To UT Nobel laureate, campus carry intrudes on faculty rights

Steven Weinberg won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1979 for his work related to the Higgs boson, a fundamental particle of the universe. On Monday he leafed through a copy of the journal “Physics Today” as he waited to turn to a more prosaic subject: the question of allowing concealed handguns in classrooms at the University of Texas.

Weinberg, who holds the Jack S. Josey-Welch Foundation Chair in Science at the university, left no doubt about where he stood when he rose to speak at a meeting of UT’s Faculty Council.

“I will put it into my syllabus that the class is not open to students carrying guns,” he said. “I may wind up in court. I’m willing to accept that possibility.”

Weinberg explained: “Many faculty, including myself, are scared of guns in the hands of students who may violently disagree” with a faculty member’s views. “It’s hard enough to recruit faculty who want to remain on the East or West coast. To tell them they have no power to keep guns out of their classrooms makes it that much harder.”

He added, “This is a question of First Amendment rights versus state legislation,” referring to Senate Bill 11, which was passed last year and expands campus carry rights for people licensed to carry a concealed handgun.

Weinberg urged UT President Gregory L. Fenves to adopt a university policy declaring “that no faculty shall be required to admit into his or her course students who intend to carry firearms.” That way, “students who feel an unaccountable obsessive urge to bring guns onto campus could simply choose” professors who don’t ban guns, he said.

Steven Goode, a UT law professor who led a university advisory panel on campus carry, said Weinberg’s approach would not pass legal muster. The panel’s recommendations to Fenves said concealed handguns could not be banned in classrooms because that would amount to a general prohibition of campus carry, which SB 11 forbids.

As for leaving the matter up to individual faculty members: “I do think it would amount to a general prohibition on campus carry,” Goode said, noting that the Faculty Council’s reaction to Weinberg’s proposal — sustained applause — suggested that many professors wish they could ban guns.

The notion of standing on First Amendment rights is “an illusion,” Goode added. “I don’t think you could find a single case that comes close to saying academic freedom applies in a situation like this.”

Weinberg replied that the issue hasn’t been tested in a federal court. “I think this is a constitutional right to free speech,” he said. “We should allow the courts to decide this issue.”

Higher education commissioner wary about expansion plans

Mediocrity. That’s one of Raymund Paredes’ biggest worries these days.

As Texas higher education commissioner, he knows that legislative appropriations haven’t kept pace with rising enrollments, inflation, demand for student financial aid and other costs. At the same time, a number of state universities are floating plans to add medical schools and, in the case of the UT System, a campus of yet-to-be-determined flavor.

If funding for higher education stays flat, such growth is a recipe for mediocrity, Paredes told news reporters in a conference call today.

“I’m worried about continued expansion of higher education programs . . . beyond the willingness of the state to support them,” he said.

Case in point: the UT System’s plan to establish a campus of sorts in Houston. The system’s Board of Regents signed onto Chancellor Bill McRaven’s plan in November by authorizing the purchase of 332 acres of mostly undeveloped land in the southwestern part of the city.

Meanwhile, the University of Houston wants to establish a medical school. Texas Christian University, a private school, and the University of North Texas, which is public, want to collaborate in establishing a medical school. Sam Houston State University wants to build one as well.

“We aren’t sure that we need new medical schools,” Paredes said. “Our research suggests that if we’re going to do one or the other it makes more sense to invest in graduate medical education” — residency slots for newly minted doctors undergoing additional training after medical school.

As for the UT System, it already has a strong presence in Houston, with its Health Science Center that includes a medical school and its MD Anderson Cancer Center. McRaven envisions adding a campus that would be an intellectual hub for education and research capitalizing on the energy, medical and other strengths of Houston. Myriad details have yet to be worked out.

Paredes said he understands why the UT System might want to expand its presence in Houston, which is the state’s largest city and the fourth-largest in the nation.

By the same token, the commissioner said, Texas is obliged under an agreement with the federal government to protect the interests of the historically black Texas Southern University in Houston and Prairie View A&M University, about 50 miles to the northwest. In addition, he said, the state wants to ensure a strong pathway for the University of Houston — which has protested McRaven’s plan loudly — to rise from its largely regional plane into the ranks of national research universities.