UT-Austin - Tent State University - April 20-22, 2005


Tent State Draws Attention to Legislature's Handling of Higher Education

By: Pedro de la Torre III
July 2005

Visit Tent City Blues, an archived open publishing blog that was devoted to discussion and updates regarding this event and related issues.

Tent State University started at Rutgers University in 2003 when students set up over 75 tents to symbolize the displacement of higher education made clear by a proposed $143 million cut to New Jersey colleges. This was, however, more than your average protest; an alternative and democratic "university system" was set up with classes, performances, and political actions. Since 2003, Tent State Universities have sprouted up in Missouri, California, Ohio, Colorado, and right here at the University of Texas at Austin.

On Wednesday, April 20th students set up tents and camped out on the Main Mall for universal access to a higher education and to promote free speech. While trying to educate students and the public about the attacks on the TEXAS Grant program and the need for tuition relief, they faced burdensome and bureaucratic restrictions, as well as disciplinary action. By creating this "tent city," students were attempting to both symbolize the poverty that a host of state policies are forcing onto thousands of Texans, and to make the time, place, and manner restrictions visible to students and lawmakers.

Access to Education

ISSUE #9 Cover

During the 2003 legislative session lawmakers turned their backs on students and Texas youth by deregulating tuition. This transfer of tuition setting authority from the hands of elected representatives to the unresponsive, irresponsible and unelected governing boards has led to massive tuition increases, and has thrown a monkey wrench into state financial aid programs.

For example, the Texas Guaranteed Tuition Plan, which was formerly known as the Texas Tomorrow Fund, has had to freeze enrollment due to the unpredictable tuition-setting regime that deregulation created. This program allows families to begin paying tuition and fees years in advance while locking into the current rates. Since each university can raise tuition as high as they see fit, the state cannot even predict what tuition rates at Texas' various colleges and universities will look like two years in advance, let alone eighteen. If something is not done about this situation, the Texas Guaranteed Tuition Plan faces an uncertain fate at best. In addition, the TEXAS Grant Program, which provides tuition assistance to low-income students, has had to cut 22,000 students from the program due to the recent tuition hikes combined with cuts in state appropriations.

When the students were pitching their tents, the situation appeared to be getting even worse. Several legislators were waging a full-fledged attack against the TEXAS Grant Program, which is probably the best, need-based financial aid program on the books in this state.

In March the Senate approved a $28 million dollar cut in TEXAS Grant funds while increasing overall spending by billions of dollars. It was predicted that 15,000 eligible students would be purged from the program as a result. The House later recommended a smaller cut of $2 million dollars. Although the cuts proposed by the House were relatively small, uncontrolled tuition increases limit the number of students that the grant can afford to assist. The results would be similar: 11,300 fewer Texas Grant recipients. Fortunately, the final version of the appropriations bill actually raised the program's budget by around seven million dollars in the next biennium.

There was also a strong push to introduce more stringent eligibility requirements to the TEXAS Grant program. Although the worst of these proposals, which would have cut up to 75% of grant recipients, have since died in committee or been watered down. Rep. Fred Brown (R-Bryan), however, managed to pass House Bill 1172, which was a bill that shortened the time limit on TEXAS Grants to five years for students working on a four year degree, as opposed to the six years the program formerly allowed. It also mandates that students must complete at least 24 hours a year to remain eligible for the grant, whereas they were formerly required to maintain a 75 percent completion rate, as well as 3/4 time status. These changes could lead to problems if, for example, a grant recipient taking a full course load fails just one class, even if his or her completion rate is well over 90%.

Such misguided polices will disproportionately affect the opportunities available to minorities and the working class to bridge the wide educational and economic gap currently faced in Texas. African Americans and Hispanics constitute around 60% of TEXAS Grant recipients, so attacking this program while allowing tuition to continue to skyrocket will increase the inequality these communities currently face, especially considering the large and growing importance of a higher education to social mobility in the new "knowledge economy."

On May 3rd, the Senate approved an amendment to Senate Bill 1228 that would sunset deregulation by 2008. Re-regulating tuition would not only help universities to become more affordable, but would also put stability and accountability back in the tuition setting regime. Despite this victory in the Senate, however, the House Committee on Higher Education failed to give SB 1228 a public hearing or vote, and the legislation never reached the house floor. Although a large majority of Texans are opposed to tuition deregulation, not one tuition relief bill was heard by the committee; Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria), the committee's chairwoman, was the author of the bill that deregulated tuition in 2003 and has control over the committee's schedule.

Free Speech

UT-Austin Tent State University also challenged the unreasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of speech that are endemic to college campuses. Campers experienced these restrictions firsthand as their attempts to inform students and the public about important legislation were continually frustrated by an overzealous administration jealously guarding their power to quash any expression on the Main Mall, especially if it challenges their tuition-setting authority. Campers were, for example, forced to take down all tents by 8AM because only "university sponsored" exhibits are permitted from 8AM-5PM on the Main Mall.

UT Watch's banner probation letter

Students were awoken at 7:45 AM to threats of disciplinary action for sleeping outside on campus. However, there is no rule that forbids snoozing on university grass; the Office of the Dean of Students and the Student Activities and Leadership Development Office (SALD) apparently "interpreted" rules that they refused to specify. These departments were "interpreting" quite selectively, as they had recently allowed other groups to sleep elsewhere on campus with no interference. The office of Student Judicial Services decided not to discipline the campers for sleep violations. However, UT Watch was disciplined as a group by SALD because campers hung a banner in an unauthorized location. Although the group has been prohibited from hanging a banner for at least the fall semester, it is currently attempting to appeal the sanction.

Unfortunately, UT-Austin is considered to have has rather lenient time, place, and manner restrictions when compared to most other Texas universities; the University of Houston, for example, limits expressive activity to four "free speech zones." The House Committee on Higher Education passed HB 487, which would have helped to remedy this problem by forbidding universities from restricting the time, place, or manner of speech, with the exception that it cannot disrupt normal academic functions, but the bill was quietly forgotten in the House Calendars Committee.

Fortunately, the UT Tent State University did not meet with the violence that University of California-Santa Cruz students suffered. Riot police injured 80 students, and arrested nineteen, while attempting to shut down the event because it violated a "no camping" ordinance. The police used "pain compliance" tactics that protestors claim was police brutality to break up the human chains that students formed to hold their ground. Although the arrested students will not be prosecuted, UCSC is pursuing administrative disciplinary action.

Although UT-Austin protestors did not face police brutality or the strict disciplinary action proposed against the UCSC students, the events ended similarly: students tried to propose an alternative vision of the University that angered their administration. It is apparent that accessibility and democracy are not as prevalent on university campuses as they should be, but it has been and will continue to be up to students and faculty to uphold these values.

Pedro de la Torre III is a member of UT Watch and Students for the ACLU and a recent sociology graduate of UT-Austin. He participated in the UT Tent State University.
Contact: coocow
at gmail dot com

This article was originally published in
ISSUE, No. 9, June 2005. It has since been updated.


Learn what students around the country are doing to combat similar problems; visit the Tent State University website.

Check out the disturbing UCSC video coverage (MP4) of the use of "pain compliance" by UCSC, UC-Berkeley, and local police officers.

Tent State Protesters at UC Santa Cruz Tell of Riot Police Brutality (04/25/2005)

Tent University arrestees will face administrative sanctions, not criminal charges (05/01/2005)