August 1st is a tragic day in the history of the University of Texas at Austin. On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman opened fire from atop the iconic tower at the University of Texas killing 14, wounding 46 others. In a cruel twist of fate, August 1, 2016, the fiftieth anniversary of the attack coincided with the implementation of the new campus carry law. The contentious new law allows concealed handgun permit holders to carry guns into most public college campus buildings. In today’s post, I will discuss the new law and why I see it as bad precedent—but maybe not for the reason you’d expect.
Before discussing the campus carry law, I should identify my own bias on this issue. Like most Americans, I believe there is a right to own guns. I also believe reasonable regulations are necessary, desperately needed, and allowed by the U.S. Constitution.
Texas isn’t the first state to allow guns to be carried into campus buildings, but it is the largest. Given the current debate over gun control, it has also been the most controversial.
The law’s supporters suggest that campus carry is simply closing a loophole where concealed guns were allowed on campus but not in buildings.
Opponents including many senior administrators, faculty, and students counter that guns have no place on college campuses and in the educational process. A frequent refrain has been about the negative and stifling influence of a gun in a class discussion and engagement between faculty and students particularly when discussing controversial topics.
Unlike public universities, private universities have the option to opt-out of the law. All private colleges and universities—except one, Amberton University— decided to opt-out which gives an indication of the widespread disapproval of the concept in higher education.
No doubt, public colleges and universities would have opted out if they would have been allowed to by the campus carry law, SB 11.
Campus carry isn’t a good idea and I agree with many of the opponents that the law is poor policy.
That said, I don’t believe we will see a huge increase in the number of guns on campuses. I don’t believe the University of Texas is going to turn back into the Wild West.
However, I want to argue there is something much bigger and more profound at work in this case.
Certainly, I believe conservative legislators are sincere in their belief regarding the need to promote and remove gun regulations. Yet, I do not believe that’s why campus carry came to the front of the public agenda.
My argument is that campus carry is the latest example of state legislatures, particularly conservative lawmakers, to reign in the autonomy of public colleges and universities.
As I’ve discussed before, many conservative leaders for a generation have questioned the ideological diversity on campuses believing that liberal professors seek to indoctrinate students into their political philosophy.
I grew up in North Carolina hearing Senator Jesse Helms rail on the liberal nest of Chapel Hill. These are not new complaints from conservatives.
As Millennials come into age politically, many are adopting positions in favor of gay rights, increased social safety nets, and generally supporting Democrats at the polls.
I see campus carry among one of several examples (limiting early voting for college students as another) where Republican politicians are seeking to legislate their political views onto millennials and their higher education enablers.
The nature of public higher education is to engage in activities that political leaders find disconcerting. However, there has long been a tradition of recognizing the important work of higher education as worthy of protection from the political winds of the moment.
Institutional autonomy, the liberal arts, tenure, and academic freedom have long been rhetorical foes for politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Yet when it came to funding and support, state legislatures generally acknowledged the significance of higher education and provided needed resources.
One need not be a scholar of higher education to know that this compact is broken throughout the country.
As another example from earlier this year, the Tennessee Legislature voted to cut all state appropriates for the diversity office at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
With the growing political polarization in the country, the political gap between legislatures (often with Republican supermajorities) and colleges campuses has become more apparent.
Campus carry isn’t about personal protection. It isn’t even about gun control. Texas campus carry is about politics.
It is about a generation of conservative politicians concerned that their views and values are not going to remain in place.
This has led to some of the lowest morale in higher education in a generation.
In the middle of a heated presidential race and in an higher education environment roiled by years of budget cuts, I understand why many are pessimistic about the future of the country and of higher education.
However, I am unmitigatedly optimistic over the future of higher education and as a result the future of the country.
To be sure, we have problems in higher education: problems of our own making and of the last throes of radical conservatism.
There is reason for hope.
While we have to deal with campus carry, we also have political leaders talking about free higher education.
Higher education has survived wars, economic depressions, and massive demographic changes.
The current political environment isn’t going to be fun for a while. Higher education is likely to lose more policy fights than in wins in the short term.
We must not forget the gains that come from these challenges. The Civil War brought us land grant colleges. World War II brought the GI Bill and the Cold War gave us federal research grants.
The country looks to higher education to support the American Dream. I believe we will be part of the solution to the political, economic, and social crisis facing the nation.
Texas campus carry is about politics.
We just need to persevere the current political winds and be ready to lift the country to the next great adventure that lies ahead.