Students continue to engage in activist groups

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Gathered under the UT Tower for their weekly general assembly meeting, Occupy UT members discussed their demonstration plans for the following week. At first glance, the organization appears new — but it has been years in the making.

Dating back to tuition deregulation in 2003, student activist groups have held a presence at the University, with new names emerging every couple of semesters. In recent years, groups like Stop the Cuts, The Students Speak and now Occupy UT have fought an ongoing battle against University-wide budget cuts and the cost of attendance. Some members speculate that even if Occupy UT loses momentum, there will be another organization to take its place in the future.

Teri Adams, women’s and gender studies senior, said she became involved in student activism with Students Speak last year and will continue to be until the University takes action on student concerns. Adams said she began her fight against budget cuts and the administration with Students Speak in 2010 and is now a member of Occupy UT. She said Students Speak is no longer active because many members graduated or moved on to other organizations.

Students Speak formed in 2010 to oppose the $1 million cuts to the ethnic and identity studies programs in the College of Liberal Arts. The organization used flash mobs, lobbying, multimedia and marches in efforts to get UT administrators’ attention.

“The people who were involved in Students Speak who are still on campus are now involved in Occupy UT because it’s a better organizational platform,” Adams said.

The way UT administration responds to student activism has changed with every organization, Adams said.

“They didn’t respond much to Students Speak because of the general trend in letting students have their protest and hoping students will graduate or it will die down,” Adams said. “But [now] they respond immediately. Before we even show signs of encampment they show up with this camping ban.”

Mary Beth Mercatoris, assistant dean of students, said UT students have a history of being engaged with political activism. She also said UT students may continue to utilize their freedom of expression if Occupy UT loses momentum. Students are given the chance to voice their opinions via the Tuition Policy and Advisory Committee and have engaged in TPAC since she began at UT in 2007, Mercatoris said.

Mercatoris said the University wants to support student protesters even though they usually display distrust towards the UT administration. Both Students Speak and Occupy UT have declined to become registered student organizations.

“As long as our students feel a call to action, they will come together to voice their passions and often this results in the formation of student organizations,” Mercatoris said. “When students come together to voice their opinions regarding different issues, our campus becomes the exact platform of education we desire.”

Jim Branson, a supervisor at the Texas State Employees Union, said the Union has supported Stop the Cuts, Students Speak and Occupy UT because his organization agrees with their cause. The Union is a state group that advocates for fair pay and fair policies for all Texas workers.

Branson said many of the students in Stop the Cuts and Students Speak crossed over to Occupy UT, which the Union currently supports.

“Did one organization become another? No,” Branson said. “Some folks have been involved with all three and new folks have been added along the way. The key thing is students have been continually expressing their opposition at the University and the question of the funding and quality of higher education.”

Student Government President Natalie Butler said she is familiar with all three organizations, and although they formed on different issues, they all share a common ground. Adams said she and many members of Occupy UT have expressed dissatisfaction with student representatives like Butler, because they think representatives cannot accurately represent the voice of 50,000 students.

Butler said she would encourage students in Occupy UT to understand the process rather than criticize it.

“As student leaders, we are here to listen and I hope they use those channels and actually engage in dialogue with us,” Butler said. “Also understand that agree or disagree, we are all working hard for students at the University of Texas.”

Occupy UT currently has approximately 60 members. On Tuesday, the group supported an SG initiative for a campus-wide tuition referendum, which passed with a majority vote in the SG general assembly.

Printed on Friday, February 3, 2012 as: Activist groups draw students