reflect on the lessons of the past year, it’s clear that unanswered questions will play a decisive role in how we move forward as a community. 

National issues came into focus at UT this year. Debates over gun control exploded into spectacle as the “March for Our Lives” demonstrations garnered widespread attention. The #MeToo movement resonated with many UT students, inviting them to tell their stories of harassment, voice their concerns and call for more from their peers and the University. Weakened federal protections for immigrants and minorities evoked fear and resentment among many students, and a hostile student government election made the campus climate worse now than it’s been in years.

Gun control and gun violence have long played a role in shaping UT’s history. The 1966 Tower shooting initiated a history of violence, echoed in the implementation of campus carry on the shooting’s 50th anniversary. This year, a movement sparked by mass shootings in Las Vegas and Parkland, Florida, demanded greater gun control measures nationwide. Many UT students participated in an ensuing “March for Our Lives” protest at the Texas Capitol in March. 

Attempts to increase gun protections reflect a long-term struggle at UT. Both students and professors vocalized opposition to the August 2016 enforcement of statewide campus carry laws, which allow licensed gun owners to carry concealed weapons on public university campuses. Three UT-Austin professors sued the school and the state over campus carry in 2016, initiating a legal battle that will carry into this academic year. 

It’s safe to say that guns — and debates over guns — have become commonplace at UT. This April, two abandoned handguns were found in campus restrooms within 48 hours. “Gun Free UT” signs adorn office windows in most University buildings, making it impossible to walk across campus without remembering that guns are a part of life at UT.

Last October, allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein sparked a cultural revelation about the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment. Many UT students participated in the movement by sharing their stories and challenged the University to improve policies aimed at alleviating sexual misconduct on campus. 

In the fall, the University’s unorthodox system for disciplining sexual assault came under intense scrutiny. Last October, The Daily Texan revealed the unusual amount of power President Gregory Fenves exerts over individual disciplinary cases. Unlike the presidents at most public universities, UT’s president acts as the final decision-maker in appeals for student conduct violations, including rape. This power was tested in court when a male student who had been suspended for sexual misconduct sued Fenves for due process violations. The University settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum in November. It’s not yet clear how this outcome will affect UT policy. 

Earlier this summer, the Editorial Board reported on English professor Coleman Hutchison’s violation of the school’s conduct guidelines by making inappropriate comments toward students. The school’s response revealed systematic problems with UT’s system for addressing misconduct — problems unlikely to go away anytime soon.

The UT community also felt the effects of national crises surrounding race and immigration. In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, hate crimes rose nationwide and many people of color felt abandoned and attacked by the highest levels of government. When President Donald Trump announced the revocation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last September, UT responded by pledging its continued support for undocumented students. At the same time, the City of Austin faced legal challenges and possible defunding from the state of Texas for its distinction as a sanctuary city. 

These widespread racial tensions manifested on campus this spring. The Student Government election descended into outright racial animus, as students on both sides of the ballot endured unprecedented attack and prejudice. The election’s conclusion — Colton Becker and Mehraz Rahman pulling ahead of Guneez Ibrahim and Hannah McMorris, two women of color — further divided the campus. Many interpreted their win as an example of institutionalized power drowning out minority voices.

Campus climate remains one of the biggest hurdles facing UT this year. As we continue to grapple with a complex history of prejudice, the 2018 SG election reminds us that our community is not immune to the racial tensions seen nationwide. 

In the wake of a particularly tumultuous year at UT, it’s important that we look back as a lesson for the future. Unresolved questions from the past year hang in the air around campus, and it will be our job this year to solve them.

As always, if you have questions about this issue or any other, contact us at [email protected]