In my four years as a University of Houston undergrad, I never saw a day like Thursday.
On most Thursdays, the square of grass and seating that sits among the arts, communications and music schools—the Arts District, as it is known—is an art student haven for that relaxation time between classes. There are students working on assignments, students catching rays, students sharing annoyed glances at the lone saxophonist who simply must practice there. But not this Thursday.
This Thursday, the Arts District was deserted, many of its classes canceled. The parking lot opposite it was closed as well, and Cullen Blvd. was cut off by police cars and a long stretch of fence. Gone too were the students you always see on Elgin St., waiting for rides home. In their place stood fences. There was no cacophony of talking or music, only an eerie silence intermittently broken by the clack of heels or a bird call.
Whence this strange Thursday? For one thing, UH’s Moores Opera House was hosting a crucial Republican presidential debate sponsored by CNN and Telemundo. For another, the school wanted to piggyback on all the debate exposure—understandably so—to showcase the transformation from its commuter-school “Cougar High” past to its Tier One, nationally-ranked-football-team present. But there are some UH constants—namely crowds and chaos and complexity, all of which were in evidence on debate day, both inside Moores and out.
Lynn Eusan Park, normally a peaceful get-away in the heart of campus, was pandemonium central. Huge white tents—of the sort you see in Indian weddings, as UH President Renu Khator put it—were erected to house CNN’s makeshift set. Screaming and chanting could often be heard during broadcasts, much of it coming from a sea of students in the background who waved signs supporting various candidates.
But the loud voices meandered to the rest of campus from there.
“Make America great again!” yelled a pro-Donald student at some anti-GOP protesters in front of MD Anderson Library. The group of several dozen students and at least one faculty member had gathered at 5 p.m.—just out of sight of CNN’s cameras—to protest against the Republicans’ presence. Carrying signs like “GOP is not 4 me. GOP is only greed” and “GOP, hold your racist candidates accountable” and chanting that “the people united will never be defeated,” the students were nonetheless defeated in their desire to march from the library to the opera house. Fences and a heavy police presence kept them well short of their destination.
Many of the protesters were members of organizations like Students For a Democratic Society at UH and Students 4 A Say, and all were angry that UH, one of the most ethnically diverse universities in the country, was playing host to candidates like Trump, whose views on undocumented immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans and others have made him hugely unpopular among many Americans. And there were other issues on their minds as well. Before the march, Erica Fletcher, a visiting scholar in the university’s anthropology department, delivered a short speech criticizing not only the GOP but Texas’s new open-carry laws. The marchers’ numbers ballooned to a few hundred as the night wore on. Meanwhile, on Cullen and Elgin, another protesting crowd formed, their anti-GOP chants coming in Spanish and English. By the night's end, crowds had reached the hundreds.
“The University of Houston is shouldering the well-being of its students in the name of exposure,” said a friend, Celestina Billington, in a text. “As a Latina who grew up in the East End who chose UH for its diversity and affordability,” wrote Billington, who is also president of UH’s Student Feminist Organization, “I'm shocked to see these values come second to a few tweets from Wolf Blitzer and an appearance by Anderson Cooper.”
And there was at least one other unhappy group of students, folks like Melanie Franco and Erica Peterson, who were protesting all the disruption. Franco, holding a sign that read “Will the GOP pay for my canceled class because I had to” sign, complained that “it’s affecting us and our studies. We’re supposed to be here to learn, and we can’t really do that with [the debate] going on.”
Ironically, most students didn’t get much chance to learn about the democratic process either, despite its proximity. Most of the debate hall’s tickets were allocated to GOP bigwigs. As for the rest, CNN gave a university with a student body of 40,000 just 25 tickets, most of which were snapped up by UH brass and their guests. Then again, the network’s Anderson Cooper hosted a journalism-themed town hall for students in the early afternoon, which seemed to go over well.
“Every journalist wants to talk to another journalist about journalism,” said Glissette Santana, the editor-in-chief of The Daily Cougar, who was granted a brief interview with Cooper. “It was a mind-blowing experience, it was great.”
Amid the mind-blowing maelstrom was the Athletics/Alumni Center, dubbed Google’s Spin Room on this occasion, which served as headquarters for reporters and news organizations from all over the globe. The security was predictably tight—a joint effort by the HPD and Secret Service—with bomb-sniffing dogs examining every camera and bulky bag that entered the opera house. Still, it wasn’t an infallible system. I went in and out of the building several times before anyone noticed—myself included—that I’d accidentally brought in some pepper spray attached to my key ring.
Entering the Spin Room, I suddenly felt transported to a Silicon Valley workplace, albeit one dominated by an explosion of Google red, blue, white, yellow and green, and huge screens broadcasting Google Trends and Google poll results and popular Google searches. There were TV reporters everywhere, doing live shots from the middle of the room, the aisles, even the seats. By the time the debate started at 7:30 p.m., some had been there a full 12 hours, fueled by CNN and Google, who comped everybody three full meals, snacks and coffee with the help of Philadelphia-based Hub Bub.
Needless to say, it was a people-watcher’s dream (for journalism people-watchers, that is). I was seated just a few seats away from a pair of blond Swedish newspaper reporters. Nearby, a female journalist with a thick British accent paced an aisle incessantly. There were reporters from The New York Times and the Guardian, but also Galveston and Fort Bend, every one of them caught up in a multitasking frenzy. Reporters snuck glances at the debate while tweeting, writing, editing video, and—in one case at least—wishing happy birthday to a pair of children over Skype.
By 10 p.m., the debates, shouting and protests had all ended, leaving the pundits to scratch their heads and wonder who had won the evening, if anyone. Amid all the confusion and squalor, however, some students couldn’t resist concluding that there’d been one clear winner: UH.
“I don’t think this debate is necessarily going to change everything rapidly, but it’s definitely a game-changer when it comes to how the university is received on the national stage,” said Santana.
For another student, Hina Darvesh, it seemed indisputable that the GOP had done good things for the school, regardless of one’s thoughts on the candidates themselves. “(The GOP) could have chosen Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Rice…. The fact that they chose us is beyond amazing, beyond an honor….I feel like we’re up there now.”