Bill Powers Jr.

Earlier this month, the UT Board of Regents denied President Bill Powers Jr.’s request to make an official statement about Iran’s imprisonment of Omid Kokabee, a UT physics graduate student. The Regents cited a rule in the Rules and Regulations of the Board of Regents that prohibits university personnel from making official statements on behalf of the university that relate to political or controversial issues.

A bright, promising physics student — who was recognized as such by both Iranian and U.S. scientists — Kokabee was arrested and detained in his native Iran in February 2011. After a brief trial, during which the prosecution presented few facts, an Iranian court sentenced Kokabee to 10 years imprisonment for “communicating with a hostile government” and “illegal earnings.”

Kokabee, who completed his undergraduate education in Iran, came to UT in the fall of 2010 to earn a doctoral degree in quantum optics. During his first winter break, Kokabee went to Tehran to visit his family. Iranian authorities arrested him at the airport before he boarded his return flight to America. Kokabee was taken to Evin Prison, in northwestern Iran, where he was put in solitary confinement. During his May 2012 trial, Iranian state-controlled television broadcast eerie footage of Kokabee’s fellow prisoners thanking the Iranian government for arresting them and begging for clemency. Kokabee denied all charges against him.

Worldwide, members of the science community have denounced Kokabee’s arrest and the punishment levied against him. After Kokabee’s trial, the Rector of the University of Oslo, Ole Petter Otterson, sent an open letter to the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, asking that Kokabee receive a fair trial.

But at UT, the only official response to Kokabee’s unjust circumstances has been silence.

In late June, President Powers attempted to change that. Powers wrote to the Board of Regents, seeking a waiver to the rule that prevents him from speaking out about political or controversial issues in his capacity as university president.

In response, Chancellor of the Board Francisco Cigarroa denied Powers’ request, writing that only the board president or UT system chancellor may comment upon “matters of a political or obviously controversial nature, which represent an official position of the UT system or any institution or department thereof.” The underlying logic of the rule: If other university personnel — Powers ­— take formal, public positions of a political nature, their view may be confused as being the official position of the public institution, according to Anthony de Bruyn, a UT System spokesman. Cigarroa encouraged Powers to reach out to human rights groups on his own. The rule cited by Cigarroa would allow Powers to do this so long as he did not claim to do so in his capacity as president of UT.

With the trial and imprisonment of Omid Kokabee, a physicist’s career and a fellow student’s life has been arbitrarily torn asunder. What makes sense about an official at a university in Oslo being more liberated to speak up against the injustice of Kokabee’s circumstances than the president of Kokabee’s own university? Is the Board of Regents’ rule-following really a nose-thumbing gesture directed at President Powers, who has sparred with the board about separate issues in recent months?

If yes, the Board of Regents has played a card that reflects poorly on it and UT. By effectively silencing UT’s institutional voice about Kokabee, the Board of Regents allows the school to join the side of Kokabee’s captors, courtroom judge and those dominant in the Iranian government who favor silencing political discourse and individual rights.

Historically, university presidents exercising their First Amendment rights have injected more intelligence into all sorts of debates and by doing so, raised the profile of their schools. Nicholas Butler, who served as president of Columbia University in New York from 1902 to 1945, advised American presidents, campaigned for Prohibition, played a significant role in Republican politics and won a Nobel Peace Prize for his campaign against war as an appropriate, diplomatic action. Before he became U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson, as president of Princeton University between 1902 and 1910, fought what he thought was a culture of elitism and smallness at the school, and sought to enlarge students’ worldview at the same time as he enlarged the university.

Closer to home, UT had its own champion of the bully pulpit: former university president Homer Price Rainey, who raised his voice for academic freedom.

But the conclusion of Rainey’s tenure left our school with a problematic legacy. In 1944, Rainey defended an English professor’s right to teach John Dos Passos’ novel “USA.” The Board of Regents responded to his outspokenness by firing Rainey. Subsequently, Rainey received national credit for his courage and, according to the UT Faculty Council’s website, became “a symbol for academic freedom on the campus in the decades that followed.” The episode marked UT as a school governed by an intolerant board.

In 2012, times have changed. Nationwide, few university presidents, in between their fundraising obligations, enter political debates with gusto. But nonetheless the Board of Regents should take lessons from its own history and remember that freedom of former university professors to add their voice to the national and international dialogue speaks to everything worth defending in this country and absent in Iran.

I received an email last week from UT President Bill Powers Jr. You probably got one, too. The letter announced the more-or-less final figures for state budget cuts in funding for the University. The 2012-13 budget for UT will be reduced 16.5 percent from the original 2010-11 budget, a loss of $92.1 million.

In addition to requiring layoffs and heavy cuts to core University programs, the budget will see our insurance costs — premiums, deductibles and co-pays — rise significantly. In spite of the fact that increasing tax revenue or using the state’s Rainy Day Fund would end our budget woes, UT will likely decrease its contribution to our retirement plans. What’s more, the special session of the Texas Legislature is still considering furloughs and permanent salary cuts for faculty and staff. It is worth noting that UT has already made $14 million in cuts since 2009.

Even as Powers stressed the University is prepared to take these hits, the fact of the matter is we are going to feel the pain. We are not alone. At state universities across Texas — and across the country — legislators are imposing serious funding cuts that affect faculty and staff salary and benefits, class sizes, lab and equipment availability, libraries and other resources, and many other areas that have made our institutions great.

Such cuts are often justified by specious studies claiming faculty don’t work hard enough (as if summers were for vacation as opposed to periods of high-pressure research productivity) or that we should measure the success of the University in numerical terms (numbers of students taught in ever larger classes, graduation rates) rather than intellectual ones (research breakthroughs made, students inspired to pursue knowledge, creation of an open community of inquiry and debate).

The question then becomes how do we fight back? How do we insist on the value of higher education in Texas? How do we defend our standard of living? How can we reach the Legislature with our message?

Here’s one good answer to these questions: Join the Texas State Employees Union.

Historically, unions have been workers’ best line of defense against the erosion of workplace rights, safety, wages, benefits and pensions. The Economic Policy Institute has documented the advantages of being in a union: higher wages, more and better benefits, more effective utilization of social insurance programs, more effective enforcement of legislated labor protections, health and overtime regulations, and a strong work force in politics and the broader community. Evidence from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows unionized workers earn more and have a higher standard of living than non-unionized workers (2008 median weekly income for the unionized worker was $880 versus $690 for non-unionized).

Many UT workers don’t know they have a union available to them; one that has defended the rights of faculty and staff for the past three decades. Since 1981, the union has won pay raises for University workers across the UT and A&M systems, established our right to testify in the Legislature, stopped numerous pay freezes, defended health care and pensions and fought off budget cuts and privatization. For example, in 2007, the union won a 4-percent across-the-board raise over two years for all state employees, including University workers.

The union includes state workers across all state institutions from higher education to agencies overseeing health and human services for all Texans. In standing with these workers, and they with us, we create a solidarity that is the basis of our voice and power. At the University, the union’s ranks include hundreds of faculty, graduate instructors, custodians, nurses, administrative employees, security officers, maintenance employees and countless others who are essential to maintaining quality higher education in Texas.

The mission statement of the union’s University Caucus pledges to advocate for pay raises, affordable health care and a secure pension fund. The statement reads, “We will ensure that our voices are heard as decisions that affect us are made at the state, university, and departmental level. We want true Jobs with Justice, where our input is listened to and we are respected for the work we do. Equal treatment and access to real due process are key aspects of our vision of democracy at work.”

Included in this vision of democracy is support for equal insurance benefits for all UT families, including those of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees. UT employees committed to winning equal insurance benefits should join and support the union as an important ally.

At the Capitol, it’s been a daunting legislative session, but the University Caucus of the union set as its 2011 legislative goals to fight furloughs of faculty and staff, defend state funding to keep public education public and increase instructional worker (faculty and graduate student teachers) job security and benefits. We will not win these demands this year, but it’s not for lack of advocacy. It takes sustained organization and continual pressure to defend our work and our livelihoods. The more University workers join the union, the more powerful our voice becomes in the long term in asking politicians to respect our work and prioritize our needs.

In these tough times (which are not likely to end soon), we need the union. Please join the union to make it, and us, stronger. For more information and to join, go to http://www.cwa-tseu.org/.

Cloud is an associate communication studies professor.