University of Houston staff advised over new Texas gun law

State's new campus concealed carry law leads to warnings for academics on handling students who may have guns

February 29, 2016

Faculty members opposed to Texas's new campus concealed carry law have argued that it will chill academic freedom and free speech.

A set of recommendations from the University of Houston’s Faculty Senate on how to teach under campus carry is the new exhibit A in the case against the law for those concerned about its effects on academic freedom. Its advocates, meanwhile, say faculty fears are overblown. The debate is being renewed in the same week Georgia's House of Representatives passed similar legislation.

A working group at Houston is still deciding exactly how concealed carry will play out on campus, though the law’s parameters are narrow: guns can’t be banned outright. (Some universities already have decided, reluctantly, that concealed firearms must be allowed in the classroom.) In the meantime, a PowerPoint presentation created by the president of Houston’s Faculty Senate, and shared at recent faculty forums on the implications of campus carry, suggests that professors may do nothing about the new law, post signs reminding people of it or include syllabus language quoting a senate resolution that “Guns have no place in the academic life of the university”.

But another slide suggests that faculty members “may want to:

Be careful discussing sensitive topics.

Drop certain topics from your curriculum.

Not ‘go there’ if you sense anger.

Limit student access off hours.

Go to appointment-only office hours.

Only meet ‘that student’ in controlled circumstances.”

Unsurprisingly, the slide in question is getting a lot of attention from those on both sides of the campus carry debate.

The university was quick to point out that the recommendations are not official university policy, but faculty members say the suggestions reflect how many of their colleagues are thinking about protecting themselves and their students under campus carry.

The law is set to take effect this summer at public universities and next summer at community colleges. Private colleges in the state have the ability to opt out of the law, which they have.

State legislators “have created a very uncomfortable situation for us”, said Maria Gonzalez, an associate professor of English and a member of Houston’s Faculty Senate. “There’s one thing we can’t do, and that’s ban guns…So this slide was prepared basically to help people be careful and provide suggestions.”

Jonathan Snow, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences and president of the Faculty Senate, said he wrote the presentation based on discussions within the body and elsewhere. He also addressed faculty concerns about campus carry in comments to the university system’s Board of Regents last week, saying professors’ concerns weren’t political or about a fear of guns.

Rather, Snow said, “it’s because the intrusion of gun culture onto campus inevitably harms the academic enterprise in a myriad of ways." He asked regents to appeal to the Texas Legislature to reconsider.

Gonzalez said that there are “volatile” students on her campus, as there are on many others, and that she teaches queer and Marxist theory, which sometimes leads to heated discussions. But she said the Faculty Senate recommendations couldn’t help prevent what she feared most: accidents.

Everyday, she said, students spill coffee or drop their iPhones on the floor. Who’s to say they couldn’t reach into their backpacks and accidentally fire the weapon they forgot to lock that morning?

Gonzalez said she has experience with guns and knows that most don’t have a hair trigger. But negligent discharges are still possible, and it’s a risk many professors resent and fear, she said.

Shawn Lindsey, a university spokesperson, emphasised that the PowerPoint was not university policy and that an official working group is expected to release its recommendations for how campus carry will look at Houston next week.

Lindsey shared the university statement on the matter, which says in part that Houston “takes issues surrounding campus safety and guns on campus very seriously and will strive to create policies that comply with the new campus carry law, protect the rights of citizens and address the safety and security of the entire campus.”

Henry Reichman, a professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay and chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, weighed in on the faculty recommendations on AAUP’s “Academe” blog, calling the controversial slide “ominous”. Via email, Reichman said that under such guidelines, “it's possible to teach but not well and not freely.” Threatening academic freedom “inevitably endangers quality and integrity,” he said.

Not everyone agrees that faculty fears are well-founded, however. Students for Concealed Carry, a national advocacy group, has argued that professors shouldn’t be more afraid of legal, concealed weapons than illegally concealed ones, and that the new law actually makes campuses safer.

Michael Newbern, a part-time instructor of engineering economics at Ohio State University and spokesman for Students for Concealed Carry, said he understood what the Houston senate was trying to address but felt that professors' concerns were “irrational”. No on-campus shooting incident has ever occurred in the more than half dozen other campus concealed carry states, he said. (The recent Umpqua Community College shooting doesn’t qualify, he said, because students were not allowed to take guns into campus buildings - something he said deprived victims of the chance to defend themselves against the shooter.) Accidents, too, are extremely uncommon, he added.

“The things they’re worried about don’t materialise,” Newbern said. “Why do they think their students and faculty members are less responsible than those same types of people in Colorado or Utah?”

This is a version of an article that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed

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