When Jennell Benson moved from the small city of Hillsboro, Texas, to attend an institution with the fifth-largest single-campus enrollment in the nation, she expected to be welcomed into a diverse community of students from a variety of different backgrounds and to certainly find more students who look like her.
“I thought, ‘Well it’s a bigger university, so there have to be more black people than there were at my high school,’” Benson said. “And there are more black people, but in terms of ratio, it’s the same.”
Benson, alumni relations officer for the UT Black Student Alliance, is one of the 1,995 black students at UT, who constitute 3.9 percent of the total student population. That figure has hovered around 4 percent for the past decade — despite efforts to make the University a more diverse and inclusive place for minority students.
“If our non-black students are not exposed to what it means to be black or what it’s like to be black, if they don’t have a cultural understanding or haven’t made an impact on that community, I don’t think that in their future they could do that,” said Benson, an African and African diaspora studies sophomore.
Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff
Jennell Benson, African and African diaspora studies sophomore and alumni relations officer for the UT Black Students Alliance, said she was surprised to find that black stu- dents constitute less than four percent of the UT student population.
Racial issues at UT were highlighted in 2008 when Abigail Fisher, a rejected UT applicant, filed a discrimination lawsuit against the University, which she said denied her admission because she is white. While the Supreme Court did not rule on her case in 2013, the Court announced in June it would rehear the case.
Earlier this month, attorneys from the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund conducted a questionnaire with members of UT’s Black Student Alliance to gather information for a brief which the NAACP will file in the Fisher case.
The University has fiercely defended its race-conscious admissions policies that accompany the “top ten percent rule” — a statewide provision intended to promote ethnic diversity in public universities that allows automatic admission of Texas high school students who graduate in the top 7 percent of their class.
Toyin Falola, a history and African studies professor, said in his 20 years at UT he has seen substantial improvements in the racial climate on campus, and the University is not entirely at fault for its relatively low number of black students.
“One must praise the University, instead of just criticizing it — the changes have been truly impressive,” Falola said. “There’s still a lot of work to do in terms of strengthening the quality of our high schools, in terms of improving the elementary schools. Bear in mind that the lower level schools feed into colleges, so as we spend more money on the high schools, and we spend more money on the elementary schools, so too will the rest of us benefit from that.”
During his tenure, former UT President William Powers Jr. emphasized diversity, establishing two ethnic studies departments — one of which is devoted to African and African diaspora studies. His successor, President Gregory Fenves, has maintained a similar focus since taking office. Following pressure from the student body and a formal request from UT’s Student Government, Fenves oversaw the removal of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s statue from the Main Mall, a move distancing the University from its southern roots.
Black faculty at UT play a significant role in helping black students feel integrated on campus, said corporate communications senior Danielle Smith, but the faculty at UT is overwhelmingly white. University data shows only 147 of UT’s 1,549 tenured teaching professors were black or Hispanic in 2014.
“Minority faculty and staff should not be the only people responsible for caring about [minority] issues,” Smith said. “While it might be more prevalent to them being in the same race, it’s important that our president, our top faculty on campus are understanding these issues, reaching out and wanting to know more.”
Smith, a member of UT Black Student Alliance, said she thinks UT should focus its efforts on targeted recruiting and fostering a welcoming campus environment to attract and retain black students.
“A lot of [black students] think that UT is just not a place that’s welcoming of minority students, particularly Latino and black students, because the
percentages are so low,” Smith said. “It’s extremely important for those students to know the possibilities, and that they can survive on this campus. If you get through and you make it, you’re open to a large network that you probably wouldn’t have been introduced to.”
Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff
Danielle Smith, corporate communications senior and member of the UT Black Student Alliance, said she foresees that UT’s student body will become more diverse if the University places more effort in the recruitment of minority students.
The Supreme Court’s ruling on the Fisher case could put an end to affirmative action at UT — a practice that allows colleges to achieve a “critical mass” of minority students necessary to achieve diversity. Critical mass has traditionally been defined as the point when minority students are comfortable expressing opinions amongst their peers, and no longer see themselves as representatives of their entire race.
UT law professor Joseph Fishkin said UT’s race-conscious admissions policies help the University find minority students from outside the state, or students who would add diversity to certain academic programs.
“I think it’s just a question of, ‘do we have admissions through rigid rules, or can we have admissions through considering the whole applicant?’” Fishkin said. “That’s what it comes down to. UT benefits from having at least part of its admissions be considering the whole applicant — I think UT really wants to guard that.”
With or without affirmative action, UT needs to be attracting more black students, said Summer Williams, a pre-social work and applied learning and development junior who is also a member of UT Black Student Alliance.
“I think [UT] broadcasts that it’s super diverse, but it doesn’t feel super diverse,” Williams said. “I think they definitely need to work on making us feel more integrated while we’re here, but also bring in more, too, because there are obviously other minorities who have the abilities and credentials to get here — they just don’t get here.”