The Transformation of a University and the Journey of an Opera Star Who Returned Home

Regardless of the color of their skin, young women in Texas during the 1950s shared an environment of inequality in the male-dominated world of academia that seemed to support the notion that a woman’s place was in the home or at best in a job teaching small children.

Such was the case for Barbara Smith Conrad in the mid-1950s when she traveled from the comfort of her home in East Texas to become one of the first Black female students at the University of Texas. She recalls it was not a welcoming environment – the few female Black students enrolled at the university were housed separately from the dormitories provided for young White women. Most of the restaurants in town refused service to people of color.

“We felt very isolated,” recalls Conrad, who overcame the challenges of being a Black woman of that era and went on to become one of the world’s most celebrated mezzo-sopranos, over a long and distinguished career. Conrad said she could have chosen an easier path to get a college education. But she felt she had a right to attend a good university in her state, one that had quality teachers with knowledge of value to her in her studies to become a teacher and other areas that interested her, such as singing classical music, as she had done back home.

Women students were greatly outnumbered when Conrad arrived on campus in 1957. The population on the university’s main campus was more than 19,000 students, about 14,000 of whom were men.

More than half of those female students were enrolled in areas considered more appropriate for women – the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education. In fields historically for men, the female enrollment was much lower. Examples included the School of Architecture – 345 men, 13 women; College of Business – 2,408 men, 435 women; College of Engineering – 3,801 men, 23 women; and the School of Law – 816 men, 24 women.

Conrad said she came from a family of teachers, and teaching would have been her vocation had it not been for an incident in 1957 that became national news and a turning point in her life, creating an opportunity for her to travel to New York City.

Conrad’s talent had won her the lead role that year in the university’s opera Dido and Aeneas. But she was removed from that role because she was cast opposite a White student who was the male lead, and the role involved a kissing scene. The young woman found herself at the center of a national civil rights controversy. Prominent Black movie stars and other public figures came to Conrad’s defense and introduced her to the wonders of art and culture in New York City. She was encouraged to study elsewhere but decided to stay and was graduated from the University of Texas in 1959. She left Austin then and did not look back for a long, long time.

Conrad, who now lives in New York City, said her feelings about the university since then have been “a journey” that has taken her from having a lack of interest in her alma mater to feeling extremely proud with a sense of belonging to a university that is “helping to make a difference in the world.” Her life is chronicled in the documentary When I Rise: The Story of Barbara Smith Conrad, produced by the university’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.

Conrad said her emotional journey in her feelings about the university was a long road that required her to “confront those demons that haunted us.” “I had to confront racism,” Conrad said. “It’s lethal and horrible, but we found ourselves wanting the best for everyone, at the end of the day.” She said she thanks God for the other Texas Exes who, many years ago, extended a welcoming hand and said, “Come along, Barbara, join us.”

Through the years, her relationship with the university has strengthened. The Texas Ex-Students’ Association named her a Distinguished Alumnus in 1985, and the university has honored her with the founding of the Barbara Smith Conrad Endowed Presidential Scholarship in Fine Arts. She said it was a “surprise and tremendous honor” earlier this year when she was asked to be the voice for five new broadcast advertising spots promoting the University of Texas-Austin during televised NCAA sporting events.

The 30-second ads featuring Conrad’s voice began airing in fall 2010 on nationally and regionally televised football games and have been featured at sporting events on the university campus. All of the ads close with Conrad proclaiming the university’s well-known and celebrated motto, “What Starts Here Changes the World.”

Susan Heinzelman, director of the university’s Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, which began as a women’s studies program in 1979, said Conrad and other women students of color demonstrated “extraordinary courage and determination” in their quest for an education and careers in the 1950s, and they helped redefine the future of the university.

“They would have come with all the expectations of being kept in their place,” Heinzelman said. “I’m just amazed that they came.”

She said the few Hispanic women students on campus also faced the dual challenge of attending a predominantly White male institution with historic boundaries for people of color.

Barbara Conrad

The 1950s was a time when men had returned from World War II to reclaim their old jobs, and the women who had been called upon to help in the work force during the war years were being pushed back into the domestic space, Heinzelman said.

“I’m sure many of the women who came to the university in the ’50s and ’60s were asked at some time or another, ‘Why are you coming here to get your degree if you are just going to get married and have children?’” Heinzelman said. “I think the joke was that women came here to get an MRS degree” – to find a husband.

Barbara Conrado 1950

“Sadly, that still plays as a joke here, but I think many of the young women who come now are quite clear about their own desire to be educated and to pursue a career. It is not icing on the cake for a relationship; it is central to their lives.

“As we moved out of the ’50s, the civil rights movement opened up the possibility for people who had been marginalized, politically, to declare that they had an identity, that they wanted to be recognized,” Heinzelman said. Women who had been trained and conditioned to become “somebody’s secretary” began thinking of the possibility of becoming the boss. That likelihood increased, Heinzelman said, as the number of women attending the University of Texas-Austin grew and their enrollment in studies previously dominated by men moved upward.

By 1967, when civil rights issues based on race had expanded to include demands of equality for women, the university’s enrollment of almost 30,000 students included 62.7 percent men and 37.3 percent women. The enrollment of women grew to 43.3 percent in 1977, 46.4 percent in 1987, 49 percent in 1997, and by fall 2003 it had exceeded the male population with an enrollment of 50.5 percent women. The enrollment in fall 2010 was more than 51,000 students, which included 49.5 percent men and 50.5 percent women.

Heinzelman said there still are limitations on female students in Texas in terms of their educational options, but most of that happens before they get to the university level.

It was so in the 1950s and still seems to be the case that young girls in primary and middle school showing an aptitude for science and math, “unless they are fortunate to be in the right schools with the right teachers, will find themselves steered away from these fields,”

Heinzelman said. This is a critical time “when a girl begins identifying herself as a young woman, no longer as a child but as a young woman,” and the cultural pressure is intense for them to conform to the traditional roles for women.

The university recognizes this problem and has developed the “Women in Engineering” program and other initiatives to encourage girls in this age group to pursue careers in engineering, science and other nontraditional fields, she said.

The university also has implemented several initiatives encouraging ethnic diversity. Success is reflected by preliminary enrollment figures for the 2010 fall semester, released in September, showing that for the first time in the history of the University of Texas-Austin, fewer than half of the first-time freshmen were White students. The freshmen included 47.6 percent White, 23.1 percent Hispanic, 5.1 percent Black, 17.3 percent Asian-American and 0.1 percent Native American.

Total student enrollment at the university for the 2010 fall semester was 52.1 percent White. The enrollment reflected increases for Hispanics to about 17 percent and for Black students to about 4.5 percent.

The figures reflect changes in the demographics of Texas. The Office of the State Demographer, Texas State Data Center, estimates the state’s ethnicity in 2010 to be 45.1 percent Anglo (White), 38.8 percent Hispanic, 11.5 percent Black and 4.6 percent Other. The state’s ethnic/race distribution by 2020 is projected to change to 37.6 percent Anglo (White), 45.2 percent Hispanic, 11.2 percent Black and 6 percent Other.

The university’s transformation to a more diverse institution also is reflected by the number of women enrolled in studies previously dominated by men. The university’s Office of Information Management and Analysis enrollment report for fall 2010, for example, showed enrollment figures included the School of Architecture – 315 men and 392 women; School of Business Administration – 2,988 men and 2,332 women; School of Engineering – 5,993 men and 1,669 women; and the School of Law – 636 men and 557 women.

Dr. Gregory Vincent, the university’s vice president for diversity and community engagement, said he is pleased the university has made progress in gender equity for students, faculty and staff through the years, but there is still much room for improvement.

“We need to make sure that women are continuing to take on leadership roles, that they are involved in every aspect of decision making on campus,” Vincent said.

University records show that in 1975, women totaled 12.8 percent of the 1,598 faculty listed as professors, associate professors and assistant professors. The faculty classified as full professors included 32 (5.2 percent) women compared to 589 (94.8 percent) men.

Records for the 2010 fall semester show women total 30.5 percent of the 2,008 faculty and that there are 210 (20.9 percent) women compared to 1,006 (79.1 percent) men classified as full professors.

Vincent said a 2008 report from the university’s Gender Equity Task Force pointed out challenges facing the university and that it’s important to recruit women for leadership roles when opportunities arise. He said, for example, that there should be more women deans.

“I think we are making progress, but we can do an even better job,” Vincent said.

Heinzelman agreed and expressed optimism about the university’s willingness to deal with gender issues.

“What has happened,” Heinzelman said, “is that the upper administration, the provost and president, have taken seriously the gender equity report.” Heinzelman said she believes there has been a concerted effort to address salary inequities at the full professor level for women, to promote more women from associate to full professor and to put more women in leadership positions. An important element toward success will be finding ways to help women faculty coming to the university to balance work and family, she said.

“So, yes, things are definitely changing, but it’s slow. It’s been very slow,” Heinzelman said. “It’s taken years to get us in this position, and you can’t change it overnight. It’s going to be 10 years before we see the full results of what is happening. But at least we are moving in the right direction.”

The status of women at the University of Texas-Austin, described by Heinzelman as “moving in the right direction,” seems to run a parallel path with the “journey” Conrad described in her relationship with the university. It has transformed to become a more welcoming environment for women and people of color.

“We are a long long way from 1957,” Heinzelman said. “But now we know what needs to be done. That’s a long way from where we were in the ’50s.”