Todd Wiseman / The Texas Tribune
It’s not every year you see police in riot gear on the Texas A&M University campus – or thousands of students carrying dildos at the University of Texas at Austin. But 2016 was an unusual year for higher education in Texas. Here’s a look back at the top stories during 12 months of unrest.
1. Campus carry rules and protests: The dildos – as if you possibly could have forgotten – came to the UT-Austin campus in the fall. Students carried them to class in protest of the State’s new campus carry law, which allows people with concealed handguns licenses to carry their guns inside campus buildings. But the tension surrounding the law started well before that.
Each school was given the power to declare some spots on campus gun-free zones before the law went into effect Aug. 1. Many faculty members asked for bans in classrooms, offices, and dorms. Administrators said they couldn’t do that, choosing instead to only ban concealed weapons in limited spots such as child care facilities and some research labs. But worries of mass shootings, accidents or a general climate of fear didn’t seem to come to fruition. There has been one major incident related to campus carry so far – no one was hurt after a Tarleton State student accidentally shot off a gun in a dorm room.
2. Conversations about race and politics: Around the time gun protests died down, students and faculty took to the streets to express their concerns about race and the recent election. In the days after Donald Trump won the presidency, students at nearly every public university in the state held rallies or marches to express their concern. In the following weeks, many others protested and signed petitions to encourage university presidents to declare their universities “sanctuary campuses” that would not cooperate with immigration authorities who they worried might try to depart undocumented students. There were uglier incidents, too. Racist graffiti and flyers popped up at some schools. And officers had to break out the riot gear and clear out A&M’s student center as tension ran high over an on-campus speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer.
3. Affirmative action upheld: In the courts, advocates for minority students won a major victory. UT-Austin won a major Supreme Court case, Fisher v. University of Texas, which upheld affirmative action in admissions at universities across the country. The court’s 4-3 decision ended an eight-year legal fight over the constitutionality of considering race in college admissions.
4. Opposition to the Top 10 Percent Rule grows: But a win in the courts could eventually lead to the end of a state rule designed to increase minority enrollment. The Top 10 Percent Rule promises any Texas student who finishes in the top 10 percent of their graduating class automatic admission to almost any state university. (At UT-Austin, the lone exception, students need to be in the top 7%.) Many parents and students from wealthy high schools loathe the rule, saying it makes it harder for students outside the top of their competitive schools to get into the top state schools. And some important leaders seem to agree. This year, UT System Chancellor Bill McRaven strongly criticized the law and Gov. Greg Abbott said he’d like to see it change. Lawmakers have said they expect the rule to be a big issue when the Legislature convenes in early 2017.
5. Colleges face heat for tuition: Another big Legislative topic for 2017? Tuition. In 2016, lawmakers harshly criticized universities for their rising costs. Democrats and Republicans have already filed bills seeking to curb those costs. And perhaps the most outspoken critic of the schools, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, has listed reining in tuition as one of his top 20 priorities.
6. Scandal at Baylor: But nothing compares to the scandal that cost the football coach and university president their jobs at Baylor University. After repeated allegations of sexual assault against football players surfaced – with little to no action taken by coaches – Head coach Art Briles was fired and later sued the university for defamation. Chancellor and President Ken Starr was reassigned and later left the university. The actions only plunged the Baptist school deeper into turmoil, as some alumni questioned whether Briles was being scapegoated for university-wide problems and called for leadership reform at the university.
7. Agnese retires as UIW president: After strange behavior and racist remarks lead the University of the Incarnate Word board to end his 30-year reign in late August, Dr. Louis Agnese Jr. admitted to health issues in early October. A leaked complaint had caused the UIW board to apologize for Agnese’s “sporadic uncharacteristic behavior” and place him on a 90-day medical leave, triggering a series of expletive-riddled threats from Agnese and a vehement denial of having any medical condition.