Occupy UT

Gathered under the UT Tower for their weekly general assembly meeting, Occupy UT members discussed their demonstration plans for the following week. At first glance, the organization appears new — but it has been years in the making.

Dating back to tuition deregulation in 2003, student activist groups have held a presence at the University, with new names emerging every couple of semesters. In recent years, groups like Stop the Cuts, The Students Speak and now Occupy UT have fought an ongoing battle against University-wide budget cuts and the cost of attendance. Some members speculate that even if Occupy UT loses momentum, there will be another organization to take its place in the future.

Teri Adams, women’s and gender studies senior, said she became involved in student activism with Students Speak last year and will continue to be until the University takes action on student concerns. Adams said she began her fight against budget cuts and the administration with Students Speak in 2010 and is now a member of Occupy UT. She said Students Speak is no longer active because many members graduated or moved on to other organizations.

Students Speak formed in 2010 to oppose the $1 million cuts to the ethnic and identity studies programs in the College of Liberal Arts. The organization used flash mobs, lobbying, multimedia and marches in efforts to get UT administrators’ attention.

“The people who were involved in Students Speak who are still on campus are now involved in Occupy UT because it’s a better organizational platform,” Adams said.

The way UT administration responds to student activism has changed with every organization, Adams said.

“They didn’t respond much to Students Speak because of the general trend in letting students have their protest and hoping students will graduate or it will die down,” Adams said. “But [now] they respond immediately. Before we even show signs of encampment they show up with this camping ban.”

Mary Beth Mercatoris, assistant dean of students, said UT students have a history of being engaged with political activism. She also said UT students may continue to utilize their freedom of expression if Occupy UT loses momentum. Students are given the chance to voice their opinions via the Tuition Policy and Advisory Committee and have engaged in TPAC since she began at UT in 2007, Mercatoris said.

Mercatoris said the University wants to support student protesters even though they usually display distrust towards the UT administration. Both Students Speak and Occupy UT have declined to become registered student organizations.

“As long as our students feel a call to action, they will come together to voice their passions and often this results in the formation of student organizations,” Mercatoris said. “When students come together to voice their opinions regarding different issues, our campus becomes the exact platform of education we desire.”

Jim Branson, a supervisor at the Texas State Employees Union, said the Union has supported Stop the Cuts, Students Speak and Occupy UT because his organization agrees with their cause. The Union is a state group that advocates for fair pay and fair policies for all Texas workers.

Branson said many of the students in Stop the Cuts and Students Speak crossed over to Occupy UT, which the Union currently supports.

“Did one organization become another? No,” Branson said. “Some folks have been involved with all three and new folks have been added along the way. The key thing is students have been continually expressing their opposition at the University and the question of the funding and quality of higher education.”

Student Government President Natalie Butler said she is familiar with all three organizations, and although they formed on different issues, they all share a common ground. Adams said she and many members of Occupy UT have expressed dissatisfaction with student representatives like Butler, because they think representatives cannot accurately represent the voice of 50,000 students.

Butler said she would encourage students in Occupy UT to understand the process rather than criticize it.

“As student leaders, we are here to listen and I hope they use those channels and actually engage in dialogue with us,” Butler said. “Also understand that agree or disagree, we are all working hard for students at the University of Texas.”

Occupy UT currently has approximately 60 members. On Tuesday, the group supported an SG initiative for a campus-wide tuition referendum, which passed with a majority vote in the SG general assembly.

Printed on Friday, February 3, 2012 as: Activist groups draw students

Student body president Natalie Butler and other student government representatives listen to liberal arts representative John Lawler argue against an amendment to the legislation for a campus wide tuition referendum. Members of Occupy UT came to support the referendum initiative, which passed Wednesday evening at the SG assembly.

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

Students will be able to voice their opinions on tuition increases and funding cuts during the campus-wide general election in March after a Student Government vote Tuesday night.

It is the first such referendum in SG history. The nonbinding referendum is essentially a poll that will form the official SG position on tuition and budgeting. In addition to electing officers for SG and other campus organizations, there will be two questions on the electronic ballot asking students if they support proposed tuition increases and if they would accept cuts to a wide variety of university services and programs.

Student voters would have the opportunity to respond to the questions with “yes,” “no” or that they do not wish to respond.

Liberal arts representative John Lawler introduced the legislation last week and said the opposition to the initiative came from student leaders involved in the tuition conversation who felt their efforts in the Tuition Policy Advisory Committee and the College Tuition And Budget Advisory Committees might be undermined with the referendum.

“In no way shape or form am I attempting to undermine those efforts,” said Lawler, an urban studies senior. “I really think this referendum will be a healthy addition to the things like TPAC and CTBAC that have already happened on campus.”

Although student body President Natalie Butler supported the increase in the TPAC recommendation last fall, many members of SG as well as members from Occupy UT said the voices of the few did not represent the voices of the entire student body.

Butler said although she is not a fan of the referendum, she hoped students would educate themselves on the budget and understand the reasons why there has to be an increase.

Wielding a long sheet of butcher paper filled with dozens of signatures, members of Occupy UT spoke out in support of the referendum.

About 30 Occupy UT members supported creating an official SG stance on the proposed tuition increases President William Powers Jr. put forth in January ­— 2.6 percent each year for two years for in-state students, and 3.6 percent for graduate and out-of-state students. The assembly passed the initiative with a majority vote and the support of Occupy UT.

Adrian Orozco, anthropology junior and Occupy UT member, said this is the first time Occupy UT has engaged in the avenues of student input provided to them by the UT administration. Orozco said future cooperation between Occupy UT and SG depended on the tone of meeting.

“Occupy UT has been trying to use the avenues the University has suggested in order to reach them,” Orozco said. “I hope our presence made a difference in the way they voted tonight.”

Lawler said he met with student leaders on Sunday and they expressed concern students would not have the time toreview the budget material or simply would not understand it. He said the referendum would include educational materials for students to educate themselves on the budget before casting their vote.

Finance sophomore John Roberts opposed the initiative because he said setting tuition is a very complicated process and student involvement via TPAC and CTPAC would be undermined with the referendum. Roberts also said it was already a challenge to get students out to vote in the elections, and this referendum could make the process more difficult.

“Even if we just have 100 people come out and vote we still have to take that to the regents and tell them this is what 50,000 students had to say,” Robert said.

In a Jan. 13 interview with The Daily Texan, Powers said there is robust student involvement via TPAC, CTBACs and the student legislative bodies, contrary to allegations from Occupy UT that the administration did not listen to them.

“No proposal can come to my office without student involvement,” Powers said in the interview. “No aggregate tuition can come to the system without a robust TPAC. While we work with other student groups, there are some groups who just do not want to talk about this.”

Dr. Edmund Gordon, African and African Diaspora Studies professor, leads students and faculty on a tour highlighting periods of racism at UT Friday morning. Stops along the way included statues of Confederate soldiers, Littlefield Fountain and Darrel K. Royal Stadium.

Photo Credit: Ty Hardin | Daily Texan Staff

An inscription next to the Littlefield Fountain honoring the Confederacy is one example of the University's racist legacy, Edmund Gordon, professor of African and African diaspora studies explained on an Occupy UT-sponsored tour.

Gordon led about 30 students around campus in an effort to display UT's racist heritage. Gordon led the students to Littlefield House, the South Mall, San Jacinto Dormitory, Darrel K. Royal Stadium, the Texas Cowboys Pavilion, Creekside Dormitory and Robert Lee Moore Hall.

“The purpose of this tour is to point out the neo-Confederate aspects of UT's history and geography,” said Gordon.

Gordon said the University's geography and history of racism are products of the time period when it was founded in 1883.

“The University came into being during a particular time, and its initial kind of build-out and conceptualization was done at a time when racial issues were really coming to the fore,” Gordon said. “Privileged and elite white folks felt like vindicating the Confederacy and what the Confederacy stood for.”

The South Mall contains numerous references to the Old South, Gordon said, including statues of Confederate leaders that flank the west side of the lawn.

“The truth becomes revealed when you spread the branches,” he said.

Amy Rattananinad, anthropology senior and Occupy UT member, said Occupy UT organized the event to raise awareness about UT's history and to promote racial equality.

English graduate student and Occupy UT member Trevor Hoag, said Occupy UT's larger goal includes putting an end to racism and racial inequality.

“The Occupy movement as a whole began at its instantiation as a movement for economic justice,” Hoag said. “But questions of economic justice and racial justice are intertwined.”

Hoag said UT's ever increasing tuition prevents people from many middle and lower-class families from attending the University. “Who are those families? Well, they're disproportionately people of color,” said Hoag. “By creating financial barriers, you're creating race barriers.”

Rattananinad, who helped organize the event, said she wants the symbols of the Confederacy remaining on campus to be removed.

“We definitely don't want to keep glorifying racists on campus,” she said.

However, Gordon said he found it important to preserve and study these images and symbols rather than getting rid of them.

“I am one who is not for erasing those things,” he said. “We need to leave the history intact in its embodied form,” he said. “To deny the past and its importance to the present is to deny the truth.”

Students and faculty criticized University administration for a new rule restricting camping on campus and questioned the motivation at a time when camping is a prime symbol of the Occupy movement at a faculty council meeting Monday.

University spokesman Gary Susswein said the amendment to the Handbook of Operating Procedures took effect Jan. 11. The Office of Legal Affairs drafted the amendment. President William Powers Jr. then reviewed it and submitted it to the University of Texas System, where it was approved by the executive vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, Susswein said.

The amendment defines camping on campus as the attempt to establish temporary or permanent living quarters outside University housing, sleeping outdoors between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. and setting up a sleeping area at anytime with tents and other “sleeping equipment.” People may not camp on campus except in cases of sports tailgating, performances authorized by the University and natural disaster situations.

Patricia Ohlendorf, vice president for Legal Affairs, said the amendment is not a response to Occupy UT protest concerns, but is supposed to clarify rules already enforced by the University. Powers said the administration will help students interested in protesting.

“If it’s the symbolic act of putting up tents we can work with that,” Powers said.

Powers said the amendment is important to reiterate the University’s position.

“I don’t think we want people for long periods of time camping on campus,” Powers said.

The Occupy UT movement has protested against several grievances, including proposed tuition increases, but it has not used camping as a form of protest. Assistant English Professor Snehal Shingavi said the amendment seems like a response targeting the Occupy movement.

“I think that it has a political motivation,” Shingavi said. “It’s been presented in a way to intimidate students from protests.”

Marketing professor Mark Alpert said there are rational reasons to limit camping, such as campus safety. He said the amendment is not an administrative attempt to limit free speech, but is an important clarification to provide to students.

“I think this administration is trying to encourage students to protest,” Alpert said. “A lot of people are trying to work to help people to disagree with us.”

Lucian Villaseñor, Mexican-American studies senior and Occupy UT member, said it feels like the administration is trying to squelch Occupy UT. Villaseñor said occupying a space at UT is still a possibility if membership numbers increase.

“The only way to receive any change here is to not operate within the system,” Villaseñor said. Villaseñor said the administration should not make exceptions for other groups if Occupy UT is not allowed to camp out. He said administrators approached individual Occupy UT members but did not attend general meetings to discuss the camping issue.

“They’re trying to outline how we can have a toothless protest,” Villaseñor said. “Maybe they think we’re a threat to the University.”

Occupy UT member Lucian Villaseñor, a Mexican-American Studies senior, leads group members down to Kealing Park for the Student Forum on Education on Monday. Villaseñor said the group’s biggest challenge and goal right now is recruiting members.

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

Efforts to raise awareness about the Occupy UT movement have prompted a debate between the group and the Office of the Dean of Students over University policies and procedures regarding on-campus demonstrations.

Concerns regarding Occupy UT’s status as an unofficial student organization first arose in December but are becoming a hot topic this semester as the group’s activity is becoming more regular. Occupy UT members have said a physical occupation and camping overnight at the University is a possibility, and they plan on having a series of teach-ins with faculty members and a walking tour on the history of racism on campus within the next few weeks.

Soncia Reagins-Lilly, senior associate vice president and dean of students, said her office tries to meet with every new student organization and was not looking for conflict with Occupy UT. She said the group has not told her office about upcoming events, making its attempts to facilitate and work with the organization difficult.

Reagins-Lilly said she has informed members of the group about certain policies but cannot make any recommendations without knowing the group’s intentions.

“We facilitate freedom of expression, demonstration and controversial speakers — that is what we do,” she said. “It becomes adversarial when students, faculty and staff that aren’t aware of the guidelines and procedures set up and we show up and say, ‘this is how you have to do it.’”

University administrative members have met with Occupy UT since the group’s inception last fall. Occupy UT member Lucian Villaseñor said the group did not want to become an official student organization because doing so would limit their abilities.

“They can certainly gather, and they have the freedom to associate and be together,” Reagins-Lilly said. “The focus is helping facilitate student and campus life for all that want to be involved in it in a way that doesn’t disrupt the core mission of the institution.”

There is a difference between students gathering together and holding a demonstration, she said, but they need to reserve the location and time just as other students and organizations must.

University police chief Robert Dahlstrom said the UT Police Department did not see any reason to be concerned about Occupy UT because not many protests have resulted in arrests in the past. He said UTPD would only get involved if a person hurts another person, if property is destroyed or if administrative rules are broken. UTPD waits for the dean of students to give a warning and allows time for students to comply before they get involved.

Dahlstrom said it would be beneficial for Occupy UT to register as an official organization.

“I totally disagree with them having less rights,” he said. “They could actually reserve places to protest, and dean of students would help them and UTPD would help them.”

Buddy Price, spokesperson for the University of North Texas, said except in the case of of 23-year-old member Darwin Cox’s death, the Occupy Denton movement on campus was nonviolent and police officers never had to confront the group. Occupy Denton members camped out at UNT for two months but moved their campsite when Cox was found dead in a tent due to alcohol and heroin intoxication, according to UNT’s “North Texas Daily.”

“Disturbing the peace was not a concern, as the group contacted UNT prior to setting up their site, and discussions were held on UNT rules and code of student conduct,” Price said.

Trevor Hoag, English graduate student and Occupy UT member, said he agrees with UT officials on some issues, such as the risks of camping overnight. He said the more pressing safety matter did not concern camping over night but rather the stereotypes associated with the Occupy movement.

Hoag said the Occupy movements were non-violent but were rarely treated as such.

“We’re activists, not criminals and we’re here to spread the message of the movement, not destroy anything or hurt anyone,” Hoag said. “It’s unfortunate, too, because depicting us in this way hurts our ability to bring people into the group.”

English assistant professor and Occupy UT member, Trevor Hoag, speaks before participating in the Martin Luther King Jr. march on Monday.

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

 Occupy UT is renewing efforts to fight back against tuition hikes and increase student voice in campus issues this semester.

Members of Occupy UT hosted a student forum on education Monday after participating in the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day March. The group joined P.R.I.D.E., an East Austin education activist group, and talked about the perils of privatizing education. Occupy UT member Lucian Villaseñor said the group’s main goal right now was to recruit more members and inform people about the need to build a cohesive student movement to address tuition increases, rising student debt and other injustices.

Although the group has not staged a physical occupation of the University, Villaseñor said it is a possibility.

Villaseñor said many of the members of Occupy UT — which includes students, faculty and staff — have been involved in activism for a long time but have never achieved significant gains because they address single issues. He said Occupy UT gives members the chance to form solidarity across the board and address many issues.

“I’ve been fighting the budget cuts since they cut the Ethnic Studies Center last year,” said Villaseñor, an ethnic studies senior. “First, we were pissed at the administration, then we were pissed at the Capitol.”

He said the group has not registered as an official student organization because doing so would limit their abilities to protest. Villaseñor also said University officials had talked to Occupy UT and told them they were allowed to have only four tents and could only camp out at certain hours. As it stands now, Occupy UT must partner with an official UT organization in order to put posters around campus.

On Jan. 5, the group released a declaration of grievances against the University and has made it available on their website.

In the declaration students accused the University of making decisions without student input, making education unaffordable by quadrupling tuition, allowing students to acquire a $500 million student loan debt and failing to deliver any serious rebuke to the Texas Legislature for a return to previous funding levels.

In an interview with The Daily Texan, Powers said the Occupy movements on Wall Street and in Austin have seemed to focus on national, state and local economies and not on tuition and higher education issues. Powers said he and members of the administration have been having a “robust conversation” with students on tuition through mediums like the Tuition Policy and Advisory Committee and the College Tuition Budget Advisory Committees for the past six months.

“We have been working with members of Occupy UT,” Powers said. “We are here to facilitate freedom of expression. We do have rules though not just for Occupy UT but for all organizations and we will work with them.”

Student Government President Natalie Butler said she shares Occupy UT’s frustrations with the Texas Legislature and believes there is a good reason to be angry. Butler also said there had been many opportunities for people to come up with concerns about tuition before TPAC issued its recommendation.

“People from Occupy UT came out after we had given a recommendation,” she said. “We gave a lot of opportunities to voice concerns but we didn’t see as much concern until after we had given a recommendation.”

Trevor Hoag, English assistant professor and Occupy UT member, said tuition increases in the last few years have discouraged students from getting involved.

“Americans don’t vote in national elections because they know that regardless of who wins, no one will attend to their needs and their lives won’t change,” Hoag said. “The same is true of student participation regarding tuition. Students don’t attend tuition forums because they know that no one will listen to them and that tuition will increase regardless.”

President of the Senate of College Councils Carisa Nietsche and Student Body President Natalie Butler address the attendees of the third Tuition Policy Advisory Committee before the start of the third and final forum Monday afternoon.

Photo Credit: Lawrence Peart | Daily Texan Staff

The booming voices of Occupy UT members filled the room as they chanted in opposition to proposed tuition increases and closed meetings while three UT Police Department officers stood guard.

The Tuition Policy Advisory Committee had its third public forum Wednesday evening to discuss its recommendation for a tuition increase. The proposal came after the Texas Legislature decreased UT’s biennial budget by $92 million. TPAC has met fewer than 10 times this fall to deliberate on the tuition-setting process and ultimately agreed to recommend a tuition increase of 2.6 percent for Texas resident undergraduates for the next years, raising the average cost to $127 per semester for 2012-13 and $131 for 2013-14. The committee also proposed a 3.6-percent increase for nonresident undergraduates and all graduate students.

After the presentation by TPAC, the Occupy members stood up and recited a speech to the board to express their disagreement. The chant, which was read out by the members simultaneously, reflected their frustration with UT’s tuition-setting process. A few occupiers questioned President William Powers Jr. on his decision to support the tuition increase, but Powers declined to give a direct response to their question.

The main issues Occupy members brought up included a lack of student involvement in the decisions to raise tuition and the need for the budget to be re-evaluated rather than tuition increased.

Student body President Natalie Butler and Carisa Nietsche, Senate of the College Councils president, both said multiple student organizations had been involved in the decision to raise tuition.

“The students had their voice, and they were actively a part in this discussion,” Nietsche said. “They went to town halls, and they understood the implications.”

During the question-and-answer portion of the forum, Occupy members approached the microphone to question TPAC members about the need to increase tuition.

“Deregulation pits students against workers,” said Teri Adams, a women and gender studies senior. “I wasn’t planning ahead to make a lot of money, and you have people like me who want to follow their passions.”

Social work senior Sara Yamada said she didn’t understand why UT spends funds on new buildings as opposed to using those funds for education.

“Are we trying to invest in people’s minds or are we trying to invest in entertainment?” Yamada said.

Printed on Thursday, December 1, 2011 as: Occupy UT protesters attend public budget forum, express concerns about involvement