The Students Speak

Activist group The Students Speak dedicated their full attention and energy to UT administrators and state legislators in a rally on Wednesday to protest budget cuts. About 100 students participated in the rally, which started at the statue of Martin Luther King Jr. and ended at the Capitol, where President William Powers Jr. testified before the Senate Finance Committee. Throughout downtown, they chanted “They say cut back, we say, ‘fight back,’” and wore red T-shirts with “No Budget Cuts” on the back. Their posters boasted slogans such as “Budget Cuts have Faces” and “Save Our Staff.” The College of Liberal Arts will lose $3.5 million in funding over the next three years, said Richard Flores, the college’s senior associate dean for academic affairs. The first $1 million cut will impact Liberal Arts centers, including those for Women’s and Gender studies, Asian American Studies and Mexican American Studies, according to a recommendation plan released by the Academic Planning and Advisory Committee. The committee includes faculty from nine departments, and its proposals are part of the college’s considerations in cuts. “We are being realistic, and we understand that cuts will have to be made in some fashion, but we are waiting to see what final decisions will be made by the dean of liberal arts,” said Luis Guevara, program coordinator for the Center for Mexican American Studies. Liberal Arts Dean Randy Diehl is meeting with different departments and centers before finalizing the cuts in a few weeks, Flores said. He said it will be hard to make cuts that the Legislature is asking the University to make without hurting the students. Flores said the centers are not seeing the worst impact of the budget shortfall. Many departments already lost funding last semester, he said. The Students Speak coalition, which organized the rally, started last semester in response to the cuts the advisory committee proposed to the centers. Austin resident Reuben Hayslett participated in the rally because he said he knows the importance of ethnic and gender studies. He said he attended Georgia Southern University for writing and linguistics, but the major no longer exists because of slashed funding. “I think the centers are important because they offer a chance for more critical thinking,” Hayslett said. Religious studies senior Caitlin Eaves said if it wasn’t for the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, she would not be doing her honors thesis. “I came here and I needed guidance,” Eaves said. “I needed to know what queer women in history have done. I needed to be able to locate myself in history.” Eaves said the center helped her by providing quality courses and excellent faculty members who proved to be great mentors. The Students Speak is organizing another rally on March 12. Eaves said the group wanted to hold a Saturday rally so parents and other working adults could participate.

A controversial flier depicting President William Powers Jr., and College of Liberal Arts Dean Randy Diehl as members of the Ku Klux Klan created a rift within student activist group The Students Speak. Several members of the organization created the flier last week without consent of the group in response to proposed cuts to the specialized ethnic and identity studies centers. There will be no administrative representation Tuesday at The Students Speak open forum to discuss the cuts because of insufficient notice and the flier passed out at last week’s question-and-answer session, the liberal arts deans said. Caitlin Eaves, a group member and religious studies senior, said the flier made her feel uncomfortable because it was inaccurate and did not represent the majority opinion. “For one, institutional racism and KKK terrorizing aren’t synonymous struggles, but the biggest problem was that there wasn’t consensus about the flier,” she said. Eaves said the group’s diversity of ideas are much needed and appreciated, but members must be able to understand each other and their beliefs. “We need the organizers who will create a mission statement, but we also need the sit-ins and the walk-outs,” she said. “Most importantly, we need mutual respect for each other within our movement.” The group’s Facebook page, intended to be a public channel of conversation for members and interested students, was the medium for a series of heated exchanges between group members. The flier was one of many issues concerning activism the group disagreed on, including means of protest and communication. Tatiana Young, a women’s and gender studies graduate student and member of the organization, said the Facebook disagreement was a teachable moment that everyone in the organization could learn from. “It has made us sit down and hammer out some organizational stuff and to be mindful of the challenges of organizing,” Young said. “We’ve restructured TSS to work more as a community assembly and to work on a modified consensus.” Young said although the flier was divisive, she does not believe that is the sole reason the liberal arts deans are refusing to attend the forum. Young said even if there was no flier, she doesn’t think Associate Dean Richard Flores would have attended. Leticia Silva, a Latin American studies senior and member of the organization, said she did not feel the cartoon was as controversial as it was made out to be because it was intended to make students think. “It’s a political cartoon, it’s supposed to be thought-provoking,” Silva said. “Maybe they don’t go out in the streets wearing white hoods, but they are still affecting people of color in a real way.” Although College of Liberal Arts administrators will not be present at the forum Tuesday, Diehl said he is committed to having student input as he considers the budget cut proposal. “As I make my decisions about the college budget, I will continue to meet with registered student organizations and leaders who have demonstrated a willingness to have a serious and respectful discussion,” Diehl said. “They are an important part of this consultative process.” Diehl did not mention the flier, and Powers could not be reached for comment.

Both polite questions and angry accusations marked a College of Liberal Arts open forum Tuesday night, when students and college deans met to discuss a $1 million recommended cut to various ethnic and identity studies centers. The Liberal Arts Council and the Senate of College Councils co-sponsored the COLA State of the College Address for students to exchange dialogue with the college’s administration regarding last November’s budget cuts proposal. Many Student Government and Senate representatives attended, as well as members of The Students Speak, a group formed in November in reaction to the cuts that they say will negatively impact students. “It’s outrageous that we have to fight to keep ethnic studies alive, something that we had to fight to get here in the first place,” said Leticia Silva, a Latin American studies senior. The Academic Planning and Advisory Committee proposed the cuts to 14 centers and institutes, with the Centers for African and African American, Middle Eastern, Mexican American and Latin American studies receiving the largest blows. The proposal is the first of a series of steps that Dean Randy Diehl said will be complete later in the semester after the deans have taken input from students and faculty. Diehl said at the time the cuts were initially proposed, administrators had just learned that a proposed $90 million liberal arts building would not receive funding from the Board of Regents and the state. The college had to choose between the building or a budget re-evaluation. “We could scuttle the building project or develop an alternative way to fund the building, and we decided to go with the latter,” he said. Diehl said the new building is “critical to the future” of the College of Liberal Arts, and it is important to build it now because costs are low. Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Richard Flores said in December that without the pending 10-percent cut from the State Legislature, the $3.5 million cut that includes the centers’ cuts would be unnecessary. The college is still trying to determine how to cut the other $2.5 million. A recent evaluation determined the Center for European Studies, which got increased funding in the first proposal, will also have its budget reduced. Liberal Arts Council President Carl Thorne-Thomsen said he thought the forum was a success because it allowed students to give input to the deans. “We certainly understand how students might have felt that they haven’t had a say in some in these decisions, [so] it’s pretty reassuring to know that they are coming out to listen,” Thorne-Thomsen said. The Students Speak spokesperson Bernardino Villasenor said the forum was great in terms of getting students to come out, and he is hoping the student input will have more of an impact. The Students Speak invited the deans to come to its public forum Feb. 1 to hear from more concerned students. Villasenor said their forum will be the beginning of actions they will take this legislative session. “We are completely against these cuts and we are going to try to keep them from happening here,” he said. “That means we are going to have to evolve our fight and go to the Legislature, and we will do that.”

One hundred and fifty students stormed the halls of the Gebauer liberal arts building on Wednesday and fired questions at Senior Associate Dean Richard Flores about $1 million in suggested cuts to 15 UT centers and institutes announced in November.

They had already marched across the West Mall and into the Main Building, the message of their signs and chants ranging from cries for relief to accusations of racism. The Centers for Latin American, Mexican American, Middle Eastern and African American studies bear the brunt of the proposed cuts. Many students at the rally said the centers attracted them to the University and offered a primary outlet for research, scholarships and identity exploration.

“Ultimately my decision to go to graduate school was linked to the experiences that I had as an undergraduate and the support I received from the Center for African and African American Studies,” said Courtney Morris, an anthropology graduate student. “I was exposed to opportunities that I wouldn’t have had without a center like that.”

Morris was one of several students who spoke at the rally, hosted by campus activist organization ¡ella pelea! and The Students Speak, an activist group formed in response to the recommendations. She said she was there to protest a recommendation to reduce college funds by 40 percent in the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, among other ethnic studies centers. She said she received guidance from African-American faculty, traveled to Nicaragua, learned Spanish and conducted undergraduate research with help from the center.

Flores and other college administrators said the proposal is directly linked to state-mandated budget reductions, especially a planned 10-percent cut that will require the college to cut $3.75 million in recurring spending over the next two years. The recommendation to the centers is the first step in a process that may also impact funding for graduate programs and departments.

Liberal arts departments lost $4.6 million in soft money to fund teaching assistant salaries in the spring and also had to make a state-mandated 5-percent cut that they met by laying off administrators or leaving positions vacant.

After the soft money loss, which came because of an unexpected loss of allocated tuition money, the college formed the Academic Planning and Advisory Committee, a group of nine faculty members who would complete the first phase of discussions. They based their recommendations for the center cuts on a set of 42 objective metrics.

“This is not the final resting place for any of the cuts,” Flores said. “We’re beginning a consultative process with all the centers so we can hear from faculty and students.”

College of Liberal Arts Dean Randy Diehl won’t sign a final proposal until some time in the spring semester, Flores said. He added that Diehl and President William Powers Jr. agreed the centers are priorities for the University. The cuts to the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies and the Center for Mexican American studies will most likely shrink because they represent major demographics in Texas and help draw many students to UT, he said.

However, administrators are forced to consider the good of the college as a whole when they determine how to answer the planned 10-percent cut, Flores said. Students said the centers should receive special consideration because of the demographics they represent.

“It was a fight to even bring these departments here and validate them academically both at UT and larger academia, to say that the stories of queer people and people of color are valuable,” American Studies graduate student Jacqueline Smith said. “It’s about understanding the fabric of our nation and the nations around us.”

Others went as far as to state they believe the cuts and administrators considering them are racist. Flores denied the accusation and said the committee weighed all centers — whether related to ethnic studies or not — on the same metrics. He was the associate director of the Center for Mexican American Studies twice in the early 2000s.

Many students called for the funding to come from cuts to athletics or construction. However, private donors contribute most funding for new buildings, and athletics not only pays for itself but contributes millions back to the academic side of the University.

Several Liberal Arts Council and Student Government representatives attended the rally, although other students accused them of not serving as the official student voice. Council President Carl Thorne-Thomsen said the group will actively seek students involved with the centers to get their feedback on budget measures.

“The most important thing is that we get the student opinion and convey that to administrators who can make changes,” Thorne-Thomsen said. “But we also have to organize this student sentiment and present a solid front to the Texas Legislature. When we take those concerns down to the Legislature, we will have our voices heard.”

In the meantime, students will continue to rally to the administration on behalf of the centers, Students Speak leaders said. They are planning a meeting for Feb. 1 and urging students, faculty and administrators to come for an open dialogue. As they stood around Flores in Gebauer, rounding into their third hour of protesting, they asked him pointedly if he would attend. In the face of the most complicated budget crisis the college has ever faced, his answer was simple.

“If you invite me to a meeting, I’ll be there,” Flores said.