Leadership & Governance

U. of Texas Deals With a Law It Didn’t Want

Gregory L. Fenves, president of the U. of Texas at Austin

April 25, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza

Gregory L. Fenves, president of the University of Texas at Austin, doesn’t believe guns belong on campuses. But a new state law requires public colleges and universities to allow people with concealed-carry permits to bring those weapons into some campus buildings, including classrooms and certain administrative and faculty offices. Despite his personal opposition to the statute, Mr. Fenves has set rules for how it will be carried out while trying to respond to the safety concerns of employees and students. 

About This Series

The Chronicle’s On Leadership video series explores various aspects of campus leadership with movers and shakers across academe. The series is hosted by Chronicle editors and reporters. Visit our complete collection of interviews. 

ERIC KELDERMAN: Hi. I'm Eric Kelderman, senior reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education. We're here today with Gregory Fenves, president of The University of Texas at Austin. Welcome to The Chronicle, Mr. Fenves.

GREG FENVES: Thank you, Eric.

ERIC KELDERMAN: You've been on the job just about a year now. Talk to me a little bit about how that first year's gone, and what are your impressions about how it's different being a president, from being the provost there?

GREG FENVES: Well, a lot's happened in my first year as president of the University of Texas at Austin. It's been 10 months, actually. It started out with some issues. I know we'll talk about campus carry, but also dealt with Confederate statues on the main mall, some athletics issues.

And then we've had, of course, the Supreme Court case, where we had oral arguments in the Fisher versus University of Texas case in December. So it's been a lot of very important issues for UT Austin, but also for higher education.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Right. You mentioned the campus carry bill which was passed in your state a year ago. Now, guns had been allowed on campus grounds before that. The difference here is that guns are now allowed in some campus buildings, right?

GREG FENVES: So Texas law had been that people with a concealed handgun license could carry concealed handguns on campus, and the campus grounds, and driveways, as you've mentioned. And that'd been the law for 20 years. Two things changed in the last session, and these are bills that had been considered in previous legislatures and had not passed.

And the session that ended last June, they passed in the last stages of the legislature. So one was to permit the open carry of handguns. But universities are exempt from that. So open carry of handguns is not going to be allowed at UT Austin, or any University in Texas.

The second bill that passed was to extend the ability of individuals with concealed handgun licenses to carry them inside campus buildings. But the legislature set up a process by which presidents of the campus made the decision about exclusion zones within the campus. So that was the bill that passed in early June of last year.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Right. Talk to me a little bit about how you've put that law into place, and what are some of the things that students who wish to exercise that right? What can they expect to have to do to fulfill the law?

GREG FENVES: Well, so first of all, I'd like to say, I don't believe guns belong on campus.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Sure.

GREG FENVES: And I think most faculty, most students, most parents of students don't believe guns are appropriate for an educational institution.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Mhm.

GREG FENVES: And in fact, part of the law that I just mentioned allowed private universities in Texas to opt out. In other words, to ban concealed handguns from their campuses. And at least the large enrollment of private universities–Baylor, Rice, SMU, and so on, have excluded handguns from the campuses. As the president of a public university, I wish I had that ability, but I don't. The law does not give me that ability.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Sure.

GREG FENVES: So we set up a process, a very deliberate and thorough process to get the input of our faculty, of our students, our staff. We had parent representatives on a working group that I put together last August to develop recommendations, policy recommendations to me for complying with the new state law. The working group was chaired by a very prominent professor in the UT law school, Steve Goode.

We had three other lawyers on the committee, including the former Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court. So we were looking at also the legal issues, and what were the legal justifications for exclusions that they were recommending? And that process started in August, and they delivered their recommendations to me in December of last year. And then I spent about two months deliberating on those recommendations, consulting with faculty.

We had several faculty council meetings, one quite lengthy and quite emotional about faculty opposition to having guns in classrooms in particular.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Sure.

GREG FENVES: But also, in generally, on campus.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Mhm.

GREG FENVES: Ultimately, I had to carry out my duty, as president, to follow the law of the state. And I made my decision on the recommendations and sent them to the chancellor of the UT system, and ultimately, will go to the Board of Regents.

ERIC KELDERMAN: OK. What kind of feedback have you gotten, or what kind of concerns have you heard from prospective students and parents of students who were already enrolled at the university about this new law?

GREG FENVES: Well, we got a lot of feedback. Part of this process, we set up a place for anyone in the campus community to submit comments, thoughts about it. Those were overwhelmingly against having guns on campus.

Many of them raised questions about whether they would stay at UT as a family member, stay as a student, the impact on recruitment of faculty and students. And so it is a great concern to us, what those impacts will be. We've seen some examples already of faculty deciding to retire early or to leave. Campus carry, I'm sure, was part of that decision.

Those are always complicated decisions, especially for a faculty member. But we think it is a factor. And we're going to monitor this carefully, as we recruit faculty across the university, as we deal with retention of faculty at the university, as we will with students who are applying and considering coming to UT as an undergraduate or graduate student.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Very good. Well, thanks for your time today, Mr. Fenves. We appreciate it, and hope you can come and talk to us again in the future.

GREG FENVES: Thank you for the opportunity.