Political Activism at UT, Then and Now

by David V. Edwards 

Many things have changed at The University of Texas at Austin since I started teaching here in 1965. One of the most striking is the change in political activism.

When I arrived here, there was a recent history of widely-supported demonstrations on civil rights issues. One prominent instance had been demonstrations protesting the removal of Black soprano Barbara Conrad from the lead role opposite a White male in the opera “Dido and Aeneas” by the music department after pressure from Texas legislatures—a case recently recounted in a documentary shown on PBS. Another was demonstrations to integrate local movie theaters and restaurants.

As I arrived, the Vietnam War was heating up. There was widespread discontent over the escalation of the fighting by the Lyndon Johnson administration. As ground troops were increased, the military draft brought the war closer to students, and demonstrations on the main mall became regular phenomena, attended or at least observed by hundreds of students. Those demonstrations culminated in a march to the capitol by thousands of students and some faculty. As an opponent of the war from its outset and a government professor teaching courses in international relations and in security policy, I was a frequent speaker at these rallies. Students also organized a debate over the war, held in an overflowing Union Ballroom, with two representatives of the Young Americans for Freedom opposed by well-known leftwing journalist Robert Scheer (who went on to a prominent career writing for left-wing periodicals and eventually the Los Angeles Times, and now teaches journalism at USC and edits the website Truthdig) and me.

There were other issues that provoked demonstrations in those days. One was the banning by UT President Bryce Jordan of a UT theater group’s political play because it contained brief nudity. (The troupe then took the play on the road, eventually performing it in many U.S. cities and even in Europe.) Jordan banned it because, he said, it was “obscene.” In a rally on the West Mall, outside the Union where it had been performed, I criticized the banning by arguing that obscenity resides in the mind of the beholder, and saying that the play should be allowed to go on so people could make up their own minds.

The civil rights era demonstrations really did advance the cause of racial integration. It would be hard to argue that the Vietnam era demonstrations had unique impact, but they did contribute to the growing national opposition to the war, which eventuated in President Johnson’s decision not to run for reelection and later helped make it possible for President Nixon to, belatedly, end the war.

Over the decades since, there have been occasional demonstrations and other instances of political activism on the U. T. campus, but nothing on the scale of these major demonstrations.

Why is that? One reason surely is that students in the Vietnam era faced the prospect of being drafted into the conflict. After Vietnam, the nation turned to the volunteer army, removing that incentive in subsequent instances of U.S. military involvement abroad.

But were students then more socially aware and socially concerned than students today? I’m not so sure. Although many observers and armchair sociologists have argued that students today are more self-centered, and they certainly have more to fear about job prospects in today’s world of declining incomes of many jobs, outsourcing of many of the better manufacturing jobs, and the employment impact of the great recession, I find many students today quite concerned about what’s happening in the world, and desirous of making a contribution to dealing with what will surely be grave challenges in the future, from environmental pollution and water scarcity to poverty and health.

In a way, the most striking absence of significant political activism today concerns the future of public education. The current efforts by self-pronounced “conservatives” to cut taxes and impose most of the burden of deficit reduction at both the national and state levels on those most dependent on government help threaten the life chances of many poorer Americans, including some students at UT. They also threaten aspects of the education process at UT. And their likely longer term effects on society threaten the stability and promise of the world our students will be entering when they leave the University. Yet these right-wing efforts have not stimulated the kind of opposition on the part of students and faculty that might be expected, given what I see as the societal concern of so many students.

Why is this? Have we not, as educators, helped students see the seriousness of these threats? Or are students so short-term-oriented that they neither see nor care to see these implications? The answer is not clear, but the matter is certainly cause for concern.

David V. Edwards is professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin, where he has taught international relations, security policy, American politics, public policy and political theory since 1965. Among his books are Arms Control in International Politics, International Political Analysis, Creating a New World Politics, The American Political Experience, and (with Alessandra Lippucci) Practicing American Politics. His son John graduated from UT two years ago and his daughter Elisabeth is a junior.