The widely disparate official responses to two recent campus protests at UT speak volumes.
For all I know, the political climate at the University of Texas at Austin is no better or no worse than at any other major university, but since I am a UT alumnus and live in Austin, I pay closer attention to UT. Many readers would assume that Texas, being a conservative state, would be immune to leftist posturing at its flagship state university, but sadly, UT’s administrators and faculty seem to be striving for Ivy League status as a caricature of political correctness run amok. I have previously reported (e.g., here and here) on UT’s unfortunate tendency to mimic the worst trends in higher education: administrative bloat, slavish devotion to “diversity,” race-conscious affirmative action, and one-sided regulation of campus speech to suppress disfavored opinions.
In this post, I will contrast two recent student protests at UT, and — more importantly — the administration’s wildly disparate responses to them. The first occurred at the beginning of the 2016-17 academic year, when a group of UT students staged an event on campus to express their disagreement with a recently enacted state law that allows licensed gun owners (aged 21 and older) to carry concealed handguns in most places on public university campuses, including classrooms. Some UT students (and faculty) felt that allowing firearms on campus, and particularly in classrooms, created a safety threat, even though similar laws have not led to incidents of violence in other states. The event, dubbed “Cocks Not Glocks,” entailed the distribution on campus of more than 5,000 free dildos to UT students so the students could brandish them or attach them to their backpacks while walking to and attending class. The stated goal was to highlight what gun opponents felt was the absurdity of permitting firearms on campus but not the public display of sex toys (which were donated by “erotic boutiques,” such as Larry Flynt’s Hustler Hollywood).
The protest, which was organized with the assistance of UT faculty members opposed to the so-called “campus carry” law (some of whom unsuccessfully challenged the law in court), drew national media attention (e.g., here and here). The flamboyant theatrics of the protest were calculated to draw attention to the display of dildos, with over-the-top signs proclaiming “If you are packing heat, we are packing meat” and T-shirts bearing the lewd slogan “Take It and Come.” Television and social media coverage went viral. Despite campus policies prohibiting any “obscene displays,” a UT spokesman promptly issued a statement assuring the participants that the dildo distribution and display constituted “protected political speech” and that “UT Austin students are free to express themselves peacefully on all issues.” Alcalde, the publication of the UT alumni organization Texas Exes, covered the protest with a tone of amused approval. The anti-gun protest drew some well-behaved counter-protesters, but the “Cocks Not Glocks” event was peaceful and free of disruption.
Later in the school year, another student group at UT, the Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT), organized a campus protest against race-conscious affirmative action, in the form of a “bake sale” featuring different prices based on the buyer’s race, gender, and ethnicity. Affirmative action has been a recurring source of controversy at UT, due to the administration’s dogged determination to employ a race-conscious “holistic” component in admissions decisions to supplement the state’s color-blind Top Ten Percent Law. The Fisher v. UT case, challenging the constitutionality of UT’s affirmative action practices, went to the U.S. Supreme Court twice in recent years. YCT’s goal for the “bake sale” event on campus was to highlight the inequity of discrimination and to reinforce the importance of color-blindness. The response was quite different than the festive atmosphere of “Cocks Not Glocks.”
More than 100 UT students mobbed the YCT event, denouncing the “bake sale” as “racist” and essentially shutting it down with chants and loud verbal confrontations . The unruly counter-protesters, mostly students of color, shouted “Racists go home.” By some accounts, the angry mob interfered with the “bake sale” by removing the YCT signage and pilfering the baked goods. Instead of contemporaneously assuring YCT that the protest was “protected political speech,” as UT administrators did for “Cocks Not Glocks,” UT Vice President Gregory Vincent (who earns more than $330,000 a year as head of UT’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement) issued a statement scolding the Young Conservatives for their “inflammatory and demeaning” tactics and accusing them of creating “an environment of exclusion and disrespect among our students.” Holding a protest against affirmative action on campus, Vincent charged, was “deplorable,” because it “took advantage of this open forum to direct negative sentiment toward [YCT students’] peers.”
But YCT’s ordeal was not over. In addition to being mobbed by protesters and dressed-down by the UT administration, YCT faced a petition passed by the UT student government recommending that the UT administration disband the conservative student group for engaging in “incidents of bias.” The signers of the petition argued that “UT often claims that its failure to act is in order to protect freedom of speech, yet other universities both public and private do choose to act when similar incidents of bias occur.” The would-be commissars did not explain how a peaceful protest against UT’s controversial race-conscious admissions practices constituted an “incident of bias.” In fairness to UT, the administration has indicated that it will “ignore” the student government petition because the bake sale is considered a form of protected speech. Still, the incident prompted the pro-free speech organization Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to warn UT about restricting campus expression.
Perhaps the most absurd recent example of political correctness at UT came in the form of a two-page memo issued by the University’s dean of students prior to Halloween, advising students regarding appropriate “costume and theme selection” at Halloween parties. The widely ridiculed memo warned, among other things, against “cowboy”-themed costumes, due to concerns about cultural appropriation and insensitivity to Native Americans. UT administrators seem oblivious to the fact that UT is located in Texas (where cowboy boots are de riguer), that the school mascot is a Longhorn steer, and that the famous UT marching band is outfitted in burnt orange western-style regalia adorned with — yes — a white cowboy hat. Thematically, UT is drenched in cowboy imagery. How can it possibly be considered “offensive” to students at Halloween?
College campuses across America have become playpens for coddled millennials, overseen by a cadre of progressive academics who see their role as social justice warriors charged with propagating their own rigid ideological vision. As John McGinnis has noted, enforcing “political correctness” on campus is the left’s means of “creating official restrictions on speech in student life.” This unfortunate trend is evident, even in so-called red states. Until state legislatures curb abuses at taxpayer-funded institutions and parents and alumni object and insist on reforms, the political climate on college campuses will continue to deteriorate.