Springtime is Tough on Campus

1986-87 was a busy year on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin – that’s what’s known as an understatement. I had told Sharon Justice the Dean of Students I was interested in the opportunity to learn new things in this position. We were only three weeks into the semester and I was three weeks into my job as Assistant Dean of Students when she turned to me and said, “You told me you wanted to learn something new. How am I doing with that?” By the end of that fall semester it was difficult to list all the new experiences I had in my first five months.

At three weeks in I had already attended my first campus protest. It was interesting though it in no way prepared me for what was to come. That first protest was put on by what was then called the Cabinet of College Councils, UT’s academic student governing body. They were protesting a cut in library hours and when the library closed that night at 10:00 pm., everyone streamed quietly out of the building and settled in all across the large plaza in front. They got out books and flashlights and continued studying even though they were denied access to the main study space on campus. It still ranks as one of the best pieces of protest theater I’ve ever seen. And it made great video for the news cameras.

But the main protests that academic year were about the UT System’s investments in companies doing business in South Africa where apartheid was still the law. At the start of my sixth week on campus, 16 people (13 students and 3 non-students) took over the president’s office at the start of the day. They clearly planned to be there a while based on the food items they brought with them. What they didn’t plan for was a panic alarm in the office and the ability of the UT police to scale the wall of the four-story building and enter by a large window. They were removed and arrested promptly.

I’ve always thought UT Austin was particularly good at managing protests on campus. Staff from the Dean of Students had good relationships across all the different organizations on campus and they made certain students knew the rules and their options. Staff members and campus police were clear on their roles and responsibilities and worked well together. There were two main goals – safety for everyone involved and the broader community and no interference with the work of the campus, especially the academic mission.

A few years ago, while on a campus as a consultant I was astonished to hear about the way their semester had ended. Students had camped inside the administration building for several weeks. They had also entered a classroom, gone up to the stage of the auditorium to stand behind the professor and they were allowed to do to that. I remember thinking neither of those things would have happened at UT Austin.

When I returned to UT as VPSA, all was routine. Outside the elevators in the lobby of the president’s office had been designated as public until 5:00pm. Students were allowed to fill that lobby as long as people could enter and leave the president’s office. But at 5:00 the rules changed and everyone including the students seated on the floor knew what would happen. At 5:00 they had a choice – leave on their own or be arrested. Students who were arrested had chosen that path. During protests for Black Lives Matter, students lay down and blocked a campus intersection. Police and staff were there, but no one was asked to move. UT Austin made sure the campus was a place for discussion of all sorts of ideas and methods of expression.

After I left, the state legislature enacted a law that expanded that idea. Previously, it was only students, faculty, members of the campus who had the right to speak on campus, “Street preachers” and other orators who didn’t have the sponsorship of a campus entity were asked to leave campus, though they could stand on the periphery of campus on city property and speak as long as they chose. The new law has opened every public campus in Texas to anyone who wants to speak though it does still allow campuses to regulate time, place and manner. This has caused some difficulties on campuses across the state, but more in public perception with parents wanting to know why a university would put up with that outsider, whoever it might be.

All of this to say, I was surprised and disheartened to see a picture from the Texas Tribune of State Police in riot gear facing off with people who appeared to be students on the UT Austin campus. It was not an image I ever expected to see.

To be very clear, I don’t know anything about the circumstances at UT Austin over the past few weeks. I do know the decision makers have different information about potential issues and harmful activities that sometimes even those immediately involved in the moment don’t have. I have some highly biased and unsubstantiated ideas about it all – just like everyone else. What I do know is that student protest and student voice should be as valued on a campus as any other learning activity and discussion. Engagement with students has always been a value as long as I’ve been affiliated with higher education. Sadly, by the time someone is wearing riot gear the chance for meaningful conversation is gone.

In his book, The Texas Way: Money, Power, Politics, and Ambition at the University, former president William Cunningham writes about learning from the mistakes of the spring 1986 protests and changing tactics in the new year. Except for the incident in the president’s office, the strategy was to talk with students and listen to what they had to say. He met with students on several occasions and campus protests continued to occur.

Again, I don’t know any details about Austin’s situation, but I’m not surprised at all to hear that many of the people arrested on other campuses are not students or faculty. I suspect the same is true in Texas. In tthose situations arrest is often the only option because the University has no authority over external participants.

To all of you on campus right now, hang in there and take care of yourself as you are hearing, and experiencing, all of the different perspectives and hurt on the hard topics at the center of the discussion. For all of us not on campus right now, try to remember things have changed and the ways we handled things in “our day” may not work or be appropriate any longer. What we can do, is try to bring information and a reasoned point of view about college protest in general. A more informed public will help everyone. We need people off campus to understand why student voice, whether heard in meetings or in loud protests, is an important part of higher education.

Take care,



  1. Maricela Oliva on May 8, 2024 at 9:54 am

    A very important and timely post. Thank you.

    • Gage Paine on May 8, 2024 at 2:45 pm

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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