When it was first announced that four of the five living presidents would be coming to UT, the campus was electrified. We were on the brink of a historical landmark, and students would get to see it play out firsthand. The Civil Rights Summit would present students the opportunity to re-examine what the American promise “all men are created equal” means in present day. What they soon discovered, however, was that not all students are created equal when it comes to getting a seat in the audience.
Of the limited seats available in the audience, an undisclosed number were first allocated toward guests of the presidents and panelists. Student access was limited from the start. Students were told that the online live streams would make up for the lack of available tickets.
“A president says, ‘I’d like this many guests to come,’ and he gets to do that because he [is or was] the president,” LBJ Library spokeswoman Anne Wheeler said. “Then, we have approximately 60 panelists that have spouses and families that want to attend too, and that varies from program to program.”
There will always be priority seats for events of this nature. The better question, then, would be why the summit is taking place in the Lady Bird Johnson Auditorium, which seats only 967 patrons.
After family, VIP guests, security and media eat up another roughly 200 spots per event. Then, an additional 340 tickets were given to faculty, community leaders and guests.
According to UT officials and the LBJ Library, out of the 1,400 tickets left for students, 435 were distributed via a lottery exclusive to the LBJ School of Public Affairs. This left only 875 tickets for the Office of the Dean of Students for distribution to the general student body. But before they threw all 875 tickets in the lottery, the office reserved eight of the 75 tickets to President Barack Obama’s address for incoming and outgoing presidents of Student Government, the Senate of College Councils and the Graduate Student Assembly and members of Texas Student Media, the Texas Unions board and the Campus Events + Entertainment board. Another 10 tickets out of 100 for former President Bill Clinton’s address were also put aside for student leaders in organizations related to student affairs, such as advisory councils for RecSports, University Health Services, University Residence Halls and the Gender and Sexuality Center.
Additionally, tickets were given to other offices besides the Office of the Dean of Students and were distributed to exclusive groups. The six Larry Temple scholars were offered tickets to every single one of the events — including all presidential addresses except the one by former President George W. Bush. Select Terry Foundation scholars were also offered tickets. Eighty students involved in the Texas Program in Sports and Media also snagged tickets. It is unclear how many other prestigious student groups got their hands on tickets.
The remaining spots — likely less than 800 — were all thrown in six different lotteries, where 9,035 hopeful students vied for the opportunity to attend an event. That means that, at best, less than 9 percent of interested students were able to attend after all the VIP student invitations.
And adding insult to injury, not all of those 9 percent attended the afternoon panels on Tuesday. As Madlin Mekelburg reported in the Daily Texan on Wednesday, low attendance left many seats empty, seats that could have been occupied by students who were denied tickets in the initial lottery. The University did, however, decide to offer “standby” lines for the afternoon panel discussions on Wednesday and Thursday.
Given all the limitations on student attendance, it’s worth asking why the University decided to hold the event in the Auditorium to begin with.
“First, this is Lyndon Johnson’s presidential library, and it’s the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” Wheeler said. “His last public appearance was in this auditorium, during the civil rights symposium.”
Additionally, Wheeler explained that another reason behind the venue was its proximity to the Cornerstone of Civil Rights exhibit, where four key civil rights documents are located, including a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Senate resolution where President Abraham Lincoln proposed the 13th Amendment, the signed Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the signed Voting Rights Act of 1965.
While I can personally appreciate the historical weight of the auditorium and library, I don’t think it quite justifies hosting all but one of the events in a venue that leaves so many students excluded from such a landmark occasion. There are many students desperate to attend the presidential addresses, and I can’t help but think that moving those events to venues like the Frank Erwin Center, where the capacity would increase more than sixteen-fold, from 967 to 16,734, would obviously greatly increase attendance and make the event much more equitable.
What this venue choice tells us is that the summit isn’t really for the student body at large. Choosing the auditorium over a larger, more general venue is perhaps symbolic of the intention behind the summit — hosting only the few most distinguished students and guests in one of the most distinguished settings on campus.
Huynh is a Plan II and business honors sophomore from Laredo.