1998 Letter To UT Austin President Regarding Access Policies To The Texas Tower Observation Deck

Sunday, August 02, 1998

Dr. Larry R. Faulkner
The University of Texas at Austin
Campus Mail Code: G3400
Austin, Texas 78712

RE: Access Policies to the University of Texas Tower’s observation deck, et cetera

Dear Dr. Faulkner:

I have read with interest that you have before you a new student proposal to reopen the observation deck of the Tower. As a UT graduate with a special interest in issues related to the Tower, I would like to offer a few comments without regard to the specifics of the new proposal.

As you know, the Tower’s observation deck was closed to the public in 1975 after a string of suicides. The University’s darkest hour, of course, was on the first day of August in 1966, when sniper Charles Joseph Whitman gunned down 45 people from his perch in the Tower.

Most undergraduates had not yet been born when the observation deck was closed by the Board of Regents. In the past, students have overwhelmingly supported the reopening of the observation deck. Ten years ago, a non-binding student referendum found that 88 percent of students would be willing to pay additional fees to offset the costs of reopening the Tower. In 1992, the Students Association (now the Student Government) authored a proposal to convert the 27th floor into a privately run coffee shoppe. More recently, representatives of the ad hoc group Students for an Open Tower collected 3,200 signatures in support of reopening of the deck. The most recent proposal, put forth by several undergraduates, would allow the public (with an affirmative action of sorts benefitting alumni and graduating seniors) to visit the Tower by paying admittance fees, which would be used to fund salaried security guards who would deter reckless behavior.

Each student proposal had its flaws, but the fundamental question of whether the observation deck should be reopened remains unaddressed. Some students make the mistake of arguing that it is their right to visit the observation deck. As you well know, the University is perfectly within its rights to deny them access, which it does to most requests for exceptions. Regardless of the fate of the latest student proposal, however, you should at least consider enacting a uniform access policy.

When interviewed on the subject last year, Assistant Vice President for Business Affairs Marla Martinez candidly admitted that there is “no uniform policy” governing access to the observation deck. Dr. William Livingston, the University’s Senior Vice President, concedes that “selected individuals” are granted access to the deck at the discretion of administrators.

The absence of a uniform policy has transformed the observation deck into a “perk” offered by administrators seeking to ingratiate themselves to favorable athletic or academic recruits or celebrities. In “The Tainted Timekeeper,” a 1996 history of the Tower, Matthew Mabry reports that while students are perennially denied admission to the observation deck, celebrities such as Regis Philbin are escorted there without reservation.

Journalists are traditionally allowed access to the observation deck, although I suspect this is done because of the University’s preoccupation with media relations. Author and historian Gary M. Lavergne, who recently published the work Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders, received permission to visit while requests from other scholars have been rejected outright.

Administrators have even shown an unwillingness to grant requests that meet their own exception guidelines. Vice President for Business Affairs G. Charles Franklin, who determines what if any access will be granted to those who request to visit the observation deck, wrote in a 1992 memorandum that in addition to professional journalists, “students with classroom writing assignments” may visit the deck, but only after providing “verification of such assignments from their professors.”

Yet students from the Fall 1996 and Spring 1997 sections of Dr. Rosa Eberly’s “UT Tower and Public Memory” course saw their requests denied even after meeting all of the bureaucratic prerequisites. Perhaps administrators were uncomfortable with the subject matter of this course, but is administrative discomfort enough to reject an academic request? Another recent example: Two architecture classes requested permission to visit the deck to enhance their study of the campus’ Mediterranean design. Only one of the classes received permission for a special tour.

Whenever they are confronted with the issue of reopening the observation deck, administrators purport that reopening the observation deck would be too unwieldy an enterprise.

To comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, they claim the University would be forced to make costly renovations to the deck that would make the effort too difficult. However, one could argue quite convincingly that the Act’s “undue hardship”provision would exempt the University from extensive repairs or renovations. Again, the Act may be a convenient excuse offered by those who feel that the observation deck may be more trouble than it is worth.

Another argument they use is the cost of employing security. Quite simply, the University of Texas spends millions upon millions of dollars on frivolous enterprises that are not directly germane to higher education.

The University’s obsession with “student services” has resulted in skyrocketing fee bills for students, who are often puzzled why they must pay for a student child care center when most undergraduates are not parents. Arguments that security costs would cripple the University are rather unconvincing.

Obviously, any decision regarding the future of the observation deck would be a political one. The Board of Regents, who would ultimately make the decision, would be unlikely to address the issue without the support of at least several high level administrators. Students might do better to lobby the Regents directly, or even attend the Texas Senate confirmation hearings of future Regents.

Considering the past rhetoric of high level administrators, it is unlikely that a maverick will appear to counter their conventional wisdom. Former UT president Peter T. Flawn has described the Tower as a “compelling symbol for the mentally disturbed.” Dr. Livingston, who seems uncomfortable even discussing the issue, has called it a “seductive nuisance.” Dr. Livingston was even displeased with a recent radio broadcast (hosted by me and featuring Mr. Lavergne and Dr. Eberly) which offered a scholarly look at the Whitman massacre as well as the University’s response to the tragedy over the years. Affecting Dr. Livingston’s judgment may be the fact that he witnessed the 1966 tragedy and lost a classmate to Whitman’s reign of terror.

Dr. Eberly, an assistant professor in the University’s Division of Rhetoric and Composition, recently wrote in an Austin American Statesman op-ed piece that you, by simply acknowledging the new request to reopen the deck, have instigated a public discourse on the Tower itself. Such a dialogue might establish some sense of closure to the Whitman incident, which may not have directly prompted the closing of the Tower but certainly looms over any discussion of reopening it.

The administration should not offer stalwart resistance to any attempt to reopen the Tower and then turn around and offer admittance to “select individuals.” However you decide to address the latest proposal, you can accomplish a great deal by simply establishing a uniform access policy.

Either the observation deck is closed to the public or it is not. It should not be used by administrators as a “perk,” even if it lures outstanding students to the University or impresses celebrities. Regardless of whether the administration is within its rights to use the Tower in this way, it is inappropriate.

Ordinarily, I would not have written a letter such as this, but you do seem more receptive to input than most administrators I have encountered at the University.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Jim Dedman

cc: Mr. Arthur Dilly, Executive Secretary to the University of Texas System Board of Regents
Dr. William Livingston, UT Senior Vice President
Mr. G. Charles Franklin, UT Vice President for Business Affairs
Dr. Rosa Eberly, Assistant Professor in the Division of Rhetoric and Composition
Ms. Anna Lisa Holand, President of the UT-Austin Student Government
Mr. Spencer Prou, Students for an Open Tower
Ms. Martha Shelton, UT student