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By Bettina Weiss
November 25, 2015
Caption : Faculty members across disciplines are coming together to keep guns out of classrooms, offices, and dormitories at the University of Texas at Austin.     

Professors from the University of Texas are standing firmly against the state’s campus carry law set to go into effect on August 1, 2016. Last week, the faculty council, which is an advising body to the president of the university, unanimously passed a resolution to ban guns from classrooms, laboratories, offices, and dorms.

In less than 200 words, the council articulated why guns should not be allowed on campus in their campus carry resolution.

The resolution outlines the mission of the University of Texas Austin as: “to achieve excellence in ‘undergraduate education, graduate education, research and public service [and to] contribute to the advancement of society through research, creative activity, scholarly inquiry and the development of new knowledge.’”

Following the mission, “the Faculty Council asserts that the University cannot fulfill this mission if guns are allowed in educational facilities.”

In the resolution, they cited the potential dangers of having firearms on campus. “We believe that by creating an uneasy and potentially hostile environment for intellectual inquiry, guns in educational spaces impede learning, honest evaluation, and academic freedom. Guns in campus buildings also jeopardize the quality and reputation of the University by hurting recruitment and retention of faculty, staff, and students,” they wrote.

“Therefore, the Faculty Council strongly opposes allowing guns in The University of Texas at Austin classrooms, laboratories, residence halls, university offices, and other spaces of education.”

According to KVUE, UT President Gregory L. Fenves addressed the council before the vote, explaining that he understands the concerns around campus carry, but that there are limits on what he can do.  Before the law goes into effect, each university in Texas must decide how it wants to implement the law. For example, university presidents can establish rules to create limited gun-free zones.

Fenves created a working group to study the issue and make recommendations. The group has already received 1,900 comments and hosted two public forums. About 1,000 professors have signed a petition in opposition of the campus carry law and have exploring legal actions. Three professors told Generation Progress that rejection of the bill is ubiquitous across students, faculty, staff, and community members.

“I personally have not heard anyone who speaks for [the bill]. You know, people are not shy to speak their mind and it seems like on this subject everyone seems to agree,” said Sophia Gilmson, an associate professor of music and member of the faculty council. “The mere idea that guns are welcome on campus seems perfectly wrong,” said Gilmson.

Speaking on her own behalf, Gilmson explained her desire for the legislation to be reversed. “I don’t know how realistic my hopes are, but if it is going to happen, I hear it will be a lengthy process.”

Bryan Jones, a professor in the Government department, shared the same desire to see the legislation reversed. However, he has a more immediate goal. “In the short run, I hope to see administration take expansive stance to exclude parts of campuses from handguns,” he said, “I hope they will take a liberal and open view.” Jones is also on the steering committee and is the Chair of the Research Committee for Gun Free UT.

Gun Free UT is a group of faculty, staff, students, and community members who want the university to be an entirely gun-free zone. Max Snodderly, a faculty member in the neuroscience and nutritional science departments, is also the co-chair of the legal committee for Gun Free UT.

“Our position is that we don’t want guns in classrooms, offices, and dormitories,” he told Generation Progress. “The question is, are they going to accept that or not?”

Shortly after the faculty council’s resolution was published, Texas State Senator Brian Birdwell called upon the state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, questioning the constitutionality of creating gun-free zones. Birdwell also authored Senate Bill 11, the legislation permitting campus carry.

“Some public college professors are asking for a blanket rule against the carrying of concealed handguns by licensees in college classrooms,” wrote Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury. “Since students go to college to attend classes, this would effectively prohibit a student/licensee from carrying their handgun on campus.”

It’s important to distinguish between public and private institutions in the case of campus carry. Senate Bill 11 allows private universities to opt out of the requirements. Three of the private universities in Texas, Trinity University in San Antonio, Austin College in Sherman and Paul Quinn College in Dallas, all said they expect to opt out of the law.

“I don’t ever want to be a college president who has to call a parent and tell them that their child has been shot on campus,” Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn, told the Texas Tribune.

Seeing the pushback from private universities, faculty at UT Austin were hoping that would send a clear signal to the legislature. “Let’s put it this way, they’re not opting in,” Professor Jones said.

Birdwell’s view is that SB11 “decriminalizes the carrying of concealed handguns in college buildings.” Professors do not share his opinion. All three professors who spoke with Generation Progress explained that all three spaces, classrooms, offices, and dormitories, have consequences.

In October, Professor Daniel Hamermesh resigned out of fear. “With a huge group of students my perception is that the risk that a disgruntled student might bring a gun into the classroom and start shooting at me has been substantially enhanced by the concealed-carry law,” he wrote in his resignation letter.

“The faculty who are most concerned about [classrooms] are people who teach controversial subjects. It’s going to be a chilling effect on free speech any way you look at it,” said Snodderly, “I don’t generally teach large classes, but it’s not just the classes, how about my office? Sometimes students get upset about the grades they get or they’re upset about their personal lives or whatever. It has many ramifications.”

Gilmson’s classes are also small. In fact, she teaches classical piano on campus and so her interactions with students are often one on one. “In my particular field it is very personalized,” she said, “My classes are atypical compared to other classes.” Like Jones, her concerns are less about her classroom and more about her office space and the campus space in general.

Despite their personal fears, faculty members are standing together to advocate for a safe campus. “The University really wanted to put this behind them and move on, but the faculty was not interested in that at all,” said Jones.

Gun Free UT is run by primarily faculty members, and student involvement is present but low. “There has been no question about how students feel about it,” said Snodderly. “They are very much against having guns on campus.” However, despite students’ strong stance, they are not as involved as faculty members would like.

“Students have been way too passive in these conversations,” said Jones, “It’s their university and their degree in the future. I am hoping for more student involvement.”  Snodderly agrees that he wants more student involvement, but understands the limitations.

“They haven’t lead the efforts, but they have certainly participated,” he said. “Students are busy, and it also hasn’t happened yet,” he said referring to the recommendations from the president about gun-free zones.

Ultimately, both Jones and Snodderly believe that organizing is key and wished they had done so sooner.

“We made a mistake not getting organized a year early,” Jones said about campus carry. “We weren’t ready.” Now, Gun Free UT has 1,800 members in its closed Facebook group and has gathered more than 8,000 signatures on its petition to keep guns out of classrooms.

“If we don’t get organized, these laws will get worse,” Jones said. “The gun crowd will come back just as the anti-abortion groups have done [in Texas] and push, and push, and push, until it’s law. We need to show parents, and donors, and faculty members at other universities that this is just not the way to go. It will make the campus an unlivable and unsafe place.”

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