UT-Austin’s Jay Hartzell praised by GOP leaders as university presidents nationwide take heat over protest response
The University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell on April 18, 2022. Photo: Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune

By Zach Despart and Pooja Salhotra, The Texas Tribune
May 2, 2024

UT-Austin’s Jay Hartzell praised by GOP leaders as university presidents nationwide take heat over protest response” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The call for state police to help wrangle protesters came from the university’s own president, Jay Hartzell.

Across campus, many had assumed that Gov. Greg Abbott deployed the intense show of force on April 24, as he’d been vocal about his opposition to the pro-Palestinian protests elsewhere.

But Hartzell told a state senator he called for backup because he was unwilling to let the University of Texas at Austin become the next Columbia University, which was making headlines as protesters erected encampments across campus.

“(Protesters) indicated their desire to mimic what happened at Columbia and elsewhere, which we are doing our best to avoid for obvious reasons. Our police force couldn’t handle it alone,” he said in an April 25 text with State. Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

That was music to many Texas Republicans‘ ears.

“President [Hartzell] is exactly the right man at the right time to lead our state’s flagship university,” said state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, in a social media post that derided the hundreds of “radical and feckless” faculty members who signed a letter of no confidence over Hartzell’s protest response.

Rep. Cody Harris, R-Palestine, said on X “the vast majority of us think (Hartzell) is doing a fantastic job” and referred to student protesters as “snot-nosed, entitled, mindless brats.”

UT-Austin has joined the ranks of other universities in the national spotlight as hoards of protesters have been recorded being dragged, pepper sprayed and tear gassed by officers wearing riot gear. But Hartzell’s strategy, which so far has netted more than 130 arrests, has prevented encampments or building occupations that have forced presidents of other elite universities into protracted negotiations with students. This refusal to cede any ground earned him rare praise from Republican officials in an environment where university presidents are increasingly becoming punching bags for conservatives angry over their handling of pro-Palestinian protests..

Unrest on college campuses has contributed in part to the resignations of the former presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania. And last week, U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson called on Columbia’s president to resign “if she could not immediately bring order to this chaos.”

As other university leaders have struggled to strike a balance between respecting students’ right to protests while preserving safety — Columbia University this week enlisted the New York Police Department to retake an academic building from demonstrators and the University of Southern California canceled its main commencement ceremony over safety concerns — UT-Austin’s approach has been refreshingly bold, Republicans say.

“I’m glad to say the response there was far different than what you’ve seen in many other parts of the country,” Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said in a statement. “As hundreds of protesters attempted to occupy the campus, the university hasn’t wavered in its commitment to preserve a safe environment for all of its students.”

But the approach has also earned Hartzell intense blowback from his faculty and students, some of whom feel he too often capitulates to the desires of state leaders rather than standing up for the independence of the university.

In a Tuesday video posted to social media platform X, a group of protesters — considerably smaller than the group that had gathered on campus earlier in the week — can be seen yelling “shame” and chanting “Hartzell, Hartzell, you’re a clown, we demand that you step down” outside of the president’s home.

“I don’t know how many times in the history of UT that the president of the university has had protesters show up at their house, but I think that just gives you a sense of how enraged people are,” said Sam Law, a graduate student at UT-Austin who was among those arrested on Monday.

Law is among the 825 graduate students — as of Thursday midday — who signed a petition that expresses solidarity with the protesters and demands that Hartzell resign.

“We demand the resignation of Jay Hartzell and the appointment of a president that upholds the constitutional right of students to free speech.

On Thursday, faculty with UT’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors published a letter expressing their loss in confidence in Hartzell. The letter, which was signed by more than 600 faculty members , calls out Hartzell’s management of the previous day’s protest and his actions to ban diversity, equity and inclusion programs earlier this month.

On April 2, UT disbanded the Division of Campus and Community Engagement and laid off dozens of employees who worked in DEI programs to bring the university into compliance with Senate Bill 17, a state law passed last year that bans DEI initiatives in public universities.

“The President has shown himself to be unresponsive to urgent faculty, staff, and student concerns,” the letter states. “He has violated our trust. The University is no longer a safe and welcoming place for the diverse community of students and scholars who until now have called this campus home.”

AAUP members were motivated to sign the letter because they see the administration’s response to the protests as violations of First Amendment free speech protections, said Pauline Strong, president of the UT-Austin chapter of AAUP and a professor of anthropology.

“Academic freedom benefits everyone,” Strong said. “I think it should be possible to come to a nonpartisan consensus on this issue.” Strong pointed to universities that have managed to quell campus protests through negotiation. Northwestern University reached an agreement with anti-war protestors this week, as did Brown University and others.

House Democrats also said that bringing state troopers to UT-Austin was unnecessary. In a statement released after last week’s student walkout, Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa called the response a “gross misuse of state funds.”

Political finesse

Hartzell was selected president in 2020 after 19 years on the faculty of the university’s McCombs School of Business. He serves at the pleasure of the board of regents, each of whom is appointed by Abbott.

The job requires political finesse as Republicans who control the Legislature increasingly view state universities — especially the state’s flagship, UT-Austin — as out-of-touch institutions where leftist faculty indoctrinate students to hate traditional American values.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in 2022 proposed eliminating faculty tenure at public universities to combat professors who he said corrupted students by teaching critical race theory. Hartzell pushed back against the idea — without criticizing the lieutenant governor directly — by arguing that ending tenure would limit UT’s ability to recruit the most talented professors.

A watered-down tenure reform bill still passed, which allows professors to be fired for misconduct including “professional incompetence” and “conduct involving moral turpitude.”

But on other issues, Hartzell has attempted to placate state leaders. He defended the mass layoff of university DEI staff last month as a way to build goodwill with Republican lawmakers. He had previously closed a multicultural center and ended a scholarship for undocumented students.

“The legislative climate toward higher education has been moving,” Hartzell said. “We have to make choices to worry about the long-run future of the university.”

The protests have only inflamed the tension between lawmakers and the universities who rely on them for funding.

Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress and a candidate for speaker of the House, said he supported using the revised tenure law to fire faculty who skipped class to attend protests.

“We thought you heard us when we passed (Senate Bill) 18,” Oliverson said on X. “ I guess not.”

Rep. Carl Tepper, R-Lubbock, said in an interview that Hartzell has succeeded in quelling the protests on campus in part because he knows the Legislature supports him. Tepper, who wrote a letter opposing the protests signed by 35 fellow House Republicans, said all of the students demonstrating are, in his view, either ignorant, terrorist sympathizers or terrorists.

Tepper said he is more broadly concerned that some students at Texas universities are not loyal to the United States and said these protests make many Texans question why their tax dollars should support their education.

“I think (Hartzell) has a more sympathetic constituency than you might have in New York, or Michigan or California,” Tepper said. “And he’s got a sympathetic governor who has the power of the forces who are armed, you know, the peace keepers.”

Another protest is planned for Sunday. The university, which plans to hold its graduation ceremonies next week, said it would continue to rely on police to regulate demonstrations.

Board of Regents Chairman Kevin Eltife said the university would call on DPS as needed, and would make “every effort” to ensure those who are arrested are “fully prosecuted.”

Stephen Simpson, Sneha Dey and William Melhado contributed reporting.

Disclosure: Northwestern University – Medill School of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin, University of Texas at Austin – McCombs School of Business and University of Texas at Austin – Texas Enterprise – McCombs School of Business have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/05/02/jay-hartzell-university-texas-republicans-protest/.

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