Flagship university of Texas seeks to boost diversity

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AUSTIN, Texas - It’s the little things that make Brandelyn Franks feel uncomfortable at the University of Texas at Austin. Like walking into a class of 400 students and having the only black face. Or getting sideways glances from teachers and classmates when the subject of race comes up. Or seeing the same few people at every diversity forum at the school.

“I don’t necessarily think that the university is very inviting, although they try to make like they are,” said the 21-year-old history major.

President Larry Faulkner has heard those concerns, and last year called for sweeping changes to make the state’s flagship university a more welcoming place for students of color.

Among the changes is the hiring of Greg Vincent to the new post of vice provost for inclusion and cross-cultural understanding. He is working to attract minority students and professors and make those already here feel welcome.

Mr. Vincent knows he faces a challenging task at the 50,000-student school, where fewer than one in five students is black or Hispanic, where vandals threw eggs at a Martin Luther King statue and where fraternities in recent years held parties depicting blacks in Jim Crow stereotypes.

He blames several factors for the university’s low minority enrollment, from a 1996 federal court ruling that struck down racial admissions preferences 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,” Mr. Vincent said. “I think we’re doing some very tangible things to change that, but unfortunately that’s still the case.”

Among Mr. Vincent’s first priorities is breaking down real and perceived barriers that he said discourage minority teenagers from applying. He wants school 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?’” Mr. Vincent said.

Sean Watkins, a 2004 graduate with a degree in African-American studies and history, said Vincent will have to convince black and Hispanic teens that the university is interested in giving them a world-class education and not just in boosting minority enrollment.

“While they may have good intentions that their minority enrollment increases … they need to make sure that the way they communicate that is positive or proper,” said Mr. Watkins, who ministers to students as a staff member for a campus religious group called InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

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?” Mr. 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 Mr. Faulkner assembled to study racial tensions at the university has recommended moving the statues to another location on campus.

Omar Ochoa, the first Hispanic to serve as the student body president at the university, said administrators should back up their verbal commitment to diversity by requiring undergraduates to take courses in multiculturalism, just like they are required to study history or science. The course requirement and the creation of Mr. Vincent’s job were among dozens of recommendations by the panel Mr. Faulkner created.

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