When students returned to the University of Texas (UT)- Austin last fall they found that, for the first time in the school’s history, fewer than half of the fall semester’s first time freshmen were White students. The number of first-time freshmen who identified their ethnicity/ race as “White” on admissions information totaled 47.6 percent. Whites are no longer a majority at UT-Austin, a change that reflects the demographics of the state of Texas as a whole. The White-only category in the fall of 2010 was 47.6 percent (3,464 students) as compared to 51.1 percent (3,700 students) the previous fall. The Hispanic (any combination) category is now 23.1 percent (1,680 students) compared to 20.8 percent (1,503 students) in the fall 2009. The Black total category is 5.1 percent (372 students) compared to 4.9 percent (354 students) in fall 2009.
“Diversity is crucial to UT-Austin,” says Dr. Shannon Speed, assistant vice president and associate professor of anthropology. “This is the flagship campus of the University of Texas system, which was created to serve the people of Texas. Texas is a diverse state; indeed, it is a majority Latino state. In order to serve the people of the state, it is vital that the student body reflect the diversity of the state’s population,” she says.
To better serve the diverse population at UT-Austin, the school launched the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE) in 2007 and promptly charged it with ensuring that the university is responsive to and positively impacts the surrounding community, ensuring that community engagement remains central to the university’s core academic mission and serving as a catalyst to create new opportunities for expanded and more coordinated ties between the university and the community.
The DDCE, which is divided into four strategic areas, each under the direction of a different UT faculty member, embraces and encourages diversity in all its forms, according to Dr. Gregory J. Vincent, DDCE vice president. It strives for an inclusive community that fosters an open, enlightened and robust learning environment and works with a broad range of student, faculty, staff and community constituents to ensure that UT-Austin is a national model for diversity in higher education.
Community Engagement Center
Since its founding in 1883, UT-Austin has enjoyed a rich history of community engagement and service, with service as a key component of its overall mission. DDCE’s Community Engagement Center (CEC), under the direction of Speed, promotes and coordinates service, pedagogy and research benefiting communities that have been historically underserved by the university, through respectful, collaborative partnerships.
“By underserved communities we mean communities that due to race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual preference, disability or other reasons have had difficulty or face barriers to accessing the benefits of the university in education and knowledge production,” says Speed.
In that sense, all the work of the center involves minorities or groups that have been minorities in the past. Historically, the Hispanic community has been one of those groups under-served by the university. But now the CEC features a number of programs and projects involving collaborations with different Hispanic inter-est groups or projects in which Hispanics play a significant role.
For example, through the center’s Community Engagement Incubator (soon to be renamed the Social Justice Institute), the CEC has collaborative projects with the Proyecto de Defensa Laboral (a workers advocacy group), Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition (immigrant advocacy), Texas United for Families (anti-incarceration/immigrant advocacy), the Hutto Visitation Project (providing accompaniment to women asylum applicants in the Hutto Immigration Detention Center), Texas After Violence Project (death penalty oral history project), Refugio Community Organizer Training series, and Alma de Mujer Center for Social Change.
Through its Indigenous Studies Initiative, the CEC collaborates with the Indigenous Cultures Institute to educate Texans about the indigenous/Native American heritage of Texas Hispanics. The CEC also houses two affiliated programs and organizations that have significant Hispanic involvement: the Free Minds Program, which, through a UT-Austin Community College collaboration, provides college-level courses in the humanities to low-income residents of central Texas who have faced barriers to attending college, and Foodways Texas, an organization that preserves, promotes and celebrates the diverse food cultures of Texas.
Diversity and Youth Development
The Academic Diversity Initiatives and PreCollege Youth Development group in UT-Austin’s DDCE focuses on building a pipeline to college for underrepresented, low-income and first-generation K-16 students; helping with the recruitment, retention and graduation of these students; and encouraging undergraduates to attend graduate or professional school. The programs in this area include the Neighborhood Longhorns Program, University Outreach Centers, Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence, PreCollege Academic Readiness Programs, and projects led by distinguished DDCE Faculty Fellows, including Latino Male initiatives, Scholarship in Action and Thematic Initiative, focusing on faculty and graduate recruitment.
The Neighborhood Longhorns Program, under the direction of Celina Ruiz-Snowden, increases student achievement through an educational incentive program operated in partnership with the Austin Independent School District in 21 Title I elementary schools and middle schools to improve overall grade performance, reading, math, science and language arts skills, to increase student retention rates; and provide scholarship awards for students to apply toward a college education.
The Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence, directed by Dr. Leonard Moore, increases and maximizes the academic and personal success of first-generation and traditional-ly underrepresented students at UT-Austin. The Gateway Scholars program, under the direction of Dr. Aileen Bumphus, maximizes the academic success and social connections of new first-generation and underrepresented students at UT-Austin. Started in fall 1994, Gateway Scholars has expanded to include UTransition, a learning community for first-generation and underrepresented transfer students, the Achieving College Excellence Program, a service for students who seek additional academic assistance, and the Welcome Program, a diversity education pro-gram for incoming first-year students.
The Texas Center for Education Policy was founded in 2006 and builds upon the University of Texas-Austin’s tradition of distinguished scholarship. The center is committed to broadening research on equity and excellence in PreK-16 education through policy. It promotes interdisciplinary and collaborative research, analysis and dissemination of information to impact the development of education policy, through partnerships established with local, state, national and international education communities.
Dr. Angela Valenzuela, associate VP and professor, departments of Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Administration, College of Education, says that UT-Austin has a national and international status but is still a state institution serving a variety of constituents at a variety of levels. As a result, the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement works tirelessly toward getting African-Americans and Latinos into postsecondary education at the University of Texas.
Valenzuela, along with her colleagues at the center, works at the state level to address policy issues in areas such as high-stakes standardized testing and assessment, teacher accountability, and English-language learners. Because much of the legislation in Texas reflects a state demo-graphic that is growing at a very high rate, it’s not an exaggeration to maintain, she says, that much of what is called public education is indeed Latino education, particularly in urban areas of Texas, Florida and California. “It’s hard for me to draw a clear-cut distinction between what we might call education policy for Latinos and education policy for children generally, particularly in places like Texas,” says Valenzuela.
When she and her colleagues at the Center for Education Policy advocate for fairness and validity in assessment, they are a voice for African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics, essentially all children who have a stake in education, because their advocacy is based on research and reflects what scholars have learned about the best ways to assess student performance.
“We don’t have to say that it’s for any particular group to argue in effect for all groups, including Latinos, because of their preponderance, their concentrations in large urban areas and their growth rates. Clearly,” she says, the state of Texas “is diverse, and Latinos would have some issues that relate particularly to instruction in Spanish or alternative methodologies, or even in the area of assessment, using alternative kinds of assessments, but they cut across all the categories of program types – like curriculum, technology education, special education, giftedness, arts and the like.”
Valenzuela calls the Center for Policy Education a piece of the pipeline that feeds undergraduates into master’s and Ph.D. pro-grams across America, and former interns she’s had at the center have gone on to Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. She calls the interns who apply to the center a rather select group, most of whom have an interest in public policy, pursuing a law degree or launching a career in public service. “This is what distinguishes them from a good number of their peers just to begin with,” says Valenzuela.
Institutional Equity and Work Force Diversity
Although this school year’s freshman class is the first minority majority class in the history of UT-Austin, diversity is always important at a predominately White institution, according to Linda Millstone, associate VP for institutional equity and work force diversity at UT-Austin. Millstone con-tends that the University of Texas has a well-known past regarding people of color, diversity and the value the institution has placed on diversity.
To prove her contention, she points out that Texas is the home of two important legal cases dealing with segregation: Sweatt v. Painter, in which an African-American, Heman Marion Sweatt, was refused admission to the School of Law of the University of Texas; and Hopwood v. Texas, in which four White plaintiffs who had been rejected by the University of Texas School of Law challenged the institution’s admissions policy on equal protection grounds. In both cases, the plaintiffs prevailed and were admitted to the law school. These watershed court decisions remain in the memory of people of color as they decide where they would like to go to school, says Millstone.
The Office of Institutional Equity, says Millstone, has a long list of highlights that relate to the Hispanic population of the state of Texas, although all minority groups benefit from the services extended by the office. “We provide complaint investigations, training and consultation with management and employees on issues of diversity and equity. The climate that this office works to improve has resulted in an increase of people of color among our work force,” says Millstone.
From 2000 to 2010, the number of Hispanics employed among executive, administrative and managerial staff at the university rose from 45 to 89; and among the professional staff, from 389 to 511. “We believe this reflects recruiting diverse talent but also the supportive environment of the institution,” says Millstone.
One of the direct initiatives that has been beneficial chiefly to Hispanics is the University Resource Groups (URGs), which now oversees the Hispanic Faculty Staff Association. UT has a number of URGs: Black Faculty and Staff Association, Asian and Asian American Faculty Staff Association, and the Pride and Equity Faculty Staff Association. URGs were granted special status in recognition of their role in bringing issues forward to central administration. In sup-port, URG members are provided work release time to attend meetings, as well as some budgetary and Website assistance. Financial support for URG programming is also allocated.
Being aware of UT’s past and the university’s responsibility to serve all the people of Texas, says Millstone, UT President William Powers Jr. identified diversity as one of the key strategies of his administration. This in turn provided support and endorsement of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and its efforts to continue to transform the campus in terms of a respectful, supportive and welcoming environment for all its community members.
Millstone calls higher education a living lab-oratory where diverse people come to learn and work together and then go forth into the broader community, comfortable and experienced with being a citizen of a diverse world.
“For most of our students, this is the most diverse place they have lived in, and many are overwhelmed by the diversity they find here. It takes them out of the familiar, comfortable world they knew and forces them to interact with others. This is the living laboratory. Companies have made it clear to higher education that they want employees who work well in teams comprised of diverse thought and approaches. This institution is the first step for many of our stu-dents toward this path,” says Millstone.