29 November 2012

Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte : Supreme Court Case Raises Larger Diversity Issues at UT-Austin

Though the UT-Austin student body is among the most diverse in the country, other related issues plague the school and its history. Photo by Eric Gay / AP / Christian Science Monitor.

Supreme Court focus on UT
student DNA masks pressing issues
The matter being debated by the Supreme Court is not apt to really address the long uneven evolution of the University of Texas toward integration.
By Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte / The Rag Blog / November 29, 2012

AUSTIN -- Several weeks ago the U.S. Supreme Court once again heard a lawsuit (Fisher v. the University of Texas) challenging the admission policies of the University of Texas that take race and ethnicity into account as one of the various factors considered. At the heart of the recurring conflict over admission policy is the struggle over whether UT must become integrated -- an achievement long resisted.

In fact, like many southern universities, the institution has layers of diversity, the most evident of which are the maintenance and service staff. The transient student population is now integrated by population based on DNA count. Over half -- 26,090, 51% --of the campus student body is white. This fall there are 8,973 Latinos, 2,140 African Americans, 7,939 Asian Americans and 151 American Indians. Of these, 80% are Texas residents. UT clearly meets its mandate as a land grant institution to educate future decision-makers largely the result of admission policies.

The battle to retain a bit of intellectual diversity rages on. This month Asian-American faculty and junior administrators met to discuss the implications of what the current suit might mean to their studies center. Just last year Mexican-American students demonstrated against curriculum cutbacks in their studies center made necessary by budget shortfalls. African and African-American Studies also felt the sting of cuts.

But even more visible are a series of racist actions, the most recent and most nasty three occurring since the start of the fall semester three months ago. A UT sorority threw a “Mexican theme” party where invited guests came as gardeners, maids, or criminals -- or wore T-shirts identifying themselves as “ILLEGAL.” Others dressed as border guards mingled.

In another stunt, fraternity members threw balloons of bleach at minority students. One fraternity party, also planned around race themes, was cancelled. The press covered all of these incidents. The October 22 issue of the student Daily Texan, reported that someone carved swastikas in an off-campus dormitory door where three Jewish students live. These sorts of hate messages have a long history at UT where the statue of Martin Luther King has often been vandalized.

July 16, 2004, cover of UT student newspaper, The Daily Texan, featuring story about campus dormitory named after former law prof who was also a Ku Klux Klan leader. Creative Commons image from fretna.org.

Even the buildings reflect a racist past. In 2010, after publication of a history book by Tom Russell, a former UT Law School professor, the University, after some deliberation, changed the name of a dorm memorializing William Stuart Simkins, a Klan leader and Law School professor in the early 1900s. UT administrators named the residence hall just after the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawed segregated schools.

The least integrated of the UT human component is the faculty.

Demographics of teaching faculty (which excludes those who are deans, directors, or administrative officials) testifiy to slow integration across rank, gender, and diversity. At first glance, this does not seem to be the case: Of 3,018 of this faculty 1874 are male, 1144 are female. Within this group 80% are white.

But the ratio of full professors indicates significant skewed reality -- in 2010 (the latest posted data) just short of 800 were male, only 210 were female. Because race and ethnicity narrows the general professorial group, the ratio of minority professors to full professor whites is minute.

Some departments, including my own, have never promoted a woman or a minority to full -- although one minority woman (no longer at UT) was appointed to full,  a move that avoids the usual review and promotion committee approval -- and recently hired a woman who had earned the rank of full at another university.

Some of UT’s DNA profile records earlier years of blatant discrimination, but more recent evidence indicates a fairly tenacious hold on troubling patterns of the past. For example, three years ago UT authorized a study of the treatment of its faculty women drawing on its own statistics, pay records, and promotion experiences. That produced 170 pages that charted inequity.

The experience of minority females was not made specific because, as one equity researcher explained: “The small number of minority women faculty is not statistically significant.”

So the matter being debated by the Supreme Court is not apt to really address the long uneven evolution of the University of Texas toward integration. The suit, of course, does not consider intellectual diversity -- a component critical to the success of social integration. A legal mandate would raise both first amendment protections and academic freedom guarantees.

But the push in some quarters to do away with studies that focus on minority literature, history, sociology, and other content is short-sighted as well as anti-intellectual. And narrowing access to education contributes to these problems.

[Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte, a PhD, is an Associate Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas. She currently directs a funded study -- Austin Displaced -- which explores the impact of gentrification on affected residents. Mercedes is also president of the board of the New Journalism Project, the nonprofit that publishes The Rag Blog.]

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