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Texas twister – Graduate Opportunities Program

In 1978, Sarita Brown told the dean of graduate studies at the University of Texas-Austin that the reason the university had so few minority graduate students was the fault of the university, not the lack of eligible candidates. A well-run program, she said, could bring in many more Black and Hispanic graduate students.


The dean called her bluff and made Brown the head of the new Graduate Opportunities Program (GOP), though she had only just graduated from college.


“I was young enough and naive enough to think I could change the world,” Brown says. Armed with $50,000 and a tiny office with no furniture (prospective graduate students sat on piles of applications), Brown molded GOP into a program that has made the UT-Austin one of the top producers in the country for turning out Blacks and Hispanics with master’s degrees and doctorates.


“She really created [GOP] and developed it and presided over it for a decade-plus, and did it with almost insufferable enthusiasm,” says Dr. William S. Livingston, the current dean of graduate studies at UT-Austin. Livingston says the program has been important not only because it has brought minority students into graduate programs, “but it has had a symbolic effect of telling minority people out in the community that the university is committed to admission.”


Program Under Fire


It is also a program that is under fire. If the 5th Circuit Court decision in Hopwood vs. the State of Texas is upheld by the Supreme Court, GOP will have to be radically changed. In Hopwood, which concerned the University of Texas School of Law, the court ruled that race could not be used in admissions decisions, Although GOP is more a fellowship than an admmissions program, university attorneys have centered on the University of Texas School of Law, the court ruled that race could not be used in admissions decisions. Although GOP is more a fellowship than an admissions program, university attorneys have said it would also be affected, and would no longer be able to use race and ethnicity as part of its criteria.


Even so, the high court ruling sent administrators scrambling to find an acceptable substitute for the existing programs. “So much of what everyone was waiting on was based on the Supreme Court providing everybody with guidance,” Dr. Brown said. Instead of positive direction, the Supreme Court’s July 1 action sent administrators scrambling for ways around the thorny dilemma of establishing diversity without violating civil rights.


“The next six weeks to two months will be spent trying to figure out what will be the shape of admissions and academic and financial support programs,” she said. Her attitude was echoed throughout the academe in the hours just after the court refused to hear the Hopwood case. The American Association of University Professors, in a statement issued just after the court’s action, said it regrets that the Supreme Court’s refusal to review the Hopewood decision may create uncertainty for colleges and universities attempt to fashion legally sound affirmative action programs to recruit and retain qualified minority students and urges institutions to continue such efforts.”


Harvard Law professor Christopher Edley said the court’s approach to sensitive racial cases recently expose a weakness in the Rehnquist court. “They can’t seem to figure out how to deal with difference,” he said, referring to court’s actions when asked to review lower court rulings on race.


Texas Southern Law School professor Alvin O. Chambliss, lawyer for the plaintiff in the Ayers vs. Fordice case, said he is eager for the high court to review affirmative action in the Ayers case. “I’m not happy that the Supreme Court denied (review) but it’s not a funeral either,” he said.


“The Black colleges were not at the table in this higher education desegregation case disguised as an affirmative action and we believe that the Supreme Court would be in a better position to review affirmative action in the Ayers vs. Fordice case,” he said. “You have a record of over 300,000 pages. You’ve got the ebb and flow, affirmative action since 1960 and importantly Black students are at the table in the Ayers case,” he said.


Brown argues that — particularly it, Texas — race and ethnicity must be used in order to combat historic discrimination. Now assistant dean of academic affairs at Washington, DC’s American University Brown describes the atmosphere at Austin in the late 1970s and early 1 one that was “indifferent,” if not at hostile to the idea of recruiting minority students. The faculty and administrators, said, “had to be dragged kicking screaming” into the process sure that Black and minority students welcomed and part of the institution.


Pitched Battle


That battle had to be waged on two fronts. Not only did she feel it necessary to convince those inside the university that qualified minority candidates would enrich the institution, she also had convince Black and Hispanic college students, along with their families and teachers, that the university had overcome the legacy of segregation.


“I can still remember going to Prairie View A & M [University] and Bishop College and hearing the complaints. I felt it my job to listen,” she says. Black and Hispanic college faculty faculty told her they would never recommend graduate work at the University of Parents worried their children would an unrelentingly hostile atmosphere.


With an enrollment of more than 40,000 and a reputation for being the biggest and best in a state that prides itself on always having the biggest and best, UT-Austin is the state’s 800-pound gorilla of higher education. Which is why its history of segregation — it founded a separate law school in the late 1940s rather than admit Black postal worker Herman Sweatt (CQ) — still reverberates in the minds of many Black and Hispanic families.


“At the point I was getting involved [segregation] was part of their lives, not history …. They understood the power of the institution in Texas and how long-lasting the effect was of not having degree from there,” says Brown.


Livingston agrees with Brown’s. depiction of the then-atmosphere at the university. Remembers Livingston: “The university had a long-standing hostility to Black students. It’s taken of long while to struggle to overcome that image, and frankly we haven’t fully overcome it today.” Firsthand Knowledge Although Brown is not a native Texan, she experienced the force of the state’s history during her undergraduate days at UT-Austin.


At the age of 10, she and her Mexican-American family moved to Texas, where they found affordable housing in a part of San Antonio where high school students were expected to attend college. But just across town, where most of the town’s Mexican Americans lived, the expectations were much lower, she says, and the students showed the effects of those low expectations. Brown is the first person in her family to go to college. Her parents were very supportive and encouraging — but they couldn’t give her the kind of information and background that is helpful to a student facing college.


College-educated people, she says, underestimate the importance of that kind of information and background to students. As a result, Brown says that she saw, as part of her job, creating an information and support system for minority students whose families had either never attended college or had never gone beyond undergraduate work.


The `Second Look’


Shortly after Brown took the job, Texas came under a court order to desegregate its higher education as part of a Supreme Court case that affected all the states that de jure segregation.


“I was asked to design a program in three months, get a budget and get a letter of compliance [with the court],” Brown says. The plan she helped develop had, as its purpose, to support Black, Mexican American, Puerto Rican and American Indian students “whose pursuit of education was made difficult because of cultural and/or economic conditions.” That language was part of the letter of compliance approved by a federal court.


In terms of admissions, the program was based on what is called the Texas Index (TI), which is compiled from the students grade point average and test results on the Graduate Record Exam. If a student’s TI fell in the top range, admission was automatic. If it was just below that range, the applications followed separate paths. All applications from African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans — and some from whites as well — were reviewed by an academic committee, which looked at letters of recommendation, student essays and other materials.


All that meant, Brown says, is that where minority students were concerned, the admissions committee was obligated to “take a second I look.” “These are methods of admission that were used for 40 years,” Brown says.


COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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