For 15 years, three large boulders located on the University of Texas at Dallas campus were used to publicize events, display art and present political messages.
After Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack of Israel, which killed about 1,200 people, and Israel’s subsequent assault on Gaza, which has killed more than 17,000 Palestinians, the boulders – dubbed the Spirit Rocks – became a campus hot spot in the pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian student messaging campaign. Sometimes, these designs changed in a matter of minutes.
At 2:16 a.m. on Oct. 12, the main boulder was painted with the Palestinian flag with the message, “Free Palestine.” Nine minutes later, the rock was painted over with the Israeli flag. By 2 p.m. on Oct. 12, it was split in half: the left with a pro-Israel message and the right with a pro-Palestinian message.
Student Government President Srivani Edupuganti said leading up to Thanksgiving break, political discourse around Israel and Gaza had died down, and the Spirit Rocks weren’t being painted over as frequently.
On Nov. 20, students planned to paint the Spirit Rocks for the Transgender Day of Remembrance. When they showed up, the three boulders were missing. In their place were three freshly planted trees.
“The fact that they were removed so sneakily left students under the impression that they were removed because of the Israeli and Palestinian discourse,” Edupuganti said.
In an email to students, staff and faculty, the Division of Student Affairs said the Spirit Rocks were removed because they “were not intended to be a display for extended political discourse.” The Division of Student Affairs did not respond to a request for a comment.
However, since their beginning in 2008, the Spirit Rocks have continually displayed political messages. As early as 2009, students painted the rocks to support the Iranian Green Movement. In 2011, students used the rocks to protest the arrest of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and in 2015, students painted a design in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It seems weird that now (the Middle East conflict), for some reason, was the breaking point, even though students have been civil and peaceful,” said Junior Anika Sultana.
UTD is one of many national universities grappling with student expression amidst the conflict in Gaza.
Jade Steinberg, soon to be UTD Hillel President, said UTD has also failed to take action after antisemitic events on campus. Steinberg said someone vandalized a student’s door, which had a mezuzah, a traditional Jewish doorpost decoration. Steinberg also said a Jewish student was called a slur on the way to class, and when UTD Hillel painted the Spirit Rocks, students shouted “baby killers.”
“We’ve tried to explain to (the administration) how we don’t necessarily feel safe or heard on campus,” Steinberg said. “And so far, unfortunately, nothing has really come of that besides the removal of the Spirit Rocks.”
Steinberg said the removal “lit a new fire” under the tension at UTD. Starting on Nov. 27, the Progressive Student Coalition organized a week of protests over the Spirit Rocks’ removal. Students gathered at the former site of the rocks, painted pebbles with the Palestinian and pride flag and drew pro-Palestinian art on the sidewalk by the student center.
Sultana said students are fearful UTD may take away other platforms for student expression. Fatimah Azeem, Editor-in-Chief of The Mercury, UTD’s independent student newspaper, said although the Spirit Rocks were not the only way to exercise free speech, they were the most popular and barrier-free.
“It’s not like anything else on campus,” Azeem said. “It’s not like putting up a flier, which can be taken down or putting up a bulletin board, which you have to get pre-approval for. (The Spirit Rocks) don’t have all these layers of bureaucracy.”
Azeem said the administration has been “evasive” when students and Mercury reporters approach with questions regarding the Spirit Rocks’ removal.
She said on Nov. 29, Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Gene Fitch hosted an event with pizza to help students relax ahead of finals week. Students asked Fitch about the decision to remove the Spirit Rocks, Azeem said.
“He literally answered with, ‘I’m standing here serving pizza, thank you,’” Azeem said.
Sultana, who is also a graphic designer and contributor for The Mercury, said UTD students have felt left in the dark when it comes to campus speech.
“At this point, it’s really frustrating because whenever we go to admin for answers, they just run,” Sultana said. “And it’s not like the student body isn’t willing to compromise with them either.”
During Homecoming Weekend, Sultana said the administration requested students stop changing the Spirit Rocks’ design during the weekend. Sultana said students respected the administration’s wishes. The administration should work with students when making decisions that will impact campus life, Sultana said.
Edupuganti said the administration did not consult Student Government when deciding to remove the Spirit Rocks, even though they were a “Student Government-supported installation.”
“(The Spirit Rocks’ removal) is something that dealt a blow to that trust in the relationship,” Edupuganti said.
Student Government Senator Avinash Chivakula said the administration’s choice to remove the Spirit Rocks is indicative of a larger problem on campus. He said the removal has further fractured the trust students have in the administration’s ability to facilitate productive conversations around nuanced political issues.
“It’s very much a lack of administrative foresight,” Chivakula said. “And we’re going to see more of that, especially with SB 17 and a further lack of administrative cohesion.”
SB 17 comes amidst a national conservative opposition to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in higher education. The law prohibits Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) offices at public colleges and universities.
The law also prevents institutions from asking for DEI statements; giving preferential treatment in the hiring process based on race, sex or ethnicity; and requiring participation in DEI training.
SB 17 does not affect student organizations and academic course instruction.
Chivakula, however, said the burden to foster open conversations around DEI and politicized topics will fall unfairly on students. These issues are intimate and emotional, Chivakula said, but that doesn’t mean the university’s response should be suppression.
“A campus’s job is to facilitate opportunities for students to let out those emotions because I don’t think anger is inherently a bad thing,” Chivakula said.
Steinberg said the elimination of UTD’s DEI office will make students feel less confident in the administration’s ability to support minority students. It is more difficult for Hillel UTD to feel it has “allies” within the administration, Steinberg said, especially after the antisemitic incidents.
Since SB 17’s passing, Student Government has asked the UTD administration for greater transparency and clarity around its policies, Edupuganti said. In May, the Student Government passed a resolution asking for the administration to use an “open decision-making process” and use open forums to hear students’ input.
In November, the UTD Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion attended a Student Government meeting and presented on what will happen to different programs once SB 17 takes effect in 2024.
In a Nov. 29 email, Benson told students, faculty and staff the Office of Campus Resources and Support will replace the Office of DEI. The new office will “enhance student community-building and support employees and employee resource groups.” In the email, Benson said details were still being ironed out.
Azeem said since that email, the administration has been receptive to questions about DEI. But due to the uncertainty around SB 17, they may not be able to provide answers, she said.
Azeem said one step the administration can take to address campus unrest is reinstating the Spirit Rocks. Edupuganti said Student Government has passed a resolution calling for the reinstatement, but it has not gone to the president’s office yet.
Chivakula said UTD should be transparent around its administrative decisions so that the school can work toward its goal, which should be to foster growth amongst its student body.
“There’s no better place to talk about these topics than a campus where people are actively trying to learn and be better,” Chivakula said.