The City of Austin and UT’s student body are in all truths overwhelmingly “liberal” — possibly even defined as “progressive” (about 75 percent according to 2016 Presidential voting numbers for Hillary Clinton in UT adjacent areas). However, for many on-campus activists, there is a real disconnect between the issues students care about on the ground and the positions frequently taken by UT’s administration. And above that, an even bigger and more disheartening disconnect between the extent to which we as Longhorns have had to care for each other in the aftermath of offensive incidents on campus, and the response of UT’s administration to those very same events.
The Young Conservatives of Texas are a familiar group to those who are politically involved here on campus, as well as those who have been unfortunately drawn into their “dialogue.” The registered student organization’s previous “activism” includes hosting Catch an Immigrant Day, an Affirmative Action Bake Sale, celebrating the anniversary of the death of a leftist political figure and a pro-Kavanaugh demonstration in which dialogue bordered on rape apology. Their most recent stunt — an insensitive protest of “illegal aliens” benefiting from in-state tuition benefits — took place just days after asylum seekers were teargassed along the southern border. The University has, at every turn, passively defended these actions under the banner of free speech, even when actions seems to violate the very values of diversity and inclusion UT praises. There simply cannot be a reconciliation between these decisions to turn a blind eye to hatred, and UT’s frequent messaging that we care about survivors of abuse, minorities, undocumented youth, workers and women.
On top of that, UT’s administration has shown a near-invisible support for civic engagement outside of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, which does fantastic work where it can. It perpetuates unnecessarily strict and often burdensome policies for room reservations, political guest speakers and activist events; policies that have been in place since the 1970s in an effort to curb liberal-based activism such as anti-war protests which
influential conservative forces, such as the Texas Legislature, deem to be “inappropriate.” I’ve been quoted in several pieces now regarding this, and I fully stand by what I said there: We are legal adults at a publicly funded university. To ask us for logistical information is totally acceptable, but to demand that our political guests and events be approved for content is an affront to the First Amendment rights of students, or at a minimum, it makes a mockery of them.
As long as a former Republican Texas House member sits on the Board of Regents and the Texas House continues to hold us hostage through our appropriations, nothing can be done to move UT in the morally right direction. As long as current legislators can readily complain to UT’s administration when they feel that conservative students are being “oppressed,” such as State Sen. Bettencourt did following the pro-Kavanaugh demonstration, the power difference between outside interests and the students that UT purports to serve will be insurmountable. We have to recognize that at a deep level, there are some voices at UT that are not intended to be heard, amplified or affirmed. Plain and simple, as long as students of color continue to be disproportionately punished for counter protesting and expressing emotion toward hatred while promises of state funding bribe our administration, we shall remain in a dark place.
I hope that this op-ed leaves two very distinct messages. First, to the current Longhorns who advocate for important issues: Thank you for your tenacity and your courage, even with such a lack of institutional support. The second is to those who hope to join us on the Forty Acres eventually. While you consider attending the University of Texas as a prospective student, it’s important to recognize the fundamental truth about this institution: The peers that you will work with here are some of the most amazing activists that you’ll ever meet. They put everything they have into their causes with left-leaning solutions in mind. They lead the way on issues of immigration, social justice, healthcare, combating rape culture and many more problems. The vast majority of them will be progressive. However, UT is not a liberal campus, its administration does not always prioritize the well-being of its most vulnerable students and while supposedly “What starts here changes the world,” we are unlikely to see a shift in UT’s priorities from appeasing conservatives to acknowledging the ugliness anytime soon.
There are so many groups and individuals at the University of Texas that are fighting to change our world for the better. We will continue to persist, and we can only hope that one day the campus that we love, the place that we call home, will join us in that mission.
Herrera is a government senior and president of University Democrats.