The firing last month of the director and staff of the University of Texas at Arlington’s Center for Mexican-American Studies continues to draw a barrage of protests front campus and community activists.
In the latest salvo, president Robert Witt disbanded the center’s community advisory council. After a series of attempts to bring the president and the council together had failed, they finally met in a closed door session. At the conclusion of the meeting, the president terminated the council.
Witt defended his actions, saying the firings were proper and the dismissal of the council was based on their insistence that Jose Angel Gutierrez, the former director of the center, be reinstated.
According to Witt, the firing of Gutierrez was due to fiscal mismanagement and poor leadership, as evidenced by a money-losing Tejano concert held in the spring. Although student and community activists say the financial issue is a pretext for eliminating the center. Witt says, Under the circumstances. the dismissal of Dr. Gutierrez was appropriate. The resources of the center were not properly managed.” Gutierrez claims, “There is no mismanagement.” He accuses the administration of being anti-Mexican and is considering legal action because the institution has is no appeals process.
In addition to the Gutierrez firing, the center’s two other employees — Diana Flores, the program coordinator, and Maria de Leon, the secretary — were also dismissed. According to Witt, they were dismissed because too much of the center’s money was going toward salaries and because they partook in the irregularities attributed to Gutierrez, such as entering into improper contracts with vendors and musicians. Flores says they were Unfamiliar with university procedures, but she cites a memo from the university dated December 12, 1995, that other Texas-Arlington employees have done likewise “without getting fired.”
Last year’s budget (as well as this year’s) was $125,000 with personnel expenses amounting to $64,000. As a result of a Tejano symposium and concert, administrators say the center lost $26,000 and ended the year with a $10,000 deficit.
Witt has appointed a temporary director — Guisette Salazar, a regional planner in the school of Urban and Public Affairs — and will soon be advertising nationwide for a permanent replacement. Additionally, a part time employees will he assigned to handle office duties. With money saved from the reorganization, the center will he able to be more broad-based. as opposed to simply focusing on two or three areas, Witt says.
Gutierrez. who came to prominence nationally as the founder of the “La Raza Unida Party” in the 1960s, doesn’t buy the administration’s rationale for firing him. calling it a subterfuge. He notes that the center, which was created in 1994, received its initial university-provided funding in 1995 and does not have a deficit. The center has two bank accounts, according to Gutierrez. The second one, which Gutierrez created four years ago, is money donated from community supporters.
“This [privately funded account] is the account that was used for the concert.” Gutierrez explained. “Not one cent of taxpayer’s money was used” and the account actually has a positive balance, he said.
He says that even if fiscal reasons were the rationale for his firing, lie can show that there were no financial irregularities at the center. But the acids that even if there had been irregularities, that is no reason for the firing of the three. He feels that if there was a problem, lie should have been advised that there was something wrong. Witt maintains that Gutierrez had been warned repeatedly by several administrators of his misdeeds and that his dismissal came as no surprise. “He was not responsive. We had no alternative.”
Witt agreed that fiscal mismanagement is not enough of a reason to fire someone — even though the center exposed the university to financial risk — “but it is if YOU Couple that with unresponsiveness.” Gutierrez denies that lie was ever warned of any wrongdoing by anyone. He says that lie and many Mexican-American volunteers struggled for four years to raise money for the center, After reviewing the mission of various Mexican-American centers around the country, Gutierrez decided the mission of the Texas-Arlington center would focus on Mexican-American biographies and communication.
Last spring as part of its mission, the center hosted a symposium on Tejano Music and an outdoor concert, explained Gutierrez. Due to hail and rain, attendance was poor and the result, he contends, was his firing. But he says that the concert is simply the public reason. The real reason, he says, is that Texas-Arlington is hostile to Mexican Americans and is guilty of “101 years of intentional neglect.” Most ethnic studies centers take two to three years to get off the ground, says Gutierrez. “In our case, we were audited in 10 months.
“In the last 101 years, never has any white person gone out on the limb for minorities. People had to get sued, people had to go on hunger strikes [to receive anything],” said Gutierrez. While Witt acknowledges that recruitment of students and faculty has not been effective, he promises change, particularly with the new center’s leadership. “We have targeted new resources to recruit more [Hispanic] faculty,” he proclaimed. Since the dismissal of Gutierrez, Flores and de Leon, there have been protests, demonstrations, rallies and community meetings at the Arlington campus.
Renny Rosas, a member of the now-disbanded council, cites political and racial motives for the president’s decision. The end is either to rid the campus of the center or to create a center dependent and beholden to the administration, he says. The community, which according to Rosas includes dozens of organizations, wants the president removed and the three center employees reinstated. Witt says that the demands of the protestors will not be met and that no one will be reinstated, including the advisory council. He is scheduled to appoint a new 15-member advisory board which will consist of faculty, students and business and community leaders.
To that, Rosas responds: “We were fired so that he [Witt] can select his own hand-picked Mexicans. It’s a common tactic to divide our community.” Maribel Estrada and Monica Gonzalez, students from the Texas Association of Mexican American College Students at Texas-Arlington, say they will have nothing to do with the new council or the center unless the three are reinstated. While the dismissal of Gutierrez has garnered the most attention, the firing of Flores has also caused its own separate controversy. Flores was recently elected to the board of the Dallas County Community College District amid allegations by her opponent of election irregularities. Community activists believe that is the actual reason for her removal and not the reasons stated by the administration. Flores says she will be vindicated and is also considering legal action of her own against Texas-Arlington.
Witt denies the assertions that he had ulterior motives for the firings and says he is committed to both the Mexican-American community and the center.
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