Amid Protests of Students, Faculty, and Staff, the State Tightens Its Grip on the University of Texas at Austin 

In April, state leaders’ attempted stranglehold over the University of Texas at Austin, Texas’s premier public university, came to a head in several ways. The month began with the university laying off dozens of employees who formerly worked in positions that dealt with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs. The month ended with state troopers marching on campus to disrupt anti-war protests at the direction of Gov. Greg Abbott and with the approval of UT Austin President Jay Hartzell. 

In this week’s Hotline, we dive into this dark month at Texas’s flagship university.  

State, City, & University Police Assail, Arrest Peaceful Anti-War Protesters  

Over the past two weeks, hundreds of peaceful protestors, many of them UT students, have been arrested for protesting the war in Gaza and demanding an end to the university’s and the nation’s involvement in the conflict. 

Last Wednesday, a coalition of student groups, including the Palestine Solidarity Committee, organized an event on UT’s south lawn to protest the war in Gaza. Event organizers referenced the encampments that have occupied other universities like Columbia, Yale, and Brown, but there was no evidence that this group was connected to groups on those other campuses, apart from the organizing inspiration. The schedule for UT’s event included peaceful actions: teach-ins, pizza breaks, and an art workshop. 

A listed demand of the protesters was for the University of Texas to divest from companies that they view as supporting the war in Gaza. The University of Texas’ endowment, totaling $68 billion, is the largest of any public university and the fifth largest of any university system generally. Students have taken issue with the endowment’s investments in companies that manufacture weapons, including Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, BAE Systems, and others. Because weapons produced by these companies and used by the Israeli military have resulted in the deaths of civilians, protestors claim that the University of Texas is complicit in these tragedies and demand divestment.  

However, a state law from 2017 that forbids Texas public investments from boycotting Israel seems to forbid such divestment. 

Protestors at UT-Austin, who were told by the university to cancel the protest because of a “declared intent to violate our policies and rules, and disrupt our campus operations,” were met with a large police presence, declaring that the protest was unlawful as students didn’t have the proper permits to protest. Campus police officers initially seemed to be willing to negotiate with the protesters, but dialogue seemed to end when Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) officers arrived at the scene dressed in riot gear. State police quickly moved to break up the protests. Police arrested 57 people present at the protest, including a photographer for FOX 7 News who was covering the incident. All those arrested were released the following morning.  

It was later revealed that Hartzell had invited DPS onto campus to break up the peaceful protests. Abbott, who directs DPS, supported the arrests on social media. In his comments, Abbott took issue with the content of the protests, not the manner in which they were done. In the United States, the content of protests is protected by the First Amendment.  

Protestors were arrested for trespassing on university campus because they were directed to leave due to not having a permit to hold the event, but the university had previously allowed similar protests to occur in the same location and the same manner without a permit. Similar protests were held at public universities across Texas, including Texas State University and the University of Texas at Dallas, but these protests were not met with a similar police presence.  

Protestors reconvened the next day but were not met with a police presence, and the protest continued peacefully as planned. On this second day, the protest was much larger than the day before. At this protest, many community leaders spoke, including Congressman Greg Casar (D-Austin), and condemned the police action. UT-Austin AAUP President Pauline Strong also spoke at the protest. She announced that UT-Austin AAUP was collecting signatures from faculty to call for a vote of no confidence in Hartzell for bringing state police to campus. Thus far, they have collected over 600 signatures.

This week, on Monday, the protests continued and were met by hundreds of law enforcement agents. After protesters refused to vacate the south lawn despite officers’ demands, officers began arresting protestors one by one and soon broke up the encampment. The protesters were assailed with pepper spray and flash bangs. 

In response to the events this past Monday, the House Democratic Caucus released a letter explaining to Democratic members what transpired. Ali Zaidi, the executive director of the House Democratic Caucus, penned the letter and was present to observe the Monday protest. Zaidi explained that he and Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D-Austin), who was also in observance of the protest, felt the effects of the pepper spray used on the protestors, despite being yards away. The letter declared, “It is our belief that this behavior by law enforcement created further chaos and harm to the health and well-being of students which must not go unaddressed.”  

Students had planned to resume protests Wednesday but postponed the protest until this coming Sunday. 

Employees and Students Fight Back Against Anti-DEI Efforts 

In a previous edition of the Hotline, we explained how an estimated 60 employees at UT Austin and 20 employees at UT Dallas were either demoted or given termination notices. These affected employees, which included both faculty and staff, previously worked in positions that related to DEI initiatives but had since been reassigned to new positions to comply with Senate Bill 17, which banned DEI initiatives. These layoffs occurred despite the fact that the legislators who sponsored SB 17 publicly made assurances that employees in DEI positions would not be terminated.  

Since these terminations and demotions were announced, a wide public outcry, from within the UT community and from without, has emerged, demanding that these termination orders be reversed. During the week following the dismissals, state legislators joined the Texas NAACP and Texas AAUP-AFT at a press conference at the Texas AFL-CIO headquarters denouncing the layoffs. The state legislators present were Rep. Ron Reynolds (D-Missouri City), chairman of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D-Austin), whose district includes the UT Austin campus, and Rep. Sheryl Cole (D-Austin).  

The 60 affected employees mostly occupied student services positions that supported students outside of their academic pursuits. In addition to the affected employees themselves, students are also victims of this move.  

Students are fighting back against these layoffs. Over the intervening weeks since the layoffs were first announced student groups, such as Texas Students for DEI, which has been active at campuses across the state in opposition to the state’s attacks against DEI, and individual students began posting the hashtag #NotOurTexas on social media, as a condemnation of the layoffs. Post-It notes with the message #NotOurTexas were also left in prominent locations around UT Austin campus, including the university’s iconic fountain. 

Photo via the Daily Texan 

This past Monday, a coalition led by the Texas State Employees Union (TSEU), in concert with Texas AAUP-AFT and the Texas AFL-CIO, rallied on UT Austin’s campus to demand that the university’s actions be reversed. Austin City Council members Vanessa Fuentes and Zohaib “Zo” Qadri, whose district includes UT’s campus, as well as Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy and UT Austin AAUP executive board member Karma Chavez, spoke at the rally in support of the affected employees. Hundreds of students, faculty, staff, and community members joined the rally. 

The next chapter in this saga is uncertain. Many of the affected employees are scheduled to be officially terminated after their mandatory 60-day termination notice expires. Senate Education Committee Chairman Brandon Creighton’s letter to Texas public universities, which kicked off these layoffs, demanded UT Austin send representatives to a committee hearing to detail compliance with Senate Bill 17 in May, but the date of the hearing has not been set. Additionally, the Senate was tasked in Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s interim charges with studying the implementation of SB 17. This interim hearing will also likely take place over the summer.