Ana Hernandez

The Progressive Student Organization held an open panel to discuss fraternity culture Tuesday night. The panel aimed to provide a safe place to discuss topics such as rape and racism.
Photo Credit: Mariana Gonzalez | Daily Texan Staff

Fraternity members and other students discussed topics such as racist parties and sexual harassment in the context of fraternity culture.

The Progressive Student Organization (PSO), which unites members of various progressive groups at UT, hosted the open panel discussion Tuesday. Ana Hernandez, Latin American studies senior and member of PSO, said the discussion aimed to provide a safe space to talk about sensitive topics, including racism and rape, and give a voice to marginalized groups, such as women and minorities.

“We find areas to unite beyond our specific political lines and causes that we fight for on and off campus,” PSO member Kyle Joseph said.

The discussion mentioned highly publicized incidents, including the Fiji fraternity “border patrol” party at UT as well as the racist chant at the recently shut down chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at Oklahoma University.

Students from various majors and backgrounds contributed their personal experiences and opinions to the discussion.

Joseph Flores, international relations and global studies junior, said he thinks finding community in a fraternity is not bad, but fraternities are in a position of power to oppress other groups.

“There’s nothing inherently wrong with finding solidarity with those of a similar race or gender, but problems arise when a group that is empowered — such as a fraternity — exists within a patriarchy that facilitates degrading women,” Flores said.

The discussion also addressed the perception that fraternities tend to be exclusive and focus on certain racial and socioeconomic groups rather than others. English junior Frances Molina said she thinks there is a binary within fraternity culture that disenfranchises certain groups.

“Whenever there is a binary — two groups that are held comparatively — one group is empowered to make decisions for how the other group is viewed and how that group interacts with the world,” Molina said. “I have a general feeling of unease concerning the sense of racism within frat culture and the lack of judiciary response to offensive incidents.”

PSO wants to have conversations with fraternity members in order to enact change from within, according to Hernandez.

“People already in the frat community have more access to spread the message [of change] because they are part of [fraternities],” Hernandez said.

Several fraternity members also participated in the discussion but refused to comment.

Ana Hernandez, UT Amnesty International chapter vice president, standing, hosted a forum discussing racism, guns and assault in Benedict Hall on Tuesday evening.
Photo Credit: Jack DuFon | Daily Texan Staff

Different student organizations focused on human rights discussed campus racism, gun safety and sexual assault at an open talk Tuesday at Benedict Hall.

UT’s chapter of Amnesty International, a global human rights movement, hosted the event, which sought to educate students about the three topics and begin a wider discourse on campus, according to Amnesty International Vice President Ana Hernandez. 

“These three topics affect the daily lives of students, and they are issues that we have here on the UT campus,” Hernandez said. “As students, it is our responsibility to have honest conversations about these issues. As a human rights organization, we feel that it is our role to help facilitate those conversations about the rights that students have to their bodies, property and well-being.”

In a presentation to the 15 people gathered, Hernandez reviewed the University’s past problems with racism, highlighting racist fraternity parties beginning in the 19th century, alleged “bleach bomb” incidents at UT in 2013, a series of controversies that have surrounded the Young Conservatives organization and a party the Fiji fraternity hosted this semester which guests said was themed “border patrol.”

Hernandez said leaders at UT have not stepped up enough to take stands on these issues, making accountability by students critical.

Accountability for sexual assault has also plagued campuses such as UT, according to a different presentation given by Amnesty International members. According to the presentation, 81 percent of students at universities in Texas report experiencing sexual harassment, but presenters said statistics show many incidents go unreported.

First-year law student Heather Kerstetter, who said she experienced sexual assault at while UT and reported it, said she believes the University was not there enough in her time of need.

“I feel like UT kind of brushes things under the rug as far as sexual assault goes,” Kerstetter said. “From my own experience, the person who I’ve had an issue with still walks the campus, and I still see them. The University needs to have better policies set up so [students like me] feel safer.”

On-campus safety, including sexual assault, should be further discussed because of campus carry legislation passed that could allow handguns on campus, said Hannah Guernsey, a member of Students Against Guns on Campus who spoke at the discussion.

While Guernsey argued that guns on campus would make the University more dangerous because of factors such as binge-drinking, drug abuse, mental health issues and accidental shootings, she said students need to more openly debate this issue to form a student voice legislators can hear.

“The rights to security of people has to be open to argument,” Guernsey said. “This debate directly impacts [us].”

More students need to participate in these dialogues to create change, Kerstetter said.

“I wish more people knew about [events such as these] and had access to them, because I really think the more communication there is around campus and society, the better,” Kerstetter said. “These topics aren’t
discussed enough.”

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

In a continued effort to prioritize higher education in this year’s legislative session, a group of six legislators are working to provide a tax exemption on certain textbooks. 

Rep. Mary González (D-El Paso), Rep. Ana Hernandez (D-Houston), Rep. Eddie Lucio III (D-Brownsville), Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) and Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), individually filed bills that would offer part-time or full-time students at accredited public or private universities a tax exemption on textbooks each semester. 

If passed, each of the bills would set a time period during which students could purchase textbooks tax-free. 

“As we discuss curving tuition cost and financial aid opportunities, it was important for us to look at the spiking cost in textbook costs that students have to purchase each year,” Hernandez said.  

Canales, Hernandez and Schwertner’s bills set aside a week-long exemption period at the start of each semester. Zaffirini’s bill set aside 10 days, Lucio’s set aside one month and González’s set no time limit on the tax exemption.

Michael Kiely, course materials director at University Co-op, said the first week of the semester is typically the busiest for textbook sales and said the store would support sales tax exemptions.

“I’m not entirely sure what the impact of a sales tax exemption would have on textbook sales, but I can’t help but think it would be a positive thing for the consumer,” Kiely said in an email to The Daily Texan. “This is an initiative that would help lower the cost of course materials for students at UT, and the Co-op would be in favor of that.”

Canales said he hopes the bill will help more students afford day-to-day expenses while attending college. 

“Education is the greatest equalizer, so, essentially, what these bills do is they make education more affordable,” Canales said.

Schwertner said passing a textbook tax exemption bill is “the least we can do” to aid students who are struggling financially.

“The fact is, the cost of higher education is rising faster than Texas families can … keep up,” Schwertner said. “The price of tuition, fees and textbooks have all risen dramatically over the last decade, and, collectively, they are turning the dream of a college education into a nightmare for more and more Texas students.”

Since 1999, similar bills have been filed in the State House of Representatives and Senate but failed to pass, with the last bill filed in the 83rd legislative session. Zaffirini said the bill failed because of concerns over revenue loss.

Zaffirini said her most recent bill will only apply to students eligible for financial aid — a factor she thinks will lessen the bill’s financial impact on the state and increase its chances of passing. 

“In the past, we have heard opposition from certain municipalities that rely on sales tax revenue from textbook sales,” Zaffirini said. “We are hopeful that they will be more amenable to this session’s revised legislation.”

Hernandez said she thinks lowering the cost of higher education is an opportunity for Republican and Democrat lawmakers to work together.

“There are so many issues we can work on in a bipartisan fashion,” Hernandez said. “I think this is one of them. We are interested in helping our college students not graduate with so much debt and making education more accessible to everyone.”