© 2024 88.9 KETR
Public Radio for Northeast Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Faculty petition to hold no-confidence vote in UT-Austin president after protest response

 Protesters link arms at the University of Texas at Austin during a pro-Palestine demonstration on April 24, 2024.
Julius Shieh
for The Texas Tribune
Protesters link arms at the University of Texas at Austin during a pro-Palestine demonstration on April 24, 2024.

Fallout from police crackdowns on a pro-Palestinian demonstration at the University of Texas at Austin continued Thursday morning with faculty condemning the response, university leaders defending their actions and students organizing a second round of protests.

At a much less tense rally Thursday on UT-Austin's campus, faculty with the school's chapter of the American Association of University Professors said they planned to hold a vote of no confidence in President Jay Hartzell over his management of the protest the day before and the school's implementation of legislation banning diversity, equity and inclusion programs at public universities. AAUP members were seen passing around a letter asking faculty to sign in their support.

Students at the rally reiterated their main demand from the day before, calling on UT-Austin to divest from all weapon manufacturers and companies involved with Israel. They also called for Hartzell's resignation and complete amnesty for those student protesters and members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee, which organized Wednesday’s event, who were arrested.

All told, 57 people — including one journalist — were arrested on the school’s campus on Wednesday, the Travis County Sheriff’s office said Thursday. The arrests quickly sparked backlash from faculty and students, who called the reaction heavy-handed since the protest showed no signs of violence when it started.

Most of the criminal charges against protesters — 46 — were dropped, according to the Travis County attorney's office.

[Most cases against UT-Austin protesters dropped]

Authorities at Wednesday's student walkout ordered protesters to disperse and started making arrests on criminal trespassing charges, a class B misdemeanor. Protesters then regrouped on the university's South Mall and were soon surrounded by law enforcement — including Texas Department of Public Safety officers — who formed a perimeter behind a chain-link barrier and pushed protesters onto the sidewalks. A procession of mounted state troopers and officers on foot herded students farther using body shields and their horses, which at times came within grazing distance of protesters.

As footage from the protest went viral on social media — including a video of police slamming a local TV cameraman to the ground— some Republican leaders cheered the police response, accusing the demonstrators of being "pro-Hamas" or calling the protest an "unlawful assembly."

In a Wednesday evening statement, Hartzell defended the response, saying the university “held firm” and that student protesters had “tried to deliver on their stated intent to occupy campus.”

“Peaceful protests within our rules are acceptable,” Hartzell said. “Breaking our rules and policies and disrupting others’ ability to learn are not allowed. The group that led this protest stated it was going to violate Institutional Rules. Our rules matter, and they will be enforced. Our University will not be occupied.”

On Thursday, Hartzell expanded on the decision to shut down the demonstration in a Thursday evening letter to the campus. He said UT believed that protesters were attempting to take over, and disrupt, the campus for an extended period — a strategy that Hartzell said was modeled after a "national organization's protest playbook."

The Palestine Solidarity Committee has chapters at universities across the country. The Austin American-Statesman reported Thursday that UT put the group on interim suspension, citing alleged violations of institutional rules.

Hartzell noted that 26 of the 55 individuals arrested Wednesday had no UT affiliation. The Travis County Sheriff's office said 57 protesters were booked in the county jail.

Hartzell’s explanation was quickly decried by faculty groups as well as students.

[Police arrest more than two dozen pro-Palestinian demonstrators on UT-Austin campus amid tense standoff]

In a Thursday morning statement that was sent to Hartzell, the university's Faculty Council Executive Committee said it was “gravely alarmed” by the reaction to Wednesday’s protest and accused Hartzell of inviting state troopers — many of whom were involved in detaining and corralling protesters — onto campus.

“Across the generations, our University has been home to protests of every shape and size, and to a tradition of meeting those protests with understanding and nuance — not with police batons and body shields,” the faculty group wrote. “Needless to say, we don’t believe that President Hartzell’s message to the community Wednesday night comes close to providing a justification for the University's conduct. We have also urged him to use more restraint in the future — and to articulate, as clearly as possible, where he believes the line is between campus protests that can and should be addressed by campus and local law enforcement personnel and protests that warrant calling in armed state troopers.”

The Texas chapter of the AAUP also blasted the university’s response and called for canceling regular school activities. Some UT-Austin students on campus Thursday said their professors told them classes on Thursday would be optional.

“Instead of allowing our students to go ahead with their peaceful planned action, our leaders turned our campus into a militarized zone,” the group said. “No business as usual tomorrow. No classes. No grading. No assignments.”

The faculty group told colleagues to gather Thursday at noon in front of the UT Tower, where the local Texas State Employees Union had initially planned to rally against recent laws and cuts targeting the school’s diversity, equity and inclusion programs. The union, however, said it would cede the space to pro-Palestinian protesters who are planning a second day of rallying.

The Texas chapter of AAUP began circulating an open letter to gauge support for a vote of no-confidence in Hartzell at Thursday's rally.

“President Hartzell needlessly put students, staff and faculty in danger,” the letter read. “The President has shown himself to be unresponsive to urgent faculty, staff, and student concerns. He has violated our trust. The University is no longer a safe and welcoming place for the diverse community of students and scholars who until now have called this campus home.”

The letter demanded that the university not discipline any students for their actions on Wednesday and restore the school's reputation as an institution that respects free speech.

“If such a vote were to take place, it would be an unprecedented rebuke of university leadership,” said Pauline Strong, president of the UT-Austin chapter of AAUP and a professor of anthropology, said in a statement to the Tribune.

The letter also criticized the closure of the university’s Division of Campus and Community Engagement, which the faculty who signed the letter said occurred without their consultation and under a “shroud of secrecy.”

The Palestine Solidarity Committee vowed to continue protesting at the school Thursday.

“We join our faculty’s call to continue to protest in the face of oppression! We call on our community to resist the draconian tactics of intimidation employed by our university and to reaffirm our demands tomorrow,” the group said.

On Thursday afternoon, hundreds of protesters stood on the university's main mall and stared up at the UT Tower shouting “Hartzell out.”

Assistant professor Pavithra Vasudevan said Hartzell had failed faculty and staff multiple times, including when the university announced about 60 layoffs related to the implementation of the state's DEI ban.

“University administrators abandoned students to police forces, their own students,” Vasudevan said. “There were people abusing students here yesterday and our administrators were nowhere to be found.”

Throughout the protest, there was one key guideline that organizers wanted attendees to remember: “We keep us safe.” Organizers said they had lost faith in the university’s commitment to students’ safety and urged attendees to not speak with police officers or university administrators.

Despite the arrests and mayhem, Vasudevan said Wednesday's protest ultimately was a huge victory for students.

“They showed the university that they know how to hold the space [and] they know how to hold it peacefully,” Vasudevan said. “They’re showing the kind of courage and graciousness that university administrators don’t [have]. They’re filling in a role of leadership that university administrators are not playing. [The university administration] is failing us. They're failing the public education system and the University of Texas at Austin. The students are helping us bring it back.”

Meanwhile, prominent Republican leaders have continued to call for a crackdown on the demonstrators and faculty who are supporting them.

"Fine. Don’t do the job UT hired you to do," Rep. Tom Oliverson, a Cypress Republican who is running for Speaker of the Texas House, wrote on social media in response to the Texas AAUP's calls to suspend school activities. "I fully support you all being fired. This is 'unprofessional conduct that adversely affects the university'."

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/04/25/ut-austin-palestine-protest-fallout/.

Copyright 2024 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Robert Downen | The Texas Tribune
Ikram Mohamed | The Texas Tribune
William Melhado | The Texas Tribune