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How Guns on Campus Could Change What Texas Teaches

Updated: Feb 26, 2016 2:18 PM ET

College professors and administrators across Texas are grappling with how to handle the state's controversial new campus-carry law, with some even suggesting instructors remove controversial content from their lessons to avoid riling up armed students.

As professors weigh how to respond to the law—which will allow Texans with concealed handgun licenses to carry guns on public university campuses when it takes effect in August—faculty members from about 40 universities around the state were set to gather Friday evening for the twice-annual Texas Council of Faculty Senates meeting. The law was sure to be a hot topic.

One professor who planned to raise the issue there is Jonathan Snow, a geochemistry professor and Faculty Senate president at the University of Houston, who recently sparked debate at a faculty forum at his own school when he suggested professors consider changing their curricula to avoid controversial subjects in the wake of the new law. One slide of the presentation stated that professors might want to "be careful discussing sensitive topics," "drop certain topics from your curriculum," "not 'go there' if you sense anger" and "limit student access off hours." Snow said the slide is an example of the "chilling effect" that professors worry the law will have.

"I think the ability to have a free and open intellectual discourse, candid even with brazen emotions—that shouldn’t be at the cost of having to think in the back of your mind, ‘Alright, where is this going? Is there somebody in my classroom who is carrying a tool whose purpose is to end human life?’” Snow said.

He thinks discussions of subjects that tend to elicit strong opinions—religion, sexual harassment or gender—might make professors more uncomfortable when they know there could be a student with a gun in the classroom.

“This is a new world that we’re going to be living in with our students potentially bringing weapons legally into classrooms, so we need to think about how we interact with that," Snow said.

That concern led Frederick Steiner, dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, to announce this week that he's leaving the school to accept a new post at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design. He told TIME on Thursday that he didn't want to enforce the new campus-carry law, in part because he thinks professors can more honestly appraise students' work in classrooms free of guns.

"I was very happy here in Austin and wouldn’t have considered applying for another job if it wouldn’t have have been for campus-carry," he said.

While some professors considered changing what they teach—or how they teach it—others said they would never alter their curriculum because of the law.

Kevin Foster, whose classes on race and diversity at the University of Texas at Austin touch on hot-button issues,opposes campus-carry and thinks professors should now receive additional training, but he said if he ever felt like he needed to compromise his teaching, he'd find a different profession.

"I don’t think we should give in to approaches that would have us change who we are to our core," he said.

Those who support the concealed-carry law believe it shouldn't affect classroom instruction.

"If you’re really concerned that somebody’s going to stand up with a gun and start shooting people, then there has to be a history in your class of people engaging in violence otherwise," said Michael Newbern of Students for Concealed Carry, who teaches at Ohio State University and said professors would be cheating their students if they gave in to irrational fears.

On Friday evening, faculty at the Texas Council of Faculty Senates meeting planned to share how the law is being handled and implemented on each of their campuses. Dana Cooper, council president, predicted a range of opinions on the issue.

"Some people might say, 'This is the reality and I’m backing off topic X because it’s too controversial,'" Cooper said. "Other people might say, 'No, I’m a teacher and it’s absolutely my responsibility to engage them.'"

A professor of women's history at Stephen F. Austin State University, Cooper said her class discussions make people uncomfortable on a daily basis, but she won't eliminate conversations about sexism, feminism, women and race, or women in the military.

“I personally would not avoid those tough conversations," she said. "But I certainly would anticipate being far more mindful about the direction of the conversation and far more observant about the verbal and non-verbal cues from my students."

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