May 30, 2024 - Politics

How protests shaped UT's graduation arrangements

Mortarboards of graduates of the University of Texas, including one that says "Divest."

A graduate wears a cap decorated with the Palestinian flag at the University of Texas commencement this month. Photo: Raquel Natalicchio/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

Commencement went off smoothly at the University of Texas earlier this month, but records newly obtained by Axios show how the university beefed up security guidelines issued to the public in the wake of a year of unrest.

Why it matters: The guidance, titled "Graduate and Guest Conduct Guidelines," was absent in last year's posted commencement security guidelines, which Axios obtained through an open records request.

  • It reflects a campus on edge after protests led to clashes with police.

What they're saying: "Thank you in advance for fostering a celebratory atmosphere for our graduates as we recognize their achievements," says the start of the new section, sent out to the community in early May.

  • "Speech, expression or assembly that disrupts or interferes with any aspect of the ceremonies is not permitted," the new section says.
  • "Heckling speakers, making noise that prevents others from hearing the event presentation, or otherwise interfering with the ceremonies' planned events will result in removal from the venue."

It continued: "Attendees and graduates will not be permitted to block entrances, exits or pathways in or around campus or in individual venues."

  • "Outside demonstrations cannot cause disruption to graduation ceremonies or block entrances, exits or pathways on campus."

Between the lines: University spokesperson Mike Rosen said security and attendee protocols for the university-wide commencement were unchanged from 2023 to 2024.

  • "While select protocols listed on the university's website may vary from year to year, they are derived from the university's comprehensive institutional rules, which are in effect for all university functions and events."

Catch up quick: It was a year of unrest on the UT campus.

  • A pair of graduate students were removed from their teaching assistant positions after they sent a message to students outlining mental health resources for students troubled by the Israel-Gaza war — and writing that they "firmly support the rights and autonomy of Palestinians."
  • Students protesting the removal were then ordered to write papers reflecting on their actions as punishment.

Also: Both Muslim and Jewish students reported feeling unsafe, and a 23-year-old Palestinian American man was stabbed just off campus in February.

Zoom in: Then came the clashes with police in late April that led to the arrests of more than 100 pro-Palestinian protesters.

Friction point: "The university would rather enforce and put money into policing our communities and policing their own students than they would to supporting them," Anachí Ponce, a UT student attending an April 24 protest, told the Austin American-Statesman.

  • "These are students who are protesting a genocide and the lack of action from UT administration for the way that they haven't been super helpful against hate crimes against Muslim students on campus," Ponce said.

The other side: "People continue to express themselves in many different, very personal, heartfelt ways," university president Jay Hartzell said in a video message ahead of commencement. "We support such expressions, and have supported them, each and every time, when the intent was to use our campus as a platform to lawfully protest and have their positions heard."

  • "Still, we have a duty to prepare and protect not only our ceremonies, but our graduates, their families and guests, as well as our greater Longhorn community."

The bottom line: Ultimately, protests were light at UT during commencement ceremonies — with a "Free Palestine" flag spotted and a walkout by some students.

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