Armed College Students Instill Fear In Professors

by Rebecca Bodenheimer

February 21, 2018
Illustration by Tatiana Cardenas/Good Media Group.

Imagine you’re a professor at an institution that allows campus carry, the right to carry concealed firearms on public university and college campuses. Would the knowledge that one of your students might be carrying a gun influence the way you teach, your decision to broach a controversial topic for discussion, or how you assess a student’s work?

Professors in 11 states — Texas, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah, Wisconsin, Georgia, Tennessee, and Arkansas — are forced to contend with these difficult questions every time they enter the classroom. Meanwhile, new campus carry bills are currently being debated in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri.

The passing of campus carry laws has led some professors to leave their positions out of fear, and others to take drastic measures. While many of the laws are only a year or two old, faculty members already have a reason for concern. Beyond personal safety, these laws will almost surely have a detrimental effect on academic freedom in the classroom, according to recent interviews with professors, either because universities are suggesting instructors not broach sensitive subjects or because they are choosing to self-censor.  

Campus carry laws differ widely from state to state, and some public university systems (such as Oregon and Wisconsin) have had some degree of success in skirting state law. However, as emphasized by several sources for this piece, most university chancellors and presidents feel their hands are tied. Despite overwhelming opposition to campus carry laws among faculty and students, they are obliged to comply for fear of retaliation in the form of slashed budgets by state legislatures.

Campus carry laws are confusing and hard to enforce.

With the Texas campus carry law there are designated sites on campus where guns are prohibited, such as dorms and spaces, that carry out K-12 programming. However, the three professors interviewed who teach at University of Texas (UT) campuses noted inconsistencies within the law and discrepancies across campuses. Two of these sources asked to remain anonymous because they do not yet have tenure at their institution. Early-career academics who are not tenured are in a tenuous position: They can’t take their job security for granted beyond their initial seven-year appointment and must remain in the good graces of their senior colleagues and dean, whose letters of support and votes they rely on when they go up for tenure. This often means not speaking out publicly on controversial issues.

One UT faculty member who asked to remain anonymous — who we’ll call Emily — stated that on her campus, faculty with private offices are permitted to ban guns in their office. However, if students are able to carry weapons in the classroom, but not in faculty offices, where are they supposed to store their guns if they need to meet privately with professors? Universities don’t seem to have put much thought into possible solutions for the inconsistencies contained within the law, such as installing gun lockers in campus buildings.

Bonnie Lucero, a history professor at UT Rio Grande Valley, said that at her institution, faculty offices are not exempt from campus carry even though the faculty requested it. The administration refused. Lucero says that because her campus is a new institution — which was created by merging two former UT campuses, UT Pan American and UT Brownsville — the administration could feel particularly vulnerable to funding cuts by the legislature. In this vein, a third UT faculty member, who we’ll call Jim due to his wish to remain anonymous, agreed. “Universities were given the façade of having some sort of autonomy about establishing where this law would apply. But the chancellor, the president, have to be responsive to state legislatures for funding.”

While university administrators appear to want to avoid angering state legislators, several professors echoed the hypocrisy of politicians passing campus carry laws when guns are still prohibited in state capitol buildings. An outspoken opponent of guns on campus, Georgia Southern University history professor Michelle Haberland, said she wished “they would experiment in their own workplace before they experiment in ours because it is still illegal to carry a firearm under the Gold Dome.” Six professors at Georgia universities have filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the campus carry law, which took effect in July 2017.

The roll-out of Georgia’s law appears to be as confusing and difficult to enforce as the Texas law. As an example, Haberland noted that high school students sometimes take freshman survey courses at her campus, a situation that provides an exemption from campus carry, as there are minors in the classroom. However, professors aren’t allowed to inform the class that a minor is present and that guns are banned, so the onus is on gun holders to call the registrar and ask, which they are unlikely to do.

The impact of campus carry on professors’ policies

Several sources discussed their heightened concern about meeting with students privately in office hours, stating that they or their colleagues had adopted policies to better protect themselves, such as meeting with students by Skype or in Starbucks. After the implementation of Texas’s campus carry law, Emily instituted an office hours by appointment only policy instead of set office hours, so that students wouldn’t know when she would be in her office. She eventually decided this policy was too limiting for students, many of whom are first-generation college attendees, so she switched to set office hours where students can drop in. Although she instituted a ban on firearms in her office, it’s impossible to enforce, she said.

Emily also indicated that her grading policies may have been affected by campus carry. She’s made a mental note of a few students whose comments in class have identified them as potential gun holders and says this knowledge would deter her from entering into a grade dispute with them.

Campus carry and academic freedom

All of the professors interviewed for this piece expressed worry that campus carry laws have had, or will have, what UT professor Jim termed “a chilling effect” on academic debate and the free exchange of ideas. Although most of the professors interviewed here stated that campus carry had not altered the topics they brought up for discussion in class, they did believe it had stifled debate among students.

Jim expressed a feeling a loss of control over his classroom, noting that an armed student “completely changes the dynamic.” He offered two examples on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. First, because college campuses tend to lean toward liberalism, his students are generally in favor of restricted gun rights: “So when there are students who are conservative who might have a perfectly justifiable different interpretation of the Second Amendment they're less likely to speak out… the legislature bent so far backward in favor of a robust Second Amendment protection and expansion that they polarized students.”

Jim’s other example involved a student who is a Muslim cleric and who was subjected to racist language by peers who didn’t seem to be cognizant that the terms they were using were offensive. Although Foster encouraged him to correct inaccurate stereotypes, the Muslim student was terrified “because of the uncertainty of what the other person has in their backpack.” Foster continued, “And so it stifles healthy debate… I know the potential benefit of this type of debate, but I certainly can't force a student of mine who is uncomfortable physically.”

Lucero weighed in on what she felt were the broader implications of campus carry: “An assault on higher education… an assault on academic knowledge production and… what things can be taught. I think it was an attack on what was perceived to be a liberal bias in education… you’re not able to talk about controversial theories.” She alluded to colleagues who have decided not to raise “culture war” issues, like abortion, and discrimination against LGBTQ people because of the potential for heated debate that could end in violence.

Fear and trauma surrounding campus carry

The professors interviewed all expressed a heightened concern for their own safety, or their students’ safety, in the wake of the implementation of campus carry. Lucero admitted to a feeling of dread when she enters the classroom, thinking, “Am I going to make it home?” Nonetheless, her sense of duty as an educator outweighs the fear. As a Latina, she says she owes it to her students — most of whom are first-generation, poor students of color — to equip them with knowledge that’s potentially transformative and empowering.

Foster has a particularly fraught relationship with campus carry as he was witness to an accidental shooting death of a fellow student when he was in seventh grade. “The parallels between what happened there, an accidental shooting,” he said. “And my fear that something like that could easily happen again even among people who are trained brought back to me memories that are not pleasant from my childhood.” He struggles with how to reconcile this experience with his current reality. When asked if he has considered giving up his job — which in academia can mean the end of one’s career because tenure-track positions are so scarce — he stated that he’s currently searching for jobs in states where campus carry is banned, and at private institutions, which are not required to adopt state gun laws.

For some professors, expanded gun rights laws have indisputably pushed them out of academia. Amy Kaufman left not only her academic job but a tenured position at Middle Tennessee State University last fall, citing campus carry as a major factor. Her apprehension began with the passing of concealed carry in Tennessee and was amplified when a more restricted version of campus carry was passed in 2016, permitting full-time employees to carry concealed weapons; last year, there was a failed attempt to expand these rights to part-time employees. “I had to ask myself whether I was also willing to risk getting shot at work,” Kaufman said. “Since concealed carry passed, I’d already been in scary situations with people who were carrying: a repairman in my own home and a man bragging about his guns in a women’s clinic. What would it be like when I encountered an angry student or even an angry colleague?”

Haberland didn’t fear as much for her own safety as for that of her students. “College students are at an apex risk for suicide,” she said. “And we know that when a firearm is present in the home, the risk of suicide goes up.” She said she worries about it also because students are often experimenting with alcohol and other substances. In this vein, researchers at Johns Hopkins found that “a large body of literature clearly shows that firearm access is associated with increased rates of suicide, suggesting that increased access to firearms on college campuses could significantly increase suicide in this vulnerable group.”

Added risks for female professors and faculty of color

Lucero cites having the difficulty of being a Latina within a department that she believes has tacitly accepted white supremacist and misogynist views among students. She says that she feels that this ideology put her at additional risk within a campus carry environment. She recounted an incident with a student who had openly espoused neo-Nazi ideology and was very hostile to the readings she assigned. On one occasion, he became agitated and went on a tirade, shutting down the class completely. He stayed behind after the class was over. “He blocks my way to the door and starts screaming at me. I thought I was gonna die,” she said. She was able to get past him and went straight to the chair of her department, visibly upset, but neither he nor university administrators took meaningful action regarding the student’s threatening behavior.

Lucero sees this incident as a part of the broader backlash against efforts to diversify the academy. “I think one of the most scary aspects of this law is not just guns writ large, but what the legislation is saying,” she said. “It’s really emboldening a very specific group of people — white men with race issues and gender issues.” Lucero said that open carry often is a double standard for black and Latino men. “It’s only acceptable if white men are doing it. The same white men that have really, really strong problems with hearing about views that differ from their own.”

Brenda Romero, professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, also echoed the racialized aspects of gun ownership and the dangers this presents to faculty of color.“Because it is often right-winged white extremists who amass firearms and arsenals, the association is frightening,” she said. She has long felt some degree of concern about her safety as a woman of color in a state with a historically strong KKK presence, and she says she’s still wary of teaching large survey courses.

The perspectives of these professors reveal their concern not only for their own safety and that of their students but for the preservation of the college classroom as a space of open, non-threatening debate. These concerns are intensified for female professors and faculty of color who incorporate feminist, queer, and/or non-European theories and readings into their courses in an attempt to challenge traditional, Eurocentric academic thought. While many faculty members opt to continue teaching despite the threats posed by campus carry, some, like Kaufman, have decided their career is not worth the risk.

Today these professors are now faced with the difficult decision: give up teaching or teach in fear.

Share image by Tatiana Cardenas/Good Media Group.

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Armed College Students Instill Fear In Professors