Apr 26, 2013

A&M and Texas Take Different Approaches to the Death of a Student

University of Texas at Austin representatives carry flowers to the base of the flagpoles during the 2010 UT Remembers ceremony. Photo by Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman, used with permission. 

By Jonathan Damrich
For Reporting Texas

Just as the University of Texas and Texas A&M are reputed to have different campus cultures — evident in how the universities treat politics (conservative vs. liberal) and act during football games (longstanding traditions vs. freer-flowing antics) — the schools’ differences also are made apparent by how they treat the death of a student.

Each month Texas A&M, known for its campus unity and military traditions, honors the deceased in a well-attended ceremony called Silver Taps. On a rain-soaked Tuesday evening in early April, a standing-room-only crowd of students, faculty and family members gathered at A&M’s G. Rollie White Coliseum to honor a doctoral student and four undergraduates who died in March. A&M again notes their passing at the Aggie Muster, an annual roll call of the dead.

The University of Texas at Austin handles such matters differently. Its policy calls for notifying professors, the school’s counseling and mental health center and administrators, but doesn’t include notifying the student body at large. UT lets family members determine if they want to hold an open ceremony within 60 days of the student’s death, but the student body is not notified. Each May, the school holds a single ceremony, UT Remembers, honoring all students, staff and alumni who have died in the preceding year.

The two approaches not only show contrasting attitudes toward privacy but also the different way each school’s culture has developed. Many of A&M’s traditions originated when it was an all-male military university. It ended military commitments in 1963.

A&M’s Silver Taps has been a tradition since 1898. One day each month, the names of students who died in the previous month are posted at the Memorial Student Center, Evans Library and at the base of the Academic Building’s flagpole. Campus flags are flown at half-staff throughout the day. At 10:15 p.m. chimes are played to begin a ceremony that includes buglers cloaked by the darkness playing “Silver Taps,” a special arrangement of “Taps.”

Ross Maxwell, a Texas A&M senior from Del Rio died on March 7 after battling brain cancer. “Being surrounded by over 1,000 Aggies on a stormy night to show respect to Ross and the other students that passed… was overwhelming, yet beautiful,” his mother, Sarah Maxwell, said in a telephone interview about the Silver Taps ceremony she attended. “I felt that each Aggie there was grieving with us that night and was standing with us in Ross’s absence.”

At UT, however, it’s a relatively new idea to hold a formal service for those died during the past year. UT Remembers, which began in 1998, consists of a flag-lowering ceremony in the Main Mall, a grief session held in the Main building, a fixed-price luncheon at nearby Carillon Restaurant and a service in the Tower Garden.

Additionally, friends and family also have the option of writing a message on a “memory sheet,” to be stored in the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. The tower is left dark that night to honor those who have died, in contrast to the special illumination used for UT events such as athletic victories and graduation.

According to Christa Lopez, UT’s associate director of student emergency services, the university has no written policy governing how to notify the student body when a student dies, and chooses to “err on the side of caution and respect the families of deceased students” by not releasing the names of the deceased or holding memorial services until the end of the academic year.

For example, when undergraduate Erick Whitaker died in 2012, it fell to students to hold a small candlelit vigil in the Malcolm X Lounge in the Jester building. The university will honor him at its annual UT Remembers ceremony May 3, almost a year after he died.

Shawneequa Smith, a UT graduate who attended the event, said that she found out about the vigil through Facebook, Twitter and word of mouth from UT’s black community. “I was a little upset that the university or its publications didn’t inform us about the loss of a student,” she said. Smith added that she was surprised The Daily Texan, the campus newspaper, only gave Whitaker a short write-up two weeks after his death.

Risa Bierman, Texas A&M’s assistant coordinator of student assistance services, said her university considers it important to publicly honor any enrolled student who dies. “We always have an audience … there to be part of the Aggie family and remember that fallen Aggie,” she said.

Bierman said that A&M does not ask for permission from families, but she’s never heard from anyone who was unhappy with the policy. She said the school does not have students sign documents authorizing the release of information if they die while enrolled.

Lopez said she’s never heard any University of Texas students complain of not being notified of a classmates’ death. “We’ve always, for the most part, found when students pass away, that their close friends are close enough with the family … that they hear on Facebook or privately from those who are really in the know,” she said. “We understand it may be a surprise that someone they shared a class with a few years ago passed away, but we try to respect the family in the process.”

Lopez also said that UT is concerned that the knowledge of a fellow student’s death could be a “trigger” for other students’ problems. “We have to understand if they’re capable of processing that information,” she said. “We have to make sure we have the right resources to support hearing that news.” She pointed to the school’s Counseling and Mental Health Center as a resource for grieving students.

A&M held its annual Muster ceremony on April 21, when Ross Maxwell was among those honored. “This weekend was very emotional and I’m about spent as far as emotions go,” Sarah Maxwell, said. “Aggies go all out to make you feel loved and supported, though.”