AUSTIN, Texas — Bill Powers won’t be the University of Texas at Austin president who decides whether to keep a statue of Jefferson Davis, a tribute to the president of the Confederacy, on campus.
But Powers has spent his near-decade in office grappling with the kind of tension that’s been on display in recent weeks as students have called for the statue’s removal.
The Houston Chronicle reports the episode is the latest example of UT, a nationally renowned research university, struggling to sever the more troubling bits of its Old South roots.
When Powers took office in 2006, diversifying the flagship and making the campus a more inclusive place were among his top priorities. Nine years later, as Powers prepares to leave this week, he has achieved much of that goal.
He’s been a fierce defender of the race-conscious admissions policies that have drawn national attention to UT through high-profile legal challenges. The Supreme Court this week could consider taking the case up again.
Despite his efforts, though, challenges remain, as suggested by the Davis statue and several other relics of the Old South still on campus, including an inscribed ode to the men and women of the Confederacy. UT’s black student population hasn’t grown in Powers’ time, white students still outperform their minority peers, and the faculty remains overwhelmingly white.
“From the students’ point of view, it still is challenging to come to what was the Big White University,” Powers said.
A growing Latino student population and the creation of an entire arm of the university to focus on diversity will be among Powers’ most important legacies.
The efforts include outreach to historically disadvantaged communities like East Austin, which long looked at UT as something of an adversary. Under Powers’ tenure, UT has established two ethnic studies departments—a pricey commitment to institutional diversity, even during tough economic times—that are among the few of their kind in the nation.
“In a time of extreme austerity, they’ve still tried to keep diversity on the front burner,” said Edmund T. Gordon, chair of the African and African Diaspora Studies Department. “It is completely unprecedented that, in a time of cutbacks, the university would be creating new units like this department. That’s unheard of. In many places, they’re cutting out these kinds of programs, rather than building them.”
UT’s undergraduate population has become less white in Powers’ time—46 percent of undergraduate students were white in 2014, compared with 57 percent when he took office. But UT’s black student population hovered between 4 percent and 5 percent for each of Powers’ years in office.
And while the university has made gains in graduating minority students, a significant gap remains between their success rate and that of their white peers. Just 42 percent of black students who started in 2010 graduated in four years, for example, compared with 61 percent of white students. Of the Hispanic students who started in 2010, just 44 percent graduated four years later.
The tiny black student population at UT—African-Americans make up 12 percent of Texas’ population—is a “blemish” on the university, said Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit that aims to promote access to and success in higher education for all students.
“I have to be honest, that blows my mind,” Cooper said. “When I think about diversity I don’t necessarily think about UT-Austin, except I think it is a school that can do more, given the percentage of people of color that live in the state. If you’re not educating students who come from that population, then who are you educating? Because the white population is only going to be decreasing over time.”
UT faculty also has been slow to diversify. The vast majority—77 percent—of the school’s teaching faculty is white. Just 147 of UT’s 1,549 tenured teaching professors were black or Hispanic in 2014. UT also has struggled to attract minority doctoral students, especially black doctoral students.
Officials hope that the school’s new ethnic studies departments, the African and African Diaspora Studies and the Mexican American and Latino/a Studies departments will be powerful recruiting tools. The departments show a “commitment to institutional diversity,” said Gregory J. Vincent, UT’s vice president for diversity and community engagement—a position elevated to a vice presidency by Powers in 2006.
The departments are a costly commitment—UT has spent $19.3 million on them since 2011—but they’ve already shown promise.
Caitlin O’Neill, a doctoral student in her second year at UT, went to Austin from Oberlin College in Ohio, which was famously the first institution of higher education in America to regularly admit women and black students.
Going from such a liberal place to a state on the opposite end of the political spectrum was daunting, but O’Neill was swayed when UT’s new black studies department—one of only about a dozen in the nation—lured a professor O’Neill wanted to work with away from the University of Minnesota. Since its creation in 2011, the department has hired 54 percent of all new black faculty at UT.
O’Neill said she’s seen the department become something of a haven for black students, many of whom she works with as a teaching assistant.
The Mexican American and Latino/a Studies Department, which is in its first year and bills itself as the first of its kind in the nation, has become a magnet. Three students chose to major in the field as freshmen in the first months of the department’s existence. That was relatively unheard of for a field that had historically taken two or three years to even get on UT students’ radar, said Domino Perez, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies.
“One of the things students look for—Hispanic students—in deciding where to go is whether there is an established area of study that focuses on their group or if there is a support system to aid students like them,” Perez said. “I think it’s going to be a huge recruiting tool.”
Beyond recruiting, the school has made strides in helping students graduate. While the success rates for minority students lag behind whites, they have made progress. The percentage of black students who graduated in four years jumped a full 11 points to 42 percent between 2009 and 2014, for example.
Much of that is because of work being done by the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and by David Laude, referred to as the “graduation czar” in the provost’s office.
Laude drew national attention to UT with his data-driven approach to boosting the university’s graduation rate. Laude’s data can help predict which students are more likely to succeed, which helps the school focus on those who need the most help. His data has guided admissions, helped change degree pathways and created financial aid programs that incentivize four-year graduation.
The university, meanwhile, has worked more with K-12 schools to help prepare students before they arrive on campus. UT’s elementary charter school in East Austin, for example, has become a “great model on how to effectively teach students in low-income areas,” Vincent said.
UT also offers $20,000 scholarships and leadership training to mostly first-generation students who would otherwise be at risk of dropping out through the University Leadership Network. The university also recently created a $15 million scholarship aimed at attracting the best-performing, most at-risk students. And UT has summer programs to help new students get acclimated to college life.
Despite the progress, the school has a ways to go. Powers said the new strategies UT has adopted are “where computers were 15 years ago.”
“I think we’re at the start of a renaissance on that,” Powers said. “We’re learning a lot about subtler forms of disparities. I think there’s still a lot of work to do.”
But it will be Greg Fenves, who takes office this week as UT’s new president, who will see UT through that renaissance.