One hundred and fifty students stormed the halls of the Gebauer liberal arts building on Wednesday and fired questions at Senior Associate Dean Richard Flores about $1 million in suggested cuts to 15 UT centers and institutes announced in November.
They had already marched across the West Mall and into the Main Building, the message of their signs and chants ranging from cries for relief to accusations of racism. The Centers for Latin American, Mexican American, Middle Eastern and African American studies bear the brunt of the proposed cuts. Many students at the rally said the centers attracted them to the University and offered a primary outlet for research, scholarships and identity exploration.
“Ultimately my decision to go to graduate school was linked to the experiences that I had as an undergraduate and the support I received from the Center for African and African American Studies,” said Courtney Morris, an anthropology graduate student. “I was exposed to opportunities that I wouldn’t have had without a center like that.”
Morris was one of several students who spoke at the rally, hosted by campus activist organization ¡ella pelea! and The Students Speak, an activist group formed in response to the recommendations. She said she was there to protest a recommendation to reduce college funds by 40 percent in the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, among other ethnic studies centers. She said she received guidance from African-American faculty, traveled to Nicaragua, learned Spanish and conducted undergraduate research with help from the center.
Flores and other college administrators said the proposal is directly linked to state-mandated budget reductions, especially a planned 10-percent cut that will require the college to cut $3.75 million in recurring spending over the next two years. The recommendation to the centers is the first step in a process that may also impact funding for graduate programs and departments.
Liberal arts departments lost $4.6 million in soft money to fund teaching assistant salaries in the spring and also had to make a state-mandated 5-percent cut that they met by laying off administrators or leaving positions vacant.
After the soft money loss, which came because of an unexpected loss of allocated tuition money, the college formed the Academic Planning and Advisory Committee, a group of nine faculty members who would complete the first phase of discussions. They based their recommendations for the center cuts on a set of 42 objective metrics.
“This is not the final resting place for any of the cuts,” Flores said. “We’re beginning a consultative process with all the centers so we can hear from faculty and students.”
College of Liberal Arts Dean Randy Diehl won’t sign a final proposal until some time in the spring semester, Flores said. He added that Diehl and President William Powers Jr. agreed the centers are priorities for the University. The cuts to the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies and the Center for Mexican American studies will most likely shrink because they represent major demographics in Texas and help draw many students to UT, he said.
However, administrators are forced to consider the good of the college as a whole when they determine how to answer the planned 10-percent cut, Flores said. Students said the centers should receive special consideration because of the demographics they represent.
“It was a fight to even bring these departments here and validate them academically both at UT and larger academia, to say that the stories of queer people and people of color are valuable,” American Studies graduate student Jacqueline Smith said. “It’s about understanding the fabric of our nation and the nations around us.”
Others went as far as to state they believe the cuts and administrators considering them are racist. Flores denied the accusation and said the committee weighed all centers — whether related to ethnic studies or not — on the same metrics. He was the associate director of the Center for Mexican American Studies twice in the early 2000s.
Many students called for the funding to come from cuts to athletics or construction. However, private donors contribute most funding for new buildings, and athletics not only pays for itself but contributes millions back to the academic side of the University.
Several Liberal Arts Council and Student Government representatives attended the rally, although other students accused them of not serving as the official student voice. Council President Carl Thorne-Thomsen said the group will actively seek students involved with the centers to get their feedback on budget measures.
“The most important thing is that we get the student opinion and convey that to administrators who can make changes,” Thorne-Thomsen said. “But we also have to organize this student sentiment and present a solid front to the Texas Legislature. When we take those concerns down to the Legislature, we will have our voices heard.”
In the meantime, students will continue to rally to the administration on behalf of the centers, Students Speak leaders said. They are planning a meeting for Feb. 1 and urging students, faculty and administrators to come for an open dialogue. As they stood around Flores in Gebauer, rounding into their third hour of protesting, they asked him pointedly if he would attend. In the face of the most complicated budget crisis the college has ever faced, his answer was simple.
“If you invite me to a meeting, I’ll be there,” Flores said.