With a nearly unanimous vote and resounding applause, Student Government passed S.R. 2023-08 on Nov. 28, a resolution demanding UTD reinstate the Spirit Rocks.
UTD admin removed the Spirit Rocks from campus on Nov. 20, triggering immediate student backlash, including multiple petitions for SG to push against the decision. Over the following week, SG senator Alexander de Jesus-Colon wrote a resolution demanding that UTD officially restore the rocks, an official retraction of UTD’s Spirit Rocks removal statement, and student leadership’s involvement in similar future issues. Multiple UTD administrators were present at the Nov. 28 session, including Gene Fitch, vice president of Student Affairs, and Kim Winkler, associate dean of students.
“I can definitely say we were all shocked, none of us had any idea this was coming,” SG President Srivani Edupuganti said. “Pretty much the minute we found out about it, people started saying, ‘We need to draft a resolution.’”
Outrage over the Spirit Rocks’ removal led many to express support for the resolution. Edupuganti said she received many emails and responses to SG’s survey soliciting opinions about the removal, and multiple communities she spoke with all expressed hurt and anger. During the Nov. 28 meeting, the visitors section was packed with students, and 11 visitors gave public comments criticizing admin’s actions and calling for ratification of the resolution.
“When we used the Spirit Rocks the way they’ve been used for 15 years, they silenced us because it was convenient for them,” one student said during public comment. “Clearly, this school values its profits over its own students. The drafted Student Government resolution … is a chance for them to prove otherwise. I support the resolution to return the Spirit Rocks, to hold admin accountable for this tasteless behavior and to begin a tradition of admin listening to and uplifting student voices.”
The resolution states that the Spirit Rocks have historically platformed political viewpoints with administration’s full approval, contrasting sharply against their removal for previous weeks’ “extended political discourse” and leaving “no means for accessible, unmoderated free expression comparable to that afforded by the Spirit Rocks.” Before making decisions impacting student expression, the resolution calls on UTD to communicate with SG to ensure students’ desires are heard.
“The removal of the Spirit Rocks marks a veritable turducken of cowardice wrapped in ignorance wrapped in the sort of arrogance that can only exist in somebody who believes they are beholden to no one,” another student said during public comment.
One article in the resolution states the Spirit Rocks’ removal reflects “a pattern of marginalized groups reporting harm from a lack of administrative transparency, accountability and sensitivity,” emphasizing the disproportionate impact campus minorities suffered. De Jesus-Colon said the queer community felt especially impacted, as the rocks were removed during Trans Day of Remembrance.
“We wanted first to point out that historically, marginalized groups on campus as a whole had numerous issues in the past of administration ignoring them, not fully meeting their needs, or going halfway,” De Jesus-Colon said. “We wanted to establish a precedent that [multiple groups] feel aggrieved by what is happening, not just simply because of the removal of a community forum, but also because they felt the administration’s reasoning was lacking, to say the least.”
Echoing sentiments expressed by students, the resolution declares UTD’s decision politically biased. Highlighted among the marginalized groups who feel historically disrespected by administration are Muslim and Arab students, for whom the rock’s removal was part of recent, specific neglect by admin. Edupuganti clarified this pattern includes President Richard Benson’s Oct. 16 letter expressing sympathy for Israeli casualties.
“The Spirit Rocks removal hurts everyone, but it was undeniably aimed at speech that was heavily engaged in by Muslim and Arab students, and the removal almost does disproportionately impact these students who were using that to make their voices heard,” Edupuganti said.
30 minutes of speeches, amendment proposals and votes preceded the resolution’s final ratification. One proposed and accepted amendment called for the resolution to be shared with the Richardson city council and other state and local representatives. Another proposal, introduced by senator and computer science senior Christopher Zhou, was to delete S.R. 2023-08’s 14th paragraph and replace it with a sentence acknowledging harm done by racist statements toward Muslim, Arab and Jewish students. The paragraph previously only mentioned Muslim and Arab students and discussed UTD administration’s role in this harm. The amendment was not passed.
“A lack of administrative justice initiatives for Jewish students is inaccurate,” senator and math sophomore Willow Teaney said when challenging the proposition. “The university sending President Benson on a media tour through Israel and removing the Spirit Rocks does speak to the university not disrespecting Jewish students the way Arab and Muslim students have been.”
Edupuganti said administrators such as Fitch, Winkler, Director of Internal Communications Phil Roth and Director of Student Development Tineil Lewis-Moore are commonly seen at SG meetings. At least one administrator, including Fitch, left the room shortly S.R. 2023-08 was ratified almost unanimously with at least one abstention.
Some public commenters mentioned a sticker wall that SG has been working on implementing, but Edupuganti said it is not a replacement for the Spirit Rocks.
“[The sticker wall] came about because of the sticker pole that once existed outside of Hoblitzelle Hall,” Edupuganti said. “They’re two different forms of expression.”
While Student Government passing a resolution cannot reverse UTD’s decision, it demonstrates students’ will for the administration to consider.
“To suddenly change course [after] years of inaction is taking a clear stance on what kind of political speech has been arbitrarily decided as unacceptable,” a third student said during public comment. “Allegations of hypocrisy [are only] meaningful if administration has actual principles and a conscience.”