- Ralph K.M. Haurwitz American-Statesman Staff
A town hall-style gathering at the University of Texas on Wednesday to air concerns about race, immigration and gender identity quickly turned into repeated condemnations of top university officials for a sometimes-tepid response to incidents of discrimination and hate.
The officials conceded that they have fallen short at times and pledged to redouble their efforts to improve the climate on campus. “It breaks my heart when I hear your stories about what happens at our university,” UT President Gregory L. Fenves said.
Exhibit A was last week’s discovery of posters on three campus buildings and a utility pole imploring people to “imagine a Muslim-free America.” The university released a statement saying it supports free speech but that the posters were placed in impermissible locations. Fenves tweeted that “diversity and inclusion are among our top priorities.”
Students at the town hall criticized the UT president for failing to use the word “Muslim” in his response and for not acknowledging that the posters’ message was akin to calling for genocide.
Fenves said the criticism was valid. “It wasn’t strong enough,” he said of UT’s response. “Our policy of free speech does not allow intimidation, harassment or incitement. Given that set of facts, we do not allow those types of posters.”
He and three other senior officials sat in front of scores of students at the Student Activity Center for two hours as one after another said they didn’t feel safe on a campus where, in their view, racism, xenophobia, hate and religious discrimination are tolerated under the guise of free speech.
“The university really hasn’t addressed white supremacy and other hate speech that’s been going on,” said Michael Hermsdorf, a sophomore music major, referring to the anti-Muslim signs.
A second-year law student who gave only her first name, Noor, said that as a Muslim woman who wears a head scarf she sometimes receives death threats as she walks on campus. She said her complaints to administrators are received sympathetically but go nowhere.
Joshua Nyangon, a sophomore majoring in management information systems, took issue with Fenves’ defense of his decision to leave some statues of Confederate leaders on the South Mall because they are part of “the fabric” of UT, as the university president put it.
Nyangon, who is black, said the statues tell him something else, that “I shouldn’t be on this campus.” Addressing Fenves directly, he said the UT president must decide between the history of the campus and its students.
“I’m here for the students,” Fenves said, noting that he removed the statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, from its prominent location on the Main Mall. Davis’ bronze likeness will be displayed in a museum on campus.
Although the purpose of the town hall was to facilitate discussion, some students interrupted UT officials with insults and shouted down speakers whose views they opposed. That’s what happened to Vishal Vusirikala, a junior computer science major wearing a Reagan-Bush T-shirt, when he said, “Just because you oppose affirmative action does not mean you are a racist.”
Gregory J. Vincent, UT’s vice president for diversity and community engagement, told the students that he has felt the pain of discrimination. While working as an assistant attorney general, he was once stopped by police because he was black.
“You are right to call us out for the things we have not done,” Vincent said. “We are not ducking from these issues. There is no place for hate speech.”