Just a little more than four hours after Senior Executive Editor Paul Burka broke news on the Texas Monthly website that UT President William Powers Jr. might be in jeopardy of losing his job, graduate student Rachel Meyerson created “I STAND WITH BILL POWERS,” a Facebook group in support of Powers’ position.
“Past student body president Keshav Rajagopalan and I were watching as Facebook and Twitter began blowing up with concern and support for President Powers,” Meyerson said. “We thought to ourselves, ‘How can we garner this support into one unified, strong response?’ That’s when we decided to create the Facebook group.”
Rajagopalan said the Facebook group, which now has more than 11,500 members, has been used as a means of communication and as a forum for dialogue about higher education issues in Texas.
The group’s wall has received a range of posts, from serious to lighthearted. There are posts simply stating alliance to Powers, like influential 1937 UT alumna Margaret C. Berry, who has served the University for more than 50 years. Others are less serious posts that parody the situation. One member posted on the page that Powers is the hero UT deserves: “He’s a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight” — a reference to the Christopher Nolan Batman film franchise. Another member of the group compares the situation to Harry Potter, stating Powers is “Albus Dumbledore,” Rick Perry is “Dolores Umbridge” and the Facebook group is “Dumbledore’s Army.”
Rajagopalan said after the blog post on Texas Monthly he noticed the news went viral on Facebook and Twitter and the group attracted those who support and do not support President Powers.
“It was a lot of fun to watch things kind of take off that night and I think it’s been really fun to see the continued dialogue and discussion,” Rajagopalan said.
Rajagopalan said he even saw students and alumni who were against increasing tuition rally to the group to support Powers, the very issue which Burka’s blog post claimed threatened Powers’ job as President.
“People came out and said ‘I’m against increase but I still support the president and his vision for excellence,’” Rajagopalan said. “From reading a lot of the dialogue on the group and exchanging emails, I think people, no matter what, were disturbed by some of the politics that were mixed into these issues.”
He said the group was not made as a statement about tuition, but instead was made in support of Powers.
But the social media response to Burka’s blog post received a social media response of its own.
A reporter from the Texas Tribune tweeted that people were being added to the Powers support Facebook groups without their knowledge. One alumna posted in the group and said that being in the group compromised her objectivity as a political journalist after being added to the group without consent.
And The Times of Texas posted an article that said people were “spam-add[ing]” members to the group. The article from The Times of Texas included multiple screen shots that showed rows of people who were “added by” other members.
Rajagopalan said the statement “added by” means a Facebook user requested to join and someone approved their request.
“Anywhere where it says ‘added,’ those were people who requested to join and somebody clicked approve,” Rajagopalan said. “We also set up the group where anybody can approve anybody. So that’s why you see ‘added by’ and then lots of different names.”
Rajagopalan said there were people who he knows requested to join the group and their entry to the group said “added by Keshav Rajagopalan.” Rajagopalan said during the first few days following the Texas Monthly blog post, he would approve each member and he said he believes more people requested to join than were invited.
“The majority of people in the group now were people who requested to join,” Rajagopalan said.
While the Facebook group “I STAND WITH BILL POWERS” has inspired support for the President, it has also stirred up another group, said English senior James Lamey.
At 1:25 a.m. on May 10, the day following Burka’s post, Lamey created the Facebook group “Bill Powers Can Stand For Himself” that currently has about 800 members.
Lamey said the group neither supports or opposes the President but is in opposition to increasing tuition, large or small.
“I won’t believe it is worth [increasing tuition] until you can show me the class room where every student shows up on time, every student is prepared for the course material and every student stays awake for the entire class,” Lamey said. “Until I can see that, I won’t believe that it’s worth spending more money to throw more education at students who clearly aren’t receiving.”
Lamey said he did not feel that a Facebook group, like his or “I STAND WITH BILL POWERS” can accomplish anything. He said social media was a matter of spreading information rather than causing change.
“Frankly, a lot of this Facebook activism is pretty hollow — it’s just a lot of feel-good, self-gratifying and generally ineffectual activity,” Lamey said. “The role of the Internet is really to inform than actually do something.”
But Rajagopalan, who wrote his Plan II thesis on the role of social media and politics, said social media was a powerful medium.
“It plays a huge role in mobilizing and informing people, especially younger generations who have tuned into different social media outlets interactively,” Rajagopalan said. “It’s a powerful tool to inform and communicate with people and bring different issues and topics to light.”