HOUSTON — Siva Vaidhyanathan was thrilled when he learned he was a finalist to become dean of the communication school at the University of Texas’ flagship campus in Austin.
He considered it a “plum job” and liked the idea of returning to his alma matter.
But shortly after his interview, the 49-year-old professor at the University of Virginia took himself out of the running.
The reason: He was unwilling to step into the middle of an increasingly contentious debate over guns on campus.
Public colleges and universities in Texas will no longer be able to ban the concealed carrying of handguns when a new law takes effect in August. Though the schools can impose some restrictions, they must generally honor a state-issued concealed handgun license on campus.
The so-called campus-carry law passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature last year was a victory for gun rights advocates who say it will make campuses safer. But in the largely liberal setting of academia, it has spurred a movement of protesters who worry that it will make schools more dangerous, hurt recruitment of faculty and students, and create an atmosphere of fear that even affects how professors issue grades.
The biggest outcry has been at the Austin campus of the University of Texas, where students and faculty have protested and at least two professors have already resigned over the law.
One was Daniel Hamermesh, who taught an introductory economics course and said he feared that “a disgruntled student with a gun would ‘lose it,’ pull out the gun and shoot the instructor.”
“With 500 students in my class, this did not seem impossible,” Hamermesh, who now teaches at the Royal Holloway University of London, said in an email.
It’s unclear whether the law would affect enrollment in a state where many students grew up around guns.
UT Austin estimates that fewer than 1 percent have concealed handgun licenses, which are available to legal residents 21 and older who have not committed certain crimes and meet other requirements. But with 50,000 students, that’s still as many as 500 potentially carrying a gun.
Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah and Wisconsin also guarantee the right to carry guns on college campuses. Similar proposals are in various stages of the legislative process in Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee.
California banned concealed weapons on campuses last year, joining 18 other states, while 23 states leave the decision to the schools.
The experience of Utah and Colorado does not support the claim that having more gun owners on campus increases security, according to a study last year by the Campaign to Keep Guns off Campus, a nonprofit based in Croton Falls, New York. In both states, crime rates on college campuses increased while the student populations dropped.
The law allows private schools to opt out, which they have, and public institutions to declare portions of a campus gun-free. Schools across the state have been announcing policies that do just that.
Guns in classrooms
Last month, Gregory Fenves, president of UT Austin, released a policy based on recommendations from a working group of students, faculty and staff. The policy keeps guns out of dorm rooms, sporting events, mental health treatment facilities and labs with dangerous chemicals. Professors can ban them in their private offices.
But the policy does not outlaw guns in classrooms.
The question of whether guns belong there has dominated the debate over the new law. Ken Paxton, the state attorney general, issued a nonbinding opinion that schools would be breaking the law if they did not allow concealed carry in “a substantial number of classrooms.”
The working group unanimously opposed guns in classrooms but concluded that a ban would violate the new law, the group said in a statement explaining its rationale.
Its decision angered much of the faculty. Physics professor Steven Weinberg, the school’s only Nobel Prize winner, has vowed to keep his classes gun-free, even if students sue.
Max Snodderly, a professor of neuroscience, predicted more departures and a chilling effect on recruiting.
“There have been cases of not just faculty but graduate students particularly in the liberal arts deciding not to apply to Texas,” he said. “It’s part of a negative atmosphere that the Legislature is creating.”
Snodderly is a member of the anti-campus-carry group Gun Free UT, which he says is considering legal action challenging the new law.
He also said that the law threatens to change the way professors treat students, suggesting that grading could become easier because professors would not want to risk angering a student who may be armed.
“Students get very angry if they feel they’re getting a grade they don’t deserve,” he said. “I have students who come in absolutely red-faced — ‘Why did I get this grade?’”
In a PowerPoint presentation on the new law last month, the faculty senate at the University of Houston made several recommendations to professors. “You may want to: Be careful discussing sensitive topics,” one slide said.
Other recommendations: “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.”
A security risk?
But Vance Roper, 38, a UT Austin graduate student, Army veteran and gun owner who served on the UT task force, said such worries were overblown, based on inquiries the group made at schools in Colorado and Utah — which allow guns on campus — regarding grading and security.
“The feedback we had gotten was there was no adverse effects,” he said.
At the same time, he acknowledged that the law could hurt the quality of students and professors. “That is definitely a fear,” he said. “With some people already saying they’re leaving, it’s hard to say that’s unfounded.”
Roper, who is pursuing degrees at the schools of communication and architecture, has seen the effect up close: The architecture dean, Frederick Steiner, found a job elsewhere.
Steiner is not a gun owner, but he is the son of a Marine and police officer and grew up hunting in Ohio. His attitude toward guns is simple: “There is a place for them — an appropriate place — and that was for hunting.”
He was especially concerned about students carrying concealed guns in the architecture studios, where they spend months crafting intricate models to be critiqued. “They may be tired and very emotionally connected to a project, and then a faculty member or a practicing architect will say, ‘Well, this doorway won’t work,’” Steiner said. “Adding a firearm to a situation that’s already stressful — I don’t see how that’s useful.
“Campus-carry was something of a tipping point for me,” said Steiner, who is headed to the University of Pennsylvania. “I was concerned about being responsible for managing a law that I don’t believe in.”
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected. In the original version, the estimate of UT Austin students who could potentially carry guns was incorrect. The Bulletin regrets the error.