Opinion: University of Texas at Austin Continues Its Progress on Diversity

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by Dr. Gregory J. Vincent

In response to a recent Diverse blog by Dr. Ibram Rogers, I would like to elaborate on the recent decision by The University of Texas System Board of Regents to change the name of Simkins Residence Hall at The University of Texas at Austin. Rogers wrote that the move to erase Simkins name from the residence hall was admirable. However, it was clear in the blog that he is not aware of the commitment this university has to diversity. 

Under the leadership of President William Powers Jr., the university has made significant progress in creating a more welcoming, a more intellectually and culturally diverse campus, which is one of his four strategic priorities. It is Powers’ goal that the university reflects Texas’ diverse population.

When the residence hall named for former UT law professor William S. Simkins became a focus of conversation in the community in early May after an article by Thomas Russell was published by Social Science Research Network, Powers asked that I convene an advisory group to examine the issue and make recommendations to him. Powers could have made a decision on his own but he felt it imperative to gather input from a diverse group of faculty, staff, student, alumni and community representatives.

To some observers, it seemed the process was unnecessary. Russell had brought up details regarding Simkins’ Klan involvement and many commented that we should change the name. However, process matters, especially at UT where we value ideas and history. And, indeed, we heard from a number of alumni, students and community members that considered changing the name as whitewashing history. Those who felt this way included several African-American alumni who believed the name should remain as a reminder to all of the struggles of African-Americans endured to integrate the University of Texas.

Another factor that influenced the way we went about the renaming process was that the residence hall had been named through a sanctioned process that was in place in the 1950s. We believed that going through the process that is presently in place for renaming buildings was the correct course to take.

In May 1954, the Faculty Council had voted the all-male residence hall being built next to the law school should be named for Simkins. The hall was to house only law and graduate students.

Former law school Dean W. Page Keeton, who graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in 1931, suggested naming the dorm for Simkins. Keeton was a fan of Simkins, who had been a popular professor among the largely White male student body of that time. There is no evidence, that as Rogers wrote, UT leaders named the residence hall in defiance of the 1954 Brown ruling. Russell posed the idea in his paper, but more research is needed to determine the veracity of that position. Longtime law professor Sanford Levinson believes Keeton only wanted to honor Simkins who taught for 30 years, published six textbooks and began a number of traditions in the UT Law School.

As the advisory group began deliberations, we took into consideration the power of campus imagery: our statues, buildings, signs and memorials. We discussed the Confederate statues that Rogers cites in his opinion piece. The Confederate statues and Littlefield Fountain were part of an incomplete artistic vision by Pompeo Coppini to represent Texas leaving the Confederacy and joining the Union. These statues, of course, have come under scrutiny numerous times, most recently six years ago, when another group was convened to examine the issue of whether to remove the statues. A number of African-American faculty were involved. The decision was made to leave the Confederate statues and the fountain. Our students led initiatives to get statues of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, and Barbara Jordan placed in prominent locations on campus as a way to honor diversity while retaining the Confederate figures.

In the end, the advisory group determined that Simkins did not deserve to have a building on campus named for him given his unlawful violent actions and his reprehensible promotion of those actions years later.

In the past 25 years, the university has named buildings for people from diverse backgrounds who have had more of an impact on the current campus climate than Simkins. These include the Perry-Castañeda Library named for the first African-American professor at the university, Dr. Ervin S. Perry, and for Dr. Carlos Castañeda, who received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the university and later returned to campus as a professor. It also includes Almetris Duren Hall, named for a former UT staff member who was the house mother for African-American female students before the university integrated its residence hall; John W. Hargis Hall, named for the first African-American graduate in chemical engineering; and the George I. Sanchez Building named for a professor and department chair who remained active in equity and school-funding issues.

More than 30 years ago, the university established the John L. Warfield Center in African and African American Studies. Since then the Center for Mexican American Studies and the Center for Asian and Asian American Studies have been created. The Warfield Center was named for John Warfield who taught at the university for 26 years and founded the local Black community radio station and a grassroots organization called the Black Citizens Task Force. He was the director of the Center for African and African American Studies from 1973-1986.

This year, a degree-granting Department of African and African Diaspora Studies was established, the only such department in the Southwest. Along with the new department, an Institute for Critical Urban Studies was created. Both were launched due to the outstanding African-American faculty on this campus and their excellent scholarship.

Yes, the name on a building is a symbol — but symbols do not reflect the full extent of reality. The reality is that on this campus today, we have a more diverse student body than ever before. It is becoming more diverse each year, thanks to a number of initiatives across campus to recruit and retain first-generation and low-income college students. We have one of the highest numbers of tenured and tenure track African-American faculty at a flagship university. The university’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement is a model for other universities. With approximately 50 programs, projects and initiatives and more than 300 staff members, we are one of the largest and most far-reaching divisions of diversity in the nation. Our programs range from those supporting underserved public school students throughout the state to prepare them for college to a thematic initiatives effort to recruit faculty in areas where there are gaps in scholarship on this campus.

As it became apparent when we held two well-attended public forums to discuss the Simkins Hall issue, this campus is more open and welcoming than it was even 10 years ago. Persons with widely varying opinions voiced their opinions in a friendly environment. That we were able to discuss the issues around the renaming in an open and harmonious environment positively reflects how far this campus has come.

For these reasons, we do not feel that the UT is only gingerly taking baby steps toward diversity as Rogers suggested. We are undertaking innovative initiatives to increase the number of students of color in the higher education pipeline, to support and encourage these students once they are on campus, and to create a welcoming educational and work environment where sensitive issues can be discussed freely and openly.

Texas is deeply rooted in the Confederacy. The university has had a difficult history with regard to integration. We acknowledge the history of the state and university, while moving ahead. We are making progress every day and looking to the future, spending our time making a difference in the lives of young people across the state, leveraging our intellectual resources, and embracing diversity to create a climate of inclusive excellence.

Dr. Gregory J. Vincent is vice president for diversity and community engagement at The University of Texas at Austin.

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