The tough sell – James Hill, University of Texas – Cover Story

With the appointment of its first African American vice president,
the University of Texas tries to overcome its legacy of minority
exclusion

When James Hill graduated salutatorrian from a segregated Austin
high school in 1945, attending the University of Texas (UT) was not an
option. Back then, the university didn’t admit Black students.

The irony that he became the university’s first African American
vice president earlier this year is not lost on Dr. Hill. And the
appointment comes at a time when a court-imposed ban on affirmative
action programs in that state has sent the enrollment of African
Americans and Chicanos/Latinos plummeting.

“To not [have been] able to get admitted here [as an
undergraduate], but to now be an officer is quite an accomplishment for
me,” says Hill, a lifelong jazz fan whose new office displays paintings
of John Coltrane and Louis Armstrong on its walls. The vice president’s
chatty, grandfatherly manner attracts smiles from colleagues as well as
strangers.

Top UT officials insist Hill’s appointment wasn’t tokenism.

They say the forty-five-year veteran educator, who most recently
was an associate vice president at the university, was simply the best
qualified for the job.

“I would have recommended him if he had been White,” says Dr. Edwin
R. Sharpe, vice chancellor for academic affairs of the UT System.

“It isn’t tokenism at all. That’s the furthest thing from the truth.”

Sharpe and others acknowledge that skeptics may dwell on the fact
that 115 years passed at UT before an African American was named vice
president. However, they say that minorities can have successful
careers at predominantly White schools such as UT. And they say they
hope Hill’s promotion helps reverse some of the image problems UT has
had since the 1996 Hopwood court ruling against affirmative action.

“The university is committed to serving all people of Texas, of all
ethnicities,” Sharpe says. “All voices should be at the table. It is
entirely appropriate to have a ranking vice president who is African
American.”

The seventy-year-old Hill, who has been married for forty-eight
years and has a grown daughter, said he has not retired yet because he
wants to “make things better here; to show the world that the door is
open here–especially for minority students and employees.

“I can make a contribution. I can show people that the environment
here is not one of Lino Graglia,” he says, referring to the
controversial UT law professor who sparked protests a year ago when he
said that minorities cannot compete academically with Whites.

Hill, who earned master’s and doctorate degrees from UT after it
desegregated, is one of President Larry Faulkner’s eight vice
presidents. Each of these administrators oversee budgets ranging from
less than $1 million to more than $200 million.

As vice president for human resources and community relations, Hill
oversees a $14 million budget and more than 170 employees in eight
divisions. His areas of oversight include personnel, UT initiatives at
public schools, and the university’s equal employment opportunity and
affirmative action office.

The Early Years

Hill’s new role is a stark contrast to where he started in his relationship with the university more than fifty years ago.

A native of Austin, Hill is the second-youngest of his parent’s
five offspring. His mother was a homemaker whose primary responsibility
was rearing the children, while his father worked in a railyard and
swept streets.

Although neither of his parents were educated beyond grade school,
Hill recalls, “It was always assumed we kids would go to college.”

After graduating second in his high school class of thirty-four
students, Hill attended the historically Black Huston-Tillotson College
two blocks from his east Austin home. His older siblings had attended
there, and the band director recruited him to play trombone. A music
scholarship paid nearly all his expenses, and he even picked up a few
extra dollars performing at dances and parties. He graduated in 1953
with a bachelor’s degree in education.

Hill’s first teaching job was in Abilene, West Texas at an
all-Black high school where he also was band director. There, the
principal recommended he pursue a master’s degree and suggested UT. The
university had formally desegregated in 1950 when the U.S. Supreme
Court ruled in Sweatt v. Painter that plaintiff Heman Sweatt and other
African Americans should gain admission to UT law school because
Texas’s Black schools were not of equal caliber.

African Americans were enrolled in not only the law school, but
also trickled into UT graduate programs. But when Hill enrolled at UT
in the summer of 1959, social barriers still existed on campus. On his
first day, his statistics professor had some sobering words for the
sole African American in the class.

“He said to me, `The university doesn’t want you here, and I don’t
want you here,'” Hill recounts. “That was my orientation to UT and my
coming back home to Austin. “

The furious, but determined, Hill earned a “B” in that class. He
attended school during the summer and taught in West Texas the rest of
the year, finishing his master’s degree in educational psychology in
1962.

Hill made the transition from a career in teaching to higher
education administration while at the Texas Education Agency, which
oversees all public schools in the state. For four years, he was field
office director for the Educational Testing Service in Austin. It was
during this period that he earned a doctorate in educational
administration from UT.

He also was active in UT’s African American alumni group. Through
that group, as well as his career path in public education, he became
acquainted with high-ranking UT officials such as Sharpe.

In 1993, Sharpe recruited Hill to the university to work under him
as associate vice president for administration. Hill’s performance in
that position and the relationship the two men cultivated during that
time are what motivated the vice chancellor to recommend Hill for the
vice presidency to then-incoming President Faulkner. Faulkner assumed
the presidency this past April.

The University’s Image Problem

One of the largest campuses in the country, UT enrolls more than
48,000 students. About 4 percent are African American, and 13 percent
are Latino.

In 1989, only 2 percent of UT’s more than 2,100 teaching faculty
were African American, and 3 percent were Latino, according to UT
statistics. Like many other predominantly White schools, even with
affirmative action, UT had struggled to hire underrepresented faculty
of color.

Hill recalls his shock when he learned the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court
of Appeals had decided in favor of plaintiff Cheryl Hopwood and three
other White students who had sued UT law school after being denied
admission claiming reverse discrimination. Last year, the U.S. Supreme
Court let the Hopwood ruling stand.

By 1997–a year after the Hopwood ruling–African American faculty
had inched to 3 percent and Chicano/Latino faculty to 5 percent.

African American employees on campus had lobbied for someone like
Hill to be named a vice president, and not just be in charge of
minority affairs. Members of UT’s African American Staff Advocating
Progress (AASAP) submitted a proposal in 1996.

“We realize the need to hold administrative cost to a minimum,” the
proposal stated. “[But] we feel this appointment is timely and
necessary to make our public pronouncements for diversity consistent
with our actions.”

While UT’s minority faculty numbers have held steady, minority
enrollment has dropped since 1996–especially at the law school. UT is
appealing the Hopwood case again on different legal arguments after a
federal judge earlier this year ordered UT not to use racial
preferences in admissions.

Since joining the administration at UT, Hill has not personally
experienced the type of overt racism he encountered as a graduate
student in 1959. He therefore finds it unfortunate that the Hopwood
incident has cast the university in such an unflattering light.

“It’s only a misperception that minorities aren’t welcome here,” he
says. “A lot of people didn’t have very good feelings for the
university in the first place. … Here I am trying to sell the
university and now we have this [Hopwood] baggage to go along with it.”

While Hill insists minority faculty careers at UT weren’t hurt by
Hopwood, he concedes that recruitment of new underrepresented faculty
of color is harder now.

“They are not anxious to come to Texas,” he says. “They want to
know what we’re doing in Texas to make minorities feel welcome. It’s an
image problem.”

The Importance of the Promotion

Hill contends that UT’s minority staff are paid much less than
Whites, although neither he nor the university had records to
substantiate this claim.

The vice president characterizes himself a “staunch supporter” of
affirmative action. However, in his interview with Black Issues, he did
not readily share his ideas of how to diversify UT without considering
race. Thanks to Hopwood, UT no longer has programs or funds earmarked
for minority faculty recruitment.

Hill’s track record in diversifying UT has been mixed. His previous
job responsibilities have never outright called for him to recruit
scholars of color, although his high visibility at national conventions
and meetings sometimes presents opportunities for him to informally
recruit and network with prospective faculty and staff. Occasionally, a
colleague also may enlist his help to persuade a minority job candidate
that UT is a hospitable environment.

In addition to his participation in UT’s African American alumni
group, Hill has been chairman of the university’s affirmative action
committee and the African American community relations committee. He
also has chaired UT’s Heman Sweatt Civil Rights Committee, which
annually plans an African American-themed symposium annually, and UT’s
Martin Luther King statue committee, which worked to get a statue of
King erected next year on a campus that has several Confederate hero
statues.

Dr. Reginald Wilson, an expert on minorities in higher education,
and a visiting professor at UT, calls Hill’s promotion heartening.
Nationally, African Americans make up only 7 percent of administrators
and less than 5 percent of all faculty, says the senior scholar
emeritus of the American Council for Education.

Because African Americans have only had a few decades to make their
mark on predominantly White institutions, most who hold administrative
posts are deans and assistant vice presidents, Wilson says. And many of
them, he points out, are concentrated in minority affairs, rather than
in broader areas.

“Even if [Hill’s] appointment was tokenism, it was tokenism with a positive spin,” Wilson says.

AASAP’s president, Patricia Parker, also praised Hill’s appointment, which occurred without coaxing from her group.

“People working here need to see that kind of promotion and so does
the community,” says Parker, assistant director for admissions. “At
least the university is trying to move forward.”

That’s part of the message that Faulkner hopes Hill will tell faculty and administrators outside Texas.

“It’s helpful that there’s African American participation here,”
Faulkner said. “It says something about what UT has be come and what it
stands for.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Vital Statistics

University of Texas-Austin

Founded: 1883
Carnegie Classification: Research I
Enrollment (Fall 1997): 48,008
Undergraduates (Fall 1997): 35,789

Minority undergraduates (Fall 1997):
4 percent African American
15 percent Hispanic American
13 percent Asian American
1 percent Native American

Minority faculty (Fall 1995)--
tenured and tenure track (1,695 total):
3 percent African American (46)
4 percent Hispanic American (65)

Minority faculty (Fall 1995)--
all faculty combined (2,121 total):
2 percent African American (51)
4 percent Hispanic American (83)

Total Minority Baccalaureate Degrees--
All Disciplines Combined (Fall '95, Spring '96,
Summer '96):
1,909 of the 7,080 granted
222 African American
934 Hispanic American
732 Asian American
21 Native American

Total Minority Master's Degrees--
All Disciplines Combined
(Fall '95, Spring '96, Summer '96):
396 of the 2,723 granted
73 African American
197 Hispanic American
118 Asian American
8 Native American

Total Minority Doctoral Degrees--
All Disciplines Combined
(Fall '95, Spring '96, Summer '96):
88 of the 771 granted
21 African American
33 Hispanic American
32 Asian American
2 Native American

Total Minority Law Degrees
(Fall '95, Spring '96, Summer '96):
104 of the 487 granted
33 African American
44 Hispanic American
26 Asian American
1 Native American

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