Sep 27, 2021 - Politics

Scoop: UT docs show faculty frustration amid Gov. Abbott's latest COVID orders

The University of Texas at Austin clocktower.

The University of Texas at Austin clocktower. Photo: Ilana Panich-Linsman/Washington Post via Getty Images

An internal University of Texas document obtained by Axios details professors' concerns over COVID-19 classroom logistics as the fall semester approached.

Driving the news: The document, circulated to professors via email in late July, outlines pressing faculty questions on masks, COVID-19 testing and more, with responses from a member of the university's coronavirus task force.

Why it matters: The document reveals the internal fallout at the flagship public university from the sweeping COVID-19 decisions made by the Texas governor in late May, under pressure from quarters within his own Republican Party.

State of play: UT loosened coronavirus precautions over the summer following Gov. Greg Abbott's orders, which barred the university — and other state agencies — from mandating vaccinations or masks.

  • Last academic year, UT marked building doorways as either entrances or exits, erected signs to direct the flow of foot traffic and turned off water fountains.

Now that's all out the window. And it has professors on edge.

What they're saying: "Can I tell students that I will only meet in-person in my office with vaccinated individuals?" faculty asked. "Can I poll my students anonymously about their vaccination status?"

  • The answers were no and no.
"[T]he university is not allowed to inquire about individuals' vaccination status (including faculty asking students in any way) due to prevailing state law and executive orders from the governor."
— university lawyers, per the document
  • "The Law School is not at liberty to adopt rules contrary to university policy, and the university is not at liberty to depart from state law," UT Law School Dean Ward Farnsworth told faculty in another email obtained by Axios through an open records request.

Yes, but: Faculty pushed back, begging administrators to defy the governor's order.

  • "While we all know what Governor Abbott has decreed by executive order, I'm wondering what it would take to call his bluff, and whether that is feasible," Charlie Press, a clinical professor at UT's law school, wrote to his deans and colleagues in an email provided to Axios by another faculty member.

Asher's thought bubble: The reason UT has not defied the governor — when more than 100 school districts statewide have — is due to who controls the levers of power.

  • UT is a state agency overseen by nine regents appointed by the governor — and many have been major donors to Abbott's campaign.
  • Meanwhile, school districts are overseen by locally elected school board members.

By the numbers: Since the first day of classes this semester, there are at least 320 known UT student cases of COVID-19 and more than 45 among faculty and staff. The school has 78 active cases, per a tally late last week. By contrast, there are at least 300 known active cases, at last count, at Texas A&M.

What's (not) next: With the conservative-minded Texas Legislature controlling the university's purse strings, UT officials are unlikely to test lawmakers or Abbott on COVID-19 rules, leaving anxious faculty, staff and students with little leverage.


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