A small plaque hangs inconspicuously on the wall of Nedderman Hall, one of the University of Texas at Arlington’s engineering buildings. “An international tribute to an international calling,” it says, “ … the flags of our students.” The atrium features a modest display on engineering college history and a few photographs depicting past glories of the university.
It does not, however, contain any flags. The vast, open space, rather like an airplane hangar, gives the distinct impression that something is missing. What’s missing are the 123 flags that once hung there, the flags of UTA students’ home countries. The hall had been a testament to the diversity and fellowship of UTA, which has grown from being a “commuter college,” drawing students from around North Texas, to an educational melting pot, drawing students from all over the world. Now it stands as a monument to the divisiveness and controversy of the past few months.
In true international style, however, the tensions there go beyond the typical black-brown-white arguments of American culture to encompass political and religious arguments as diverse as UTA’s student body.
On any given day at UTA, the library mall, flanked on all sides by square brown and beige buildings that hark back to the 1950s bunker style of architecture, is filled with a vibrant cacophony of accents and languages. Countless cultures, myriad races, ethnicities, and personalities all converge and interact. Nearly 50 ethnic student associations are registered at UTA, the campus abounds in signs and posters in various languages and alphabets, and it seems there’s always some cultural group selling exotic food outside the library. But recently, the university that Arlington City Council member Robert Rivera called “a shining example of ideas and different cultures” has lost a little of its glow.
In April, Vietnamese students took part in a 3,000-person march down Cooper Street, the campus’ central thoroughfare, to protest the Socialist Republic of Vietnam flag being hung in the engineering building’s once-aptly named Hall of Flags. The march opened the floodgates to a torrent of election-year political pressure that, in the end, brought all of the flags down — not just the red banner of Vietnam’s current government.
Five months later, the Graduate Student Senate marked the anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy with a solemn flag ceremony on the library mall, with UTA President James Spaniolo taking part. A few blocks away, however, three freshman students put on a very different flag event and invited everyone on campus, as well as the news media. In front of Arlington Hall dormitory, the three students burned images of the North Korean and Iranian flags and effigies of the countries’ leaders as a vocal crowd watched, responding at times in outrage and at times in support.
For many, the event was a painful reminder of an incident that, while never documented as fact, has become part of campus lore: Allegedly, in that same dorm five years earlier, as planes crashed into the Pentagon and World Trade Center towers, several students described by observers as “Middle Eastern” ran through the dormitory celebrating and cheering the terrorist attacks.
The events of the past few months have left many students and alumni feeling hurt and alienated, tearing at the cocoon of the university sanctuary. In interviews, it becomes clear that a palpable sense of tension has gathered over the diverse international and minority student populations.
In the last seven years, UTA has assembled a student body more diverse than at many much larger schools. The enrollment of non- citizen/non-permanent resident students has grown from 1,851 in 2000 to 2,438. Last fall, the university enrolled more than 25,000 students from 150 countries. Almost half were non-white, and close to 12 percent were foreign students. Among graduate students, almost two-thirds were from outside the U.S., and many more were first- and second-generation Americans.
In short, ethnic and racial minorities help form the backbone of UTA — and right now many of them are hurting. Students and alumni say waves of resentment are radiating through the minority student communities. Many black students are upset over the absence of black faculty members. The administration, local politicians, white students, minority students, foreign students, faculty, alumni — all have tossed some version of salt onto the wounds.
The flag controversies couldn’t have come at a worse time for an administration that just last year launched a $350,000 “branding” campaign to try to change UTA’s image as a commuter and transfer school. Every year, when high school students check college rankings in US News & World Report, they find UTA listed in the fourth tier of colleges. The administration is seeking to change that, and international students are a big part of that effort.
Spaniolo rejects the idea that his campus is suffering from growing cultural and racial tension. But others say that UTA should stop worrying about “rebranding” itself to the outside world and start worrying more about the images that are swirling around within its walls.
On this year’s 9/11 anniversary, a crowd of perhaps 100 gathered to watch as Lance Kennedy, Alex Kloster, and Ansel Gaddy took turns standing on a chair and using a megaphone to criticize the governments of North Korea and Iran. Then they doused images of the countries’ flags and pictures of their leaders, Kim Jong-Il and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in charcoal lighter fluid and burned them in a metal washtub. Americans have grown accustomed — though not inured — to seeing their own country’s flag being burned by crowds in other countries, but not other countries’ symbols being burned by Americans. And while the crowd was generally civil, the freshmen’s actions obviously stirred strong emotions.
“This is the rally against the enemies of the United States,” said Kennedy, 19, from Coppell, as the images burned. “In no way is this protest against the people of their two nations.”
The students’ objective, according to Kennedy, a Libertarian, was to create a discussion about Korea’s and Iran’s human rights violations, nuclear ambitions, and threat to the United States. The students said they chose to do it on 9/11 because of the powerful symbolism that the day holds.
“In 2002 President Bush stated that Iran and North Korea were two-thirds of the axis of evil,” Kennedy, a political science major, explained recently. “We don’t have diplomatic relations with either of those countries, so it was never a question whether or not those nations were hostile toward the U.S. I understand that the nature of flag-burning can be misinterpreted, especially if you don’t understand why we did it.”
Far from being upset at the controversy engendered by their actions, however, Kennedy said he and his friends are pleased. “Everything that we wanted to occur has occurred. We were on national radio, we got people talking about these issues, and really it took something dramatic to have that happen.”
The trio came up with the idea four days earlier, said Kloster, an 18-year-old from Plano. “We were all at lunch, and I had the idea to protest Iran and North Korea. We had talked about putting other countries in, but those are the two biggest that people would care about.” The students got proper permits from the university and then began to pass out flyers promoting the event. With no time to find actual flags of the two countries, they made two-sided photocopies of the banners.
The event garnered more media attention than the trio or anyone else expected. Television news crews, photographers, and reporters descended on the rally. Some in the crowd shouted racial slurs at the three students, calling them “white trash,” but others applauded. Some brought signs reading “This does not represent UTA” and “Do not give them attention.”
Exchange student Alexander Graham, visiting from England, had been at UTA only a few weeks when he saw the protest. “That was the strongest show of outward aggression that I’d seen,” said the 21-year-old political science major. “It was strange and unexpected. I thought it was very tense.”
Freshman Chris Atwood, 17, said he was upset that the flag-burners chose the 9/11 anniversary to stage their “axis of evil” protest. So, in vehement if somewhat confusing counter-protest, he held up a Texas flag with a handwritten message — “Try burning this one, assholes.” After one of the flag-burners pointed out that it was illegal to write on the Texas flag, Atwood ripped the flag and spat on it.
For days after the rally, Kloster said, he found notes on his door calling him a bigot and an idiot. The tension escalated to the point that a Palestinian student, in the midst of online sparring, threatened Kloster’s life.
Rani Alabed, 18, a mechanical engineering major, wrote that he would “Pop a cap in [Kloster’s] ass,” as he and Kloster argued over the internet on facebook, a web site similar to MySpace, but limited to college students. Although the words were more theater than actual threat, Kloster called the police. Both UTA and Arlington police arrived, but apparently took the situation lightly. Alabed was neither arrested nor charged with a crime.
Without question, the strongest reaction to the flag-burning came from Middle Eastern students. They took the incident personally, as an assault on their heritage, done out of ignorance and bigotry. Many of those students said they feel that Americans are comfortable with a certain amount of racism as long as it is trained on foreigners, especially, these days, people from the Middle East. Burning flags on Sept. 11, in their minds, was a deliberate attempt to drum up anti-Islamic sentiment.
“I was pissed,” said Alabed. “They’re so brainwashed. They think that every single Arab or Middle Easterner is evil, and they have racist comments for everything. They just showed their racism and ignorance with the flag-burning.” He seemed to have had no second thoughts about his offhand threat and called Kloster “a bitch” for having reported it to police.
Alabed and others also were quick to point out some of the incendiary comments that Kloster has made on a facebook blog, called “Burn Ignorance, Save Flags,” started by Iranian student Shaby Jafari. At one point, Kloster wrote that “If saving one American life costs 10,000 Iranians, Pakistani, or whatever foreign blood, so be it.”
Felicia Kasra, who was born in Iran, believes that the flag represents the people of Iran, regardless of the politics of their leader. “The three colors represent the Iranian people, not the regime; therefore the flag-burning was a direct attack on the Iranian people, culture, and 2,500 years of history,” said the biology major. “They’re stating the obvious: The Iranian and North Korean regimes are bad. I could have told them that. I’m probably a bigger victim of these totalitarian regimes than these suburban kids from Coppell. They don’t need to burn flags to make that point.”
UTA political science professor Jose Angel Gutierrez, longtime Chicano activist and former head of Mexican-American studies at UTA, believes that the flag-burners are a byproduct of the current political climate.
“President Bush makes all of these noises that appear to be anti-immigrant, and it creates a Minutemen reaction,” Gutierrez said, referring to the anti-immigration group that organizes citizen patrols of the U.S.-Mexico border. “These right-wing kids hear a voice of hate and extremism. Hate speech in writing is normal, accepted,” he said. “The whole country has become more racist.” The professor, who was recently named one of the 101 “most dangerous people” in academia by conservative author David Horowitz, is best known for advocating the elimination of “the gringos,” back in his protest days.
Kennedy and the others insist that the history of Iran is on their side. “This is not the flag of Persia,” said Kennedy, who keeps up a constant dialogue with his critics on the facebook site. “It’s the flag of the Islamic revolution of 1979. … I liken it to the Nazi flag. Even though that was the flag of the country that they lived in, it didn’t necessarily represent the people.”
As for his Iranian critics, Kennedy countered that some of their rhetoric is un-American. “They don’t want to be Americans; they say that they would rather fight for Iran over America,” he said. “You don’t hear any of them complain when their countrymen burn our flag.”
Kamyar Maserrati, 22, believes that the flag-burners may represent a larger problem. “It really scared me,” he said. “I wonder how many people think like this and don’t say anything,” He also contends that the three flag-burners are no better than any of the people who burn the American flag.
“I lived in Iran for 17 years, and I’ve seen many American and Israeli flags burned,” said the civil engineering major. “I’ve seen an American flag painted on the sidewalk so that you can walk on it. I see absolutely no difference between those people in Iran and Lance and Alex … . They’d been in college for two or three weeks. At 9/11 they were probably 12 years old. I honestly think that they just did it to impress the fraternity that they were pledging.”
Spaniolo adamantly denies that cultural tension at UTA increased as a result of the flag-burning. “I think that it was clear that this was not the sentiment of a large number of people at the university,” he said. “We’ve had a large number of international students for a long time. That will always be a hallmark for UTA.”
However, the trio drew plenty of support when they went on a conservative radio talk show. On Mike Gallagher’s nationally syndicated radio show (carried locally on K-SKY/660-AM) the phone lines were flooded with supporters.
Even some Iranian students agreed with them. Alex Mahboubi, 18, who is pledging the same fraternity as the trio, said most Iranians feel the same way as the flag-burners. “I thought that most Iranians would be supportive of it, because the majority of the Iranians who live in the Metroplex and even in the USA came here fleeing oppression,” the business major said. “The reason my family is here is because my grandfather spent time in jail. I definitely support flag burning because it was a way to get people talking about it. Lance and those other guys have a parallel attitude as my family and the way that a lot of other Iranians view things.”
Many of those who oppose the flag- burners are also angry at the administration for allowing the protest. They pressured the administration to move the rally to a different day or to cancel it altogether. However, Spaniolo, a First Amendment lawyer, said that, although he is disappointed with the actions of those students, they are protected by the First Amendment.
“I have two reactions, one as a First Amendment lawyer and one as a president of a university,” Spaniolo told Fort Worth Weekly. “Wearing my First Amendment lawyer’s hat, whatever you think of the burning of any flag, it’s a constitutionally protected protest,” he said. “We can’t prevent it from occurring just because we don’t like it or disagree with it, and I strongly disagree with it.
“As a university president, I would say that there are better ways to protest than to burn flags because it’s such an emotional and divisive kind of protest.”
The flag-burners’ critics fear that the protest was just a sample of bigger problems that Middle Easterners, Muslims, and others face in the United States. In the last dozen years, Islamic fundamentalism seems to have replaced Communism as Americans’ number-one fear. However, it was that Cold-War enemy that came to the fore in April, when UTA became a battleground for an old- fashioned showdown with Communism.
International Week at UTA in April should have been a showcase for the college’s diversity. Instead, it turned into a clash between two old rivals, North and South Vietnam. The final result left everyone unhappy, the administration angered all sides, politicians were looking petty, and a long-standing tradition and source of UTA pride was gone.
The controversy started when the Vietnamese Student Association tried to decorate their International Week booth with the yellow banner they call their heritage flag, the flag of the former South Vietnam. The International Student Organization advisor, Danika Hines, deemed the flag to be “political” and told the students they could not display it.
Many Vietnamese Student Association members have parents and other relatives who fled the Communist regime in Vietnam. The current regime’s red flag centered with a yellow star has been the official flag of that country for the last 31 years, recognized by the United States and the United Nations. It was displayed in UTA’s Hall of Flags after an engineering student from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam requested that it be added. So for the VSA group to be told that their own heritage flag could not be flown, even informally at their booth, added insult to injury.
Lam Nguyen, a sophomore biology major, considers the red flag an insult to his heritage. “If it’s easy to understand why black students are offended by the flying of the Confederate flag, then why is it so hard to sympathize with Vietnamese-Americans who hold equally strong sentiments about the Communist flag?” he asked. “Why am I not hearing an official apology or public announcements from the school administration to the Arlington Vietnamese community?”
During International Week, only the Communist flag was carried in a campus parade. But along the parade route, students from the VSA waved their heritage flags in protest. Later that week, the university reaffirmed its decision to hang only the red Communist flag in Nedderman Hall. But after two weeks of small but constant protests by the VSA, the administration decided to compromise — both banners would hang in the Hall of Flags.
That wasn’t enough for the Vietnamese-American Community groups in Tarrant and Dallas counties. They organized a candlelight vigil and then the protest, in which an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 people marched down Cooper Street yelling, “President Spaniolo, take down that flag.” The procession was led by a large banner that read “Stop Hurting Us.”
Tom Ha, vice chairman of the Dallas chapter of the Vietnamese community organization, said that the group would not accept the compromise and that the Communist flag was an insult to its members. “That flag represents terrorism, oppression, and stupidity,” he said. “Thousands were raped, murdered, and disappeared under that flag. When children look at it, they are reminded of evil.”
The VSA was feeling frustrated and ignored by the administration. On-campus tension between the VSA and students from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam degenerated into threats and insults.
Nguyen said that involvement of people from outside the university increased the problem. “A lot of the tension originated from outside the university,” he said. “We didn’t go through the war; our parents and grandparents did.”
Ha, a UTA alumnus who helped organize the march, said that the escalation of events could have been stopped by a response from Spaniolo. “UTA administration refused to sit down and talk,” he said. Associate Provost Michael Moore “thought that we were stupid. He said to tell the students that if they don’t want to see the flag, then they need to close their eyes.”
Ha didn’t stop there. He charged that the UTA administration is in bed with the Vietnamese government because the university is trying to establish a satellite campus in that country in an attempt to attract more students to Arlington. Spaniolo called the suggestion ludicrous.
As if outside citizen involvement hadn’t been enough, the politicians then got into the act. State Rep. Hubert Vo, a Houston Democrat, spearheaded an effort to force UTA to take down the red flag. In a letter signed by him and 18 other legislators, Ho urged Spaniolo to remove it. The legislator threatened to axe $70 million in expected state funding for a new engineering research building unless the flag was removed.
State Rep. Toby Goodman of Arlington didn’t sign the letter, and he ended up with the uncomfortable job of mediating among the Vietnamese community, the UTA administration, and his fellow lawmakers.
“Some people in the Vietnamese community raised concern with me about it,” the Republican legislator said. “I talked to President Spaniolo twice and met with him, trying to come up with a compromise, which was not accepted. We were pushing for a $70 million bond for a new engineering building, and my colleagues were going to amend them out of that money.”
In response, finally, Spaniolo took down the red Vietnam flag — and all the other flags in Nedderman Hall. The issue had become a divisive one both on and off campus. “The flags had unfortunately become a source of division rather than pride,” he said. “That’s what prompted me to take the step that I did. I was not inclined to take down one flag or two flags, because there were some larger principles involved. The flags, which had been a positive source of pride, had become more controversial and negative.”
His decision met with mixed reactions. Michael Do, president of the Austin-based Vietnamese Veterans Association, which also took part in the protest, said that the Vietnamese community supported removing the Communist flag but regretted that all the flags were taken down. “I am not happy [with the outcome], because we didn’t want to hurt anyone else,” he said. “We didn’t want people to think badly of us. But for us the war isn’t over, because we cannot accept Communism. We are very sorry and sad.”
Councilman Rivera, who attended the protest march, said he stands behind Spaniolo’s decision. “I fully support the actions taken by the university,” said the former UTA student. “It’s unfortunate that all of the flags can’t be flown, but the Communist flag isn’t worthy of flying with all of the other flags. American soldiers died defending the heritage flag. If they had left that flag up, it would be as if the Nazis had prevailed in Germany and the university had raised their flag.”
Lost in the shuffle of blame and hurt feelings were the 23 students from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. One student, who asked not to be named, said that the very basis of the controversy was unjustified.
“Flying the flag doesn’t promote Communism. That’s absurd,” said the student, who is planning to transfer out of UTA because of threats he received. “Most of the VSA members don’t have any memory of Vietnam,” he said. “They are being spoon-fed poison by their parents and grandparents. I just wanted my country represented.”
Not everyone has accepted Spaniolo’s decision as final. Engineering sophomore Jesse Dearing started a web site, www.savethehallofflags.org, to try to bring back the tradition that was started in 1989. Dearing was also responsible for a counter-protest in which students from the engineering school made paper copies of all of the flags that formerly flew in Nedderman Hall and taped them up on the atrium walls. The paper copies were taken down almost immediately, but it was the first visible sign of protest from someone other than the VSA.
A number of alumni are also upset. On one blog for engineering students, a UTA graduate pointed out that the old Soviet Union flag, the Palestinian and Israeli flags, and the Cuban flag have all flown in the Nedderman atrium.
“We lost just about the only real tradition that exists anywhere in the university,” said the Vietnam veteran. “As an alumnus, I was happy to see the growth of influence of the College of Engineering those flags represented. And I was proud of the fact that students from all those nations — many with opposing political views — could learn and work together, something their forebears in their home country could not do.”
Spaniolo suggested a “cooling-off period” after taking the flags down. He has appointed a committee on diversity and international understanding to come up with ways to celebrate the school’s diversity without using flags.
“I’ve asked for some recommendations about how we can properly honor and recognize the international dimensions of our university,” he said. “I’m asking for recommendations not related to the use of international flags.”
Another thorn in Spaniolo’s paw is the lack of black tenured and tenure-track professors. UTA has six tenured and five tenure-track black professors, less than 2 percent of the school’s total, compared with 303 tenured and 103 tenure-track white professors, according to the UTA Factbook. The black student population of UTA is up to 3,300, or more than 12 percent of the student population.
Until recently, the only black department head was Dr. Robert Bing, who was relieved of his position as chairman of the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department in August, a move that shocked many of his peers. It is unclear why he was removed, but UTA sources blamed in-house academic politics. Bing, on sabbatical, could not be reached for comment.
In an article in The Shorthorn, the UTA daily newspaper, junior Tasha Dorsey said the lack of black faculty members is a problem because those professors might relate better to black students. “I think it would benefit me to look up in one of my classes and see an African-American professor teaching about struggle — something they’ve clearly gone through,” she said. A former Hispanic faculty member and a Jamaican graduate student echoed those concerns, saying that minorities are under-represented in many areas at UT.
The administration is once again being criticized for inaction. UTA sources said students and faculty are upset that the college has not done enough to recruit African-American professors. Spaniolo said that colleges nationwide are having problems recruiting and retaining black and minority professors. “This is a national phenomenon; it’s a pipeline issue,” he said. “We have made a lot of progress, but I’m not satisfied with where we are.”
To some extent, the controversy and pain of the flag events have dissipated. All of the protests were peaceful. They were also effective, to some degree, in achieving their respective aims. The flag-burners did generate the attention they were after. On a number of blogs, facebook sites, and other web sites, people are talking about the issues, although the discussions frequently descend to personal insults on both sides. The VSA did achieve its goal of getting the offending flag removed, albeit at a cost. Spaniolo has decided not to reinstate the Hall of Flags in the near future. What he has promised to do is create an open dialogue with students and the community.
“The Hall of Flags is gone, but what remains is our noble desire to honor all our students from around the world,” he told The Shorthorn. “Rather than focusing our efforts on what we’ve lost or casting blame without knowing all the facts, let’s work together to create a compelling new display. Let’s come together to build something even better in Nedderman Hall.”
Lam Nguyen said that students are beginning to settle down. “People were very, very angry,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s as big of a problem anymore.” l
You can reach Eric Griffey at firstname.lastname@example.org.