• Únete 956

Despite rigged referendum, opposing students make presence felt & call for audit

Updated: Nov 20, 2021

By Jonathan Salinas, Denisse Molina Castro, Mauricio Lomeli Martinez

The authors served various functions in past student government associations including Senator-at-Large, President at both legacy institutions and UTRGV, from 2013 to 2017.

By UTRGV graphic design major, Juan Antonio Almaguer.

UTRGV's football referendum, asking students to raise athletics fees for future enrollees, "passed" with less than one-fifth of the student body voting or 17%.

According to officials, this constituted "the largest voter turnout" in UTRGV's history. If true, this would be mere commentary on UTRGV’s undemocratic past.

Nevertheless, to the extent “no” votes made up the historic turnout, students, alum and faculty who opposed this enterprise deserve credit.

And if this vote is to be taken as representative of the 32,000-plus student body, then nearly 40-percent (39.54%) said "no." An email sent Thursday November 11 by Student Government Association President, Jose Pablo Rojas, claimed 3,497 voted in favor and 2,287 voted against. The difference (1,210 votes, or nearly ten percentage points) is significant, to be sure. But the dissent is also remarkable, at over 2,200-strong. Everybody anticipated the referendum to "pass," sure. But did anybody really expect this much opposition?

UTRGV administrators endorsed this referendum and crushed the scale, from the start. With its fully staffed athletics department, administrative bureaucracy, a lower “student life” aristocracy surrounding the Dean of Students Office, unceasing positive and misleading media coverage in their favor, a reserve-army of online trolls to unleash abuse and vitriol and censorship against critics, and unabashedly-biased polling stations on campus designed to funnel students in high-density areas like food courts and recreation centers where informed voting materials were unavailable, the objective relationship of forces always favored UTRGV. We had no illusions.

We, who stood up for students voicing the yearnings of those struggling and for whom "scholarships" are insufficient, knew the best we could do would be to help guide a new generation of student leaders who'd had enough into action and encourage others to that common struggle against a common oppressor by offering past experience as wisdom. Only a mass and active student movement of thousands could have pushed back UTRGV with the force required to decisively defeat this campaign. Such movements have dwindled over the years. But a new one took root, broke ground and sprouted its first leaves.

As our colleague Jonathan Salinas reported, only around four people attended the Brownsville SGA town hall while around two dozen paid staff, SGA, or recruited propagandists acted as filler. Two students Salinas spoke with who attended in Edinburg said turnout was similar—only a few people, mainly staff. The “flyer” for the town halls read like a legal document, what graphic designers term, "text-heavy." But to be fair, the town halls were "announced" in a campus-wide email, only after the first one had already taken place.

At both town halls, critics were rushed when speaking, told to make no comments, and were disallowed from holding the microphone by Health Sciences Senator, Carlos Mata, who truly "moderated" discussion. The recorded “live stream” of the Brownsville town hall muted all of Salinas' statements and questions during the "Q & A," except for his follow-up question and some heckling done in defense of fine arts student, Juan Almaguer. Salinas was among those disallowed from holding the microphone, which he pointed out to Mata in person, calling him out for doing the same to Bruno Rosales in Edinburg. Almaguer's statements, in the "live stream" are completely inaudible.

When UTRGV really wants to get the word out, however, the administration sends personalized emails with ample time in advance and reminds students about the vote and provides convenient polling locations. This is what they did for the referendum, when the time to vote arrived. They'll also launch large media and ad campaigns, for good measure. Did they send personalized emails to remind students town halls were coming up? Where were the YouTube ads reminding students to attend town halls? “Don’t forget your town hall! Please come with many questions and comments!” To imagine it is to mock it. And why didn’t they mass-send the feasibility study or publish their business plan?

After the town halls, more students spoke out. Danielle Garza, social media editor for The Rider, wrote a powerful essay titled "Art Majors Matter," juxtaposing the disparity between art students in Brownsville and the amenities enjoyed by student athletes. Bruno Rosales, who spoke up in Edinburg, made graphics echoing his question, about why campus workers have not gotten a raise? It said, "No raise, no football!" Almaguer created a slew of brilliant and captivating graphics that will forever go down in history. He posted some of them at the Brownsville campus and passed them out to fellow students.

Almaguer posted to the "UTRGV Students" Facebook page, the weekend leading up to the vote, that his flyers were taken down by the next day. Soon, the fate of Almaguer's online post would follow in that of his physical flyers.

Small sidewalk billboards, containing the university's "myth vs. facts" sheet regarding the football referendum, were placed all around UTRGV's main campuses just before voting. Promotional posters were posted on every other column of the campuses' main trails. Yet, art students spending their own money to print out leaflets and flyers regarding an important collective decision is out of bounds? Legalists will cite "handbook operating procedures," to justify taking down "unauthorized" literature. Those who know the free speech movement of Berkley University and the long history of the struggle for free expression in the academe know distributing literature can never be a crime.

The censorship continued online. The weekend before the referendum vote, November 5 through 7, a vibrant debate formed on a Facebook “discussion” group called "UTRGV Students." Led by Almaguer and our colleague, Denisse Molina Castro, they shared our informative article on college football costs and other information about the referendum including Almaguer's graphics. People commented in droves, shared the article and wrote their own statements in opposition to the referendum.

A few comments from the Great Debate. If you'd like to share screen shots, for an archival project, please forward to unete956@gmail.com

Personal Facebook accounts tied to the university unleashed hateful invective against referendum critics and “mass-reported” critical comments and posts to trigger an algorithm that deletes commentary if reported enough times, on top of answering all critical comments in defense of the referendum. The page administrator told Salinas an "algorithm" automatically deletes posts, if they're reported enough times. So it's possible and probably likely critical comments of the referendum were mass-reported, in a coordinated campaign.

Within hours, comments and posts were deleted and the page's moderator (who has been tagged in UTRGV Student Union Facebook posts dating to 2015) made a statement claiming that comments or posts deleted were deleted for containing "hate speech" and "vulgar" language. Neither of us saw such posts. But even if true, ours and Almaguer's comments which did not possess hate speech, were also scrubbed. Salinas and Molina Castro received hateful comments, being attacked for their age and alum status. They were ordered by leading referendum proponent, Zak Borjas, to “shut the fuck up” and stop being critical of the referendum in a post on their personal Facebook pages.

Comments and posts opposing the referendum were poetic, eloquent, passionate, on the mark and received a lot of support from fellow followers of the page, while university apologists' arguments were mostly laughed at and mocked. By Sunday evening Salinas was in Facebook jail for 24 hours for thought-crimes and could not make any public statements, even to his personal Facebook page for the entire first day of voting. During this time, others shared an article he published that morning on his behalf. It exposed how UTRGV withheld important details about athletics fees over the years and continued to, right down to the referendum. It was shared widely.

By Monday evening, posts sharing his article were scrubbed clean, along with every single post regarding the referendum. Any trace of The Great Debate of 2021 was gone. University apologists pointed to the fact that both "pro" and "anti" referendum posts were removed, when people noticed the entire debate was deleted. But even deleting “pro” posts aided the university because they were relentlessly dismantled by critics.

The referendum question was biasedly-phrased, according to students on the page. In the first few hours of voting, which turned out to be the final hours of being able to post anything about the referendum on the "student" page, "antis" posted screenshots of the question and pointed to how it was phrased. They slammed it for being leading and not asking the proposition in a fair-balanced way. Apologists immediately pounced on the critics, defending the phrasing of the question. Those posts were also gone by Monday night.

The Facebook moderator posted a message Monday night, saying the page was "under construction" as everyone was barred from posting. Of course, many mocked the excuse with laughing emojis. Soon after, another post by the admin was made, saying the page was only intended for class recommendations, lost and found, humorous memes, etc. Nobody bought this, either. Almaguer was eventually blocked from the page, entirely, as reported by The Rider.

After getting out of Facebook jail Monday night, Salinas was curiously banned an additional two days from participating in any group discussions on Facebook. The punishment time was curious because that was the exact remaining length for referendum voting. A little on the nose, as some say. Cooperation between powerful institutions, private and "public," is ever-more commonplace. Unete 956 has filed public information requests that will shed more light on the extent of UTRGV's censorship and advertising and marketing in the referendum's favor. We will keep you posted on developments.

At a press conference after results were announced, President Guy Bailey explained previous un-transparent fee practices as an "oversight" brought over from the merger when cross-examined by Salinas who attended the press conference. (UTRGV’s fee practices was the topic of Monday’s article.)

UTRGV press conference announcing referendum results, 11 November 2021. Edinburg, Texas. From left, President Guy Bailey, Athletics Director, Chasse Conque, Senior Vice President, Maggie Hinojosa, SGA President, Jose Pablo Rojas. By Jonathan Salinas

Acknowledging for the first time ever that SB 1467 allowed incremental fee increases without student input if said proposal is less than ten-percent of the existing fee, Bailey dismissed concerns that they’d actually do this by "punting" to the board and giving them an "out" by saying "The board [his bosses] wouldn't look kindly on that." Only time will tell.

Bailey also acknowledged the plight of art students in Brownsville for the first time, when pressed by The Rider's reporting team about student concerns raised throughout the process. Bailey said he would be making "a major announcement" in coming months, regarding Brownsville art. Danielle Perez, The Rider's social media editor who wrote the essay referenced above, asked why art students have to write to the dean or provost to have needs met? That's seen as a delay tactic by art majors who've written but get no answers. Bailey answered not because of that process, but because students rose- and spoke-up.

Almaguer also said last Thursday that the next step is for students to call for an audit of the referendum. We agree. An independent and timely audit of the referendum and the processes leading to the vote, if done with transparency and integrity, would verify every claim made in this article about the referendum process and would shed light into the full extent of UTRGV administration's campaign in favor of the proposition as well as the tactics employed to suppress critics. The inquest into UTRGV's football referendum is just getting started.



*This article was edited to include missing links and for brevity, 20 November 2021 at 12:21 p.m. CST.

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