Texas academics told to avoid ‘sensitive topics’ to prevent angering gun-toting students
When the University of Texas released a report last week detailing where it plans to allow guns on its Austin campus, Nora Dolliver’s choice of graduate schools narrowed by one.
The languages student at the University of Chicago sent an email to staff with the subject “Declining Offer of Admission Due to Campus Carry Guidelines”, and will now pursue a dual masters in Russian and Eastern European studies and library sciences elsewhere. Someplace where she can feel confident that the person she is sitting next to is not packing a concealed pistol.
Students and academics have warned of a chilling effect on freedom of expression ever since Texas became the latest state to pass a “campus carry” law last year. It compels public universities to allow license holders aged 21 and over to bring concealed handguns on to most areas of campus.
The faculty senate at the University of Houston prepared a slideshow for recent faculty forums warning that academics may want to “be careful discussing sensitive topics; drop certain topics from your curriculum; not ‘go there’ if you sense anger; limit student access off hours; go to appointment-only office hours; only meet ‘that student’ in controlled circumstances.”
A slide provides potential arguments against the policy, such as “most parents don’t want their underage children to attend a gun-enabled campus” and “The MILITARY doesn’t allow guns in barracks and classrooms (outside of weapons training), why should there be guns in dorms and classrooms?”
The presentation is not official university policy, which is expected to be announced in the next couple of months. Jonathan Snow, the senate president, has told the governing body that faculty members are overwhelmingly opposed to the new rule. “It’s a radical law because guns have never really been a part of American university campuses,” Snow said. “I can no longer say there will be no guns in my classroom, that makes me a criminal.”
Proponents say that it will only arm a small number of responsible license holders who have undergone training and background checks and that guns were already allowed in some outside areas of Texas campuses. But Snow and many at the University of Texas (UT), the state’s top-ranked major public university, are worried there will be a “brain drain” of students and staff who will leave or, like Dolliver, never enroll.
“The impact of the campus carry law on UT’s reputation, recruitment, and retention of both faculty and staff has already begun to be felt. I personally know of at least two cases of senior faculty hires in which a top candidate withdrew [one from Harvard, one from the University of Virginia], citing concern over these laws,” said Lisa Moore, a founder of the Gun Free UT group and a professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies.
Last October a UT economics professor emeritus said he would quit because “the risk that a disgruntled student might bring a gun into the classroom and start shooting at me has been substantially enhanced by the concealed-carry law.”
Moore believes the state legislature “is crippling our ability to fulfill the mandate set forth in the Texas constitution, which directs the state to provide its citizens with a university ‘of the first class’.”
Dolliver, meanwhile, will be far away, even though she would have been excited to study Slavic languages in central Texas, with its strong Czech heritage. “You can’t expect students who have other options like I do to come there, frankly,” she said.
Her library course will involve numerous interactions with strangers. “I’m not willing to work at a reference desk knowing that any number of my patrons could be carrying,” she said. But the 21-year-old’s opposition is focused less on direct safety concerns than on the fear that intimidation will stifle the heartfelt intellectual sparring that is such a central part of academic life. “If I know a person could have a gun in class I’m not so interested in speaking openly,” she said. She worries that studying Yiddish might make her a target for antisemites.
Last week’s reluctant conclusion by UT Austin president Gregory Fenves that under the law he will have to allow guns even in sensitive areas such as classrooms has underlined the complexity and contentiousness of implementing the law. The 11-page document has 25 policy statements, many of them intricate and long-winded.
Fenves’ recommendations also sharpened attention on the stark contrast between public and private colleges in Texas.
The choice between a private or public education has always been based on key issues such as cost, size and quality of education. Students starting college in Texas this fall have a new cultural and practical difference to consider: whether they want to be in a gun-free environment or a place where they and others can legally carry firearms.
Amid the political horse-trading as Democrats tried to kill the bill and Republicans aimed to push it through last spring, the law was tweaked to give public colleges an ill-defined right to establish limited gun-free zones, while private institutions were granted the opportunity to opt out altogether.
So far, all of Texas’s major private universities have chosen to ban guns. The Texas Tribune surveyed 38 private Texas universities. One did not respond, 13 had yet to decide and the remaining 24 said they would opt out.
Even conservative-leaning places such as Baylor University in Waco, the largest Baptist university in the world, last week announced it too would forbid guns on its premises.
Ellen Spiro, a professor and Gun Free UT member, said the scale of the rejections by universities that had a choice showed that Texas politicians who backed the law are “extremist legislators” serving the gun lobby not the academic community.
Critics also point to an apparent inconsistency in logic: if the professed aim of campus carry laws is to promote safety by giving students a tool to defend themselves and also to pursue their constitutional right to bear arms, why do the rules allow students to be treated differently depending on whether they are at the public University of Houston, or three miles west at the private Rice University?
A representative for Brian Birdwell, the state senator who authored the bill, said on Tuesday that the Republican was unavailable for comment. During the law’s passage, Birdwell explained the get-out clause by saying he did not want to prioritise gun rights over the right of private entities to make their own decisions. He said he was “duty-bound to protect second amendment rights parallel to private property rights”.
Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in Physics at UT, has said he is willing to risk being taken to court for defying the law by banning guns in his classroom.
Before the measure goes into effect on 1 August – the 50th anniversary of an infamous massacre on campus – protestors at UT are expected to hold more demonstrations and are exploring the possibility of lawsuits. “I think it’s the duty of the faculty to protest,” Spiro said. “Nobody wants to sit back and take this as something that’s OK.”
While Texas loosens its firearms restrictions – licensed open carry of handguns in most public spaces has been legal since 1 January – bills in Florida, including a campus carry proposal, failed to pass this year after a Republican state senator from Miami blocked them from getting a committee hearing.
“I don’t think any of these bills have anything to do with gun rights. They have to do with public safety, and I don’t think any of these bills make us any safer. In fact, quite the opposite,” Miguel Diaz de la Portilla told the Sun Sentinel , adding that improving treatment for mentally ill people would be a better way to enhance safety than pushing through campus carry in the face of vehement opposition from universities and police.
“I don’t think I’m an anti-gun guy. I’m a pro-common sense guy,” he said.
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