Several hundred students at the University of Texas in Austin packed into the Student Activity Center for a town hall meeting on Wednesday afternoon.
UT President Gregory Fenves, Soncia Reagins-Lilly, Dean of Students, Dr. Gregory Vincent, VP for Diversity and Community Engagement, and Provost, Maurie McInnis were on the panel.
Topics ranged from the protection of undocumented students, to students who felt targeted because of their race or religion.
The town hall was prompted by unauthorized flyers that popped up on campus last week. Students at the town hall also referred to other discriminatory acts reported on campus over the past several months.
“One of things is that you all aren't hearing about the steps of the action that's being taken and so we definitely hear you on that,” said Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly. She was responding to students frustrated with the way the University handles their communication. Many of them who believe the school isn’t doing enough to investigate and reprimand those responsible for the discriminatory acts.
“We are not going to tolerate any hate or any actions that make students feel unsafe on campus,” says Dr. Gregory Vincent. The VP for Diversity and Community Engagement said he felt the honest and open dialogue was necessary to connect with the students directly about their complaints.
“It just reinforced this sense of pain that students have,” Dr. Vincent says, adding, “I understand that pain, I have felt that pain. But it reinforced that that's there. It's important for us to come and meet with the students to understand and appreciate that pain.”
And he says the student’s frustration is warranted. “What was clear was that we need to be even more clear, more adamant about eliminating hate on campus. And we do need to take responsibility for not having a stronger statement as we needed.”
“It's not fair for me to constantly worry about the safety of myself every single time I leave my dorm room,” says Neda Hamid. The UT student who is Muslim, says she hasn't been targeted physically. But she did feel targeted by unauthorized signs that were posted around campus last week that criticized her religion. “I'm not going to wait for someone to attack me or yell something hateful at me in order to get something done.”
While most of the frustration was reserved for administrators, one student who called himself a conservative felt the fury from the crowd too.
“My opinion is a little right of center, obviously and I don't think that's something we saw in the room before.” Vishal Vusirikala says the anger directed towards him over his political beliefs isn’t warranted. “None of these people know anything about me or the circumstances in which I grew up,” he says, adding, “I grew up in India, my parents didn't have a lot of money, we are immigrants.”
He says he's being unfairly characterized, “I'm pretty sure it won't change anything but it's at least important to get that message out there that we aren't all racists, a lot of us are just decent people.”
UT Officials say they are rolling out a new bias incident policy and they expect it to be in place by march 10th. They say it will more clearly define the line between free speech and hate and get specific on how they plan to deal with anyone who crosses it.