Students call for UT-Austin president to rescind support for ‘Liberty Institute’ bill, put funding towards students needs

Lauren Abel

Students are calling for University President Jay Hartzell to rescind his support for a Texas State Senate bill which will allocate between $3 million and $6 million sometime between 2022 and 2023 for the development of a campus “Liberty Institute.”

The UT Senate of College Councils and the Student Government Executive Board, along with other student organizations, released a list of demands Wednesday morning requesting the funds from the Texas State Legislature be appropriated towards students’ immediate needs, such as support for students in Riverside and graduate student health insurance. According to UT Senate, the Liberty Institute would be a political center on campus, though specific details have not been released.

Ethan Jones, student body vice president, said the list of demands works to offer more assistance to students and expand resources across campus.

“I would love to get $3 million from the state government, but let’s use it towards things that are really going to equitably serve every student at UT,” said Jones, a business honors and public relations junior. 

One of the demands called for increased funding for centers on campus that serve marginalized groups, including the ethnic studies department and the Center for African and African Diaspora Studies. 

“This $6 million is almost 100 times the budget of some departments at our University that deal with ethnic students or other marginalized groups,” said Daksh Dua, UT Senate administrative director. “It really shows the University’s priorities are not in the right place.”

The demands also call for broader support for student services initiatives, including funding support for menstruating individuals, providing health insurance for graduate students, expanding accessibility for students with disabilities and increasing Counseling and Mental Health Center funding.

“This was something that we found out about late in the process,” computer science sophomore Dua said. “This wasn’t something that the student body really had a chance to talk about.”

As of April 27, a conference committee has been appointed for Senate Bill 1, which allocates the state’s budget until the next Texas legislative session in 2023. 

Kaya Epstein, Student Government interpersonal violence prevention policy director, said Hartzell’s decision to support this bill is prioritizing the interests of rich donors.

“(Hartzell) very clearly prioritizes the wishes of his wealthy donors … over student needs even, and especially, in light of the ongoing crisis that’s continually impacting student access to housing and food (and) mental health services,” said Epstein, a cellular and molecular biology sophomore. “There’s just so much that Jay Hartzell could be prioritizing in terms of asking the state and donors for funding.”

University spokesperson J.B. Bird said in an email that the Liberty Institute would attract academic scholars and faculty to provide unique educational opportunities for students.

“UT-Austin welcomes the Texas Legislature’s interest in creating an institute dedicated to free markets, economic development, private enterprise and personal liberty,” Bird said. “As the state’s public flagship university, UT-Austin is a unique place for debate, discussion, exploration and research.”

Jones said although considering donors’ wishes may be important, serving students should be the priority.

“If you’re an alumni who really does want to truly help the University progress and be the best school it can be then let’s … actually pay attention and listen to what the students are calling for and what the students are needing at this time,” Jones said.