Fighting the power at UT

By Robert Jensen

Published in Texas Observer · November, 1998

[An edited version of this article appeared in the Texas Observer, November 20, 1999, pp. 12-14.

When students occupied the main building at the University of Texas in October, there was a sense in the air that the protest was about affirmative action — but about student power. Not only did UT students win an agreement with the administration to do a series of town-hall meetings to resume the university dialogue about affirmative action, they reminded the campus of what organizing can accomplish.

“We demonstrated that power doesn’t always have to be from the top down, ” said Carl Villarreal, a member of the student Anti-Racist Organizing Committee, leaders of the protest. “At this University, students, staff, and even faculty have very little power. Most of the time we just accept that, but with an issue this urgent something different was necessary.”

Joni Jones, a speech-communication professor who was with the students during part of the sit-in, said that no matter what views they have on affirmative action, all UT students should be grateful to the protesters. “It was so important for the students to see that they really are the force behind the institution and to understand they should be able to have a say in what goes on here,” Jones said. “I think the students in the Tower that night realized that, which helped them muster the courage to hang in there.” (The offices of UT-Austin President Larry Faulkner, and other UT administrators, are located in the “Tower” building at the center of campus.)

The events of Oct. 21 and 22 at the Austin campus—part of national days of action observed in California and Michigan as well—didn’t get affirmative action reinstated at UT. But they did put the issue back on the map for the campus community.

The first day featured a panel discussion and teach-in. At a noon rally on the steps of the Tower on the second day, students and faculty not only made a case for affirmative action but sharply criticized the UT administration’s handling of the Hopwood case, which UT has interpreted as demanding an end to all affirmative action programs.

With several hundred students still at the rally as it wound down, the organizers from AROC decided to take their list of demands to UT President Larry Faulkner’s office. About 200 students entered the building and were quickly given a meeting with Faulkner.

Faulkner’s response didn’t satisfy the students, who were asking that he agree to publish in the campus newspaper an open letter explaining the university’s position and commit to a series of town-hall meetings. The students spilled out into a hallway and decided to sit down. David Hill, a member of AROC, said the sit-in wasn’t planned.

“It was decided on after Faulkner ran out of the room without answering a single question,” Hill said. “That was a total diss to all students, and the students there decided to take over the Tower out of anger and frustration with Faulkner’s unwillingness to deal with them.”

By late afternoon, some of the approximately 100 students left the building to bring in others and get supplies, but UT administrators made the decision to shut down the building and not let students back in. One student who tried to re-enter the building was taken into custody by police but later released without being charged. About 40 students remained inside, pledging not to leave without an answer from Faulkner.

Patricia Ohlendorf, vice president for administration and legal affairs, came back in the early evening to negotiate. She offered the students a meeting between Faulkner and six students the next morning, with a pledge to hold one and possibly more open forums. The students rejected the offer and dug in for the evening.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I am a member of Faculty for Educational Justice group that sponsored the teach-in, and I was in the building that evening and moderated the discussion between Ohlendorf and the students. Another faculty member, Ted Gordon from the anthropology department, and I were allowed to enter and leave the building throughout the evening.)

Meanwhile, action just as important was taking place outside the building. The students who had been locked out remained, and reinforcements began arriving. AROC member Stephen Ward said the crowd expressed “directed anger,” about both affirmative action and the situation their colleagues faced inside.

Ward said impassioned speeches were followed by strategizing about actions the next morning, as students outside stayed in touch with those inside through computer and phone. Several hundred students, many of whom had not been active around this issue before, came and went throughout the evening, lending moral support. Many of them spent the night.

The students outside had hoped to bring food for those inside, but UT administrators refused to allow in any supplies. In the early part of the evening, officials also locked the bathrooms, forcing students inside either to leave the building and not return, or pee into bottles. The phone booth became a makeshift latrine until UT police opened one bathroom later in the evening.

When the doors to the building opened at about 6 a.m., another 100 or so students joined the protesters inside and held to their demand to see Faulkner, who came down to talk to the students early in the day. By mid-day, the students had won his agreement to write the open letter in the Daily Texan and schedule the meetings.

The town-hall meetings were held Nov. 9 and 16, with one focusing on legal issues and the other on the history of racism at UT.

In his Texan letter, Faulkner said the shared goal was “a diverse University that serves Texas and its entire people,” and he has consistently framed the disagreements with students as being about methods to achieve the goal. AROC member J. Reed said that the common ground is not so clear.

“President Faulkner says we have the same goal, but he speaks of the goal in terms of diversity,” Reed said. “We speak about social justice and resisting racism.”

The difference is more than semantic. As terms such as “diversity” and “multiculturalism” come to dominate the debate, the reality of historical and contemporary racism tends to fade from the picture. Affirmative action programs began as antidotes to the deeply entrenched racism in institutions such as UT; the racism has changed forms but hardly has gone away. Yet even many supporters of affirmative action have given up on arguments based in talk of rights and equality, perhaps scared off by right-wing co-optations of those terms. Not surprisingly, UT administrators seem to prefer diversity-talk to more a more radical confrontation of the society’s and university’s racism.

Faulkner went on in his Texan letter to say that the university was “in a period that requires thought and invention.”

Exactly what kind of “invention” is needed has been disputed since Hopwood v. Texas was decided by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in March 1996. That decision struck down a two-track admissions policy in the UT Law School that most everyone agrees was badly constructed and had been abandoned by the time of the lawsuit. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the decisions, and the case went back to the trial court.

In March, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks of Austin ruled that none of the plaintiffs would have been admitted to the law school under a admissions system that was constitutional, awarding them $1 each and attorney’s fees. Sparks also enjoined UT “from taking into consideration racial preferences in the selection of those individuals to be admitted as students at the University of Texas School of Law.” When Morales refused to appeal the injunction, a private law firm, Vinson & Elkins, took over.

From the 1996 decision until today, one question has been whether these court rulings doomed ALL affirmative action programs. That’s how Attorney General Dan Morales and the UT system lawyers have interpreted them, and UT cleared the decks of all affirmative action programs, not just in admissions but in financial aid.

The students in AROC argue that UT administrators took the easy way out by relying on Morales’ opinion and could have kept affirmative action in place outside of the Law School. They also contend that UT has pursued a legal strategy aimed not necessarily at defending affirmative action, but merely at standardizing affirmative action policies nationally.

UT officials and lawyers have consistently argued that the 5th Circuit Court’s ruling was clear and that the threat to levy damages against individual university officials was serious.

Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said that UT has hidden behind “pious platitudes” and could have more vigorously pursued the case. For example, UT could have gone to state court to challenge Morales’ opinion and ask for a declaratory judgment that would have insulated officials against claims of individual liability, he said.

“It is clear that Morales over-read Hopwood. He gave no consideration to the details of individual programs,” Harrington said. “I think this shows a real lack of commitment on the part of UT. If they believed in affirmative action, they would do something.”

While the students won a beginning to an expanded conversation about the issue, they aren’t naïve about the victory. AROC organizers remember the way the student movement on this issue slowly died out last year.

Ward said one of the group’s goals is “to keep the pressure on and keep the issues alive in the university consciousness.” Other members of the group also emphasized the need for reaching out to students, including those who haven’t been active in the past on the issue.

Jemima Pierre, another AROC member, said the movement specifically has to get more students of color involved. “It will take more involvement by the people affected directly by affirmative action to move it forward,” she said.

While students of color may be weary and suspicious of white students in the group, there was a strong sense of multiracial solidarity before the sit-in that deepened in the Tower that night, Pierre said.

“We can be very frank when talking about racial issues in this group. I’ve always liked that,” she said. “We need progressive white people to pull this off.”.

As a faculty observer, I have been impressed with the way in which the students have built an energizied, multiracial coalition dedicated to democratic processes. During the sit-in, all 40 students discussed and voted on whether or not to accept the administration’s compromise. No “leaders” grabbed control, as has been a problem in the past. And the focus on organizing is encouraging.

“The occupation [of the Tower] taught me that the key to building the movement isn’t to continue hammering people with our arguments; it’s to organize,” said Hill. “The occupation was successful because in the weeks leading up to it, we spent every single night in dorms talking to students, at student group meetings, calling people, and organizing around campus.”

Some administrators and regents, and the student body president, were quoted in the campus paper after the sit-in as saying the protesters were misguided in their choice of tactics. But Faulkner said in an interview two weeks after the events that he thought the sit-in had a “healthy” effect on the university and the students.

“We have a history in this country of using such methods in some circumstances when people want to seize the attention of a community dramatically,” Faulkner said. “I think it was effective in this situation. I think it would have become counterproductive if it had gone too much longer, given that I basically accepted their request for a meeting.”

Reed said he remembered Faulkner having a different disposition the day of the sit-in. “I thought President Faulkner was disrespectful that day and seemed more concerned with escaping the situation than listening to student concerns.”

Villarreal said he thought the locking of doors and closing of bathrooms during the sit-in showed how the administration feels about political activism.

“They prefer students to be pacified and to the extent that they interact with administrators, they prefer that students are kissing butt,” he said.


from the Political Intelligence section, p.17


An overflow crowd filled Jester auditorium November 9 for the first of four town-hall meetings on affirmative action scheduled in the wake of a U.T.-Austin student demonstration last month (see “Fighting the
Power at U.T.,” page 12). An intriguing contradiction emerged from the administration’s discussion of its position on the issue at hand. Law School professors explained how they were vigorously defending affirmative action in the appeal of the Hopwood case pending before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, making a good case for their strategy. And President Larry Faulkner expressed his support for the legal team’s effort. But when asked his personal opinion about affirmative action, Faulkner studiously avoided a direct answer. He said that while he was provost at the University of Illinois, he supported and used the affirmative action
programs in place there. If affirmative action were legal in Texas, he said, he would use it here. “My job is to hold this community together and make progress within the law,” Faulkner told the crowd of more than 400 students. Students raised the question again, prompting Faulkner to suggest, “In a sense, it doesn’t matter what I feel about it.” He repeatedly declined to answer yes or no.

Why would the chief administrator decline to make a clear statement of support for a program the university is vigorously defending in court? It could have something to do with the university’s plans once the Hopwood
case is settled. Or it could have something to do with the fact that the university is in the middle of a capital campaign – or even, that the legislative session looms in January, and Faulkner does not want to have defend U.T. before conservative legislators. We have to make due with speculation; Faulkner said he will say nothing more about it.

Students, however, might ask themselves: how many years did it take U.T. to make “progress within the law” following desegregation? Some laws are just are urgent than others.