Vice Provost Aims to Open Doors for Minorities at University of Texas
It’s the little things that make history major Brandelyn Franks feel uncomfortable at the University of Texas at Austin.
Things like walking into a class of 400 students and having the only Black face. Or getting sideways glances from teachers and classmates when something racially controversial is said. Or seeing the same handful of people at every diversity forum at the 50,000-student school.
“I don’t necessarily think that the university is very inviting, although they try to make like they are,” said Franks, 21.
UT President Larry Faulkner has heard those concerns, calling for sweeping changes last year to make the state’s flagship university a more welcoming place for students of color.
Among the changes was the hiring of Greg Vincent, the new vice provost for inclusion and cross-cultural understanding. Vincent, who joined the university last month, is working to attract minority students and professors and make those already here feel welcome.
Vincent knows he could face a challenging task at the school, where less than one in five students is Black or Hispanic, where vandals egged a Martin Luther King Jr. statue and where fraternities in recent years held parties depicting Blacks in Jim Crow stereotypes.
Vincent blames a number of factors for UT’s low minority enrollment, from a 1996 federal court ruling that struck down affirmative action in Texas for several years to what he calls the once-segregated university’s “legacy of exclusion.”
“There are some communities in Texas where UT is not seen as a completely open door,” Vincent said. “I think we’re doing some very tangible things to change that, but unfortunately that’s still the case.”
Among Vincent’s first priorities is breaking down real and perceived barriers that discourage minority teenagers from applying. Vincent wants UT officials to visit predominantly Black and Hispanic high schools more often, and to build relationships with the middle schools that feed into them.
“I want to make this a place of aspiration … a place where students want to come as opposed to a place where there’s this feeling like ‘Maybe is this place for me,”’ he said.
Sean Watkins, a 2004 UT graduate who now ministers to students on campus, said Vincent will have to persuade Black and Hispanic teens that the university is interested in giving them a world-class education and not just in boosting minority enrollment.
Watkins said he wasn’t impressed when Faulkner visited his predominantly Black Houston high school — he didn’t even know who Faulkner was. The meeting was so spur of the moment, Watkins said, he didn’t even know what to talk about.
“While they may have good intentions that their minority enrollment increases … they need make sure that the way they communicate that is positive or proper,” Watkins said.
Take the statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and other prominent Confederate figures that are displayed on the South Mall, a prime gathering place for students.
“What does that say to your African-American students?” Watkins said. “These men fought to make sure I would not be a student at this university, that I would remain a slave.”
A panel of students, faculty and staff that Faulkner assembled to study racial tensions at UT has recommended moving the statues to another location on campus.
Omar Ochoa, the first Latino to serve as UT’s student body president, said there are some troubling things around campus but that he’s confident changes can be made.
“In no way do I want this university to be pictured or painted as an overtly racist organization, because I don’t think that’s what it is,” he said.
Ochoa said administrators should back up their verbal commitment to diversity by requiring undergraduates to take courses in multiculturalism, just like they’re required to study history or science.
The course requirement was another of the dozens of recommendations made by the panel Faulkner created. The panel also suggested creating Vincent’s job.
The campus probably will become more diverse now that UT is once again considering applicants’ race in admissions decisions. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race could be a factor in the process as long as it wasn’t the only factor.
Of the 7,095 freshmen who made deposits to attend UT this fall, 55 percent are white, 18 percent are Hispanic and 5 percent are Black. Last fall, UT’s 50,377 students were 58.6 percent White, 13.4 percent Hispanic and 3.5 percent Black.
Vincent wouldn’t set a target minority enrollment number but said he expects to see significant progress in that area in the next three to five years. He believes the student body and faculty roster will look dramatically different in a decade.
“If you get rid of the barriers,” he said, “the numbers will take care of themselves.”
— Associated Press
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