UT, A&M noted for minority gap

Flagships still fall short in equalizing opportunities

By: Matt Flores
San Antonio Express-News
May 11, 2004, Tuesday

Editor's note : On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously declared that separate education facilities are inherently unequal and ordered states to end segregation. As the 50th anniversary of that ruling approaches, we will look back to see what it has wrought. And we will look to the future and consider the question, "What now?"

Years before the U.S. Supreme Court forced the nation's public schools to integrate in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, civil rights advocates and education officials were waging a battle over racial segregation on a different front: America's colleges.

One case that originated in Texas, known as Sweatt vs. Painter, helped set the stage for desegregation at the country's public universities. Aided by the Brown decision, minorities' higher education opportunities opened up like never before in the ensuing decades.

In the 1990s, higher education in South Texas and along the border - historically home to the state's poorest people and highest concentration of Hispanics - rose to new heights. New campuses sprouted up, degree offerings expanded and the region got its first professional school outside of San Antonio.

But more than 50 years after civil rights advocates hailed the Supreme Court decisions as major victories, higher education in Texas continues to face significant challenges in equalizing opportunities between Anglos and non-Anglos.

Nowhere are the disparities more pronounced than at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University - the state's flagship institutions.

"If UT and A&M are truly statewide schools, they should be doing a better job of attracting students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds," said Al Kauffman, a senior legal and policy advocate at Harvard University's Civil Rights Project.

Kauffman fought for higher education parity in Texas for decades as regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He says although the Sweatt case predated Brown, it was the arguments in Brown that led to subsequent court decisions.

Heman Sweatt, an African American postal worker originally denied admission to the UT law school, won his case after the high court ruled in 1950 that a separate law school UT created for blacks was inadequate. But the ruling didn't strike down the widely known "separate-but-equal" standard that justices later rejected in the Brown case.

"Obviously, Brown was the basis for all desegregation arguments in public education and higher education litigation since then," Kauffman said.

As integration slowly changed the makeup of Texas institutions over the next few decades, other factors such as socioeconomic status and geography became greater barriers to diversifying college campuses.

Affirmative action measures aimed at increasing minority enrollment helped, but only marginally at the state's most selective institutions.

Even before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and a subsequent attorney general's opinion wiped out affirmative action practices at all Texas colleges in 1996, Texas' flagship schools struggled to enroll substantive numbers of Hispanic and African American students.

While UT and A&M have reported minor gains in minority enrollment over the past few years, university officials acknowledge that minority participation rates among Hispanics and African Americans are significantly lower than they should be.

Last fall, UT's undergraduate Hispanic enrollment was 14.3 percent while A&M's was 9.3 percent, only slightly above the figures from the year before, and below the rates when affirmative action ended in 1996. Undergraduate enrollment among African Americans also dipped from 1996, with UT at 3.6 percent and A&M at 2.3 percent.

The current enrollment rates are well below the statewide demographics for both groups. According to a 2002 U.S. Census report, Hispanics made up roughly 33 percent of the state's population while African Americans made up about 11 percent.

Hispanics, the state's fastest growing group, will become the new majority group in Texas by the year 2040, according to forecasts by the Texas State Data Center at University of Texas at San Antonio.

Although race preferences were upheld in a U.S. Supreme Court case last year, both UT and A&M had lost much of the headway they had made in minority enrollment when affirmative action was used.

Given that, critics from academia to the state Legislature have been particularly critical of A&M, which has said it won't use race in the admissions process despite the Supreme Court ruling that permits it to.

"It angers me when one of the two flagship schools - Texas A&M, a historically non-minority-friendly institution - would rather end its legacy program than take real steps to increase diversity," said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston.

Ellis was referring to A&M's decision last year to scrap its legacy program. Critics said if the university wasn't willing to use race in admissions, it shouldn't give preferences to relatives of alumni.

University President Robert Gates defended the position.

"Every student that makes it there knows they are there because of their merit," Gates said.

Gates, who took over as Texas A&M president in 2002, acknowledged the university has failed to adequately address minority concerns. But he made minority recruitment a top priority in his Vision 2020 plan for the university.

Just last month, Gates announced the university was adding 2,300 new scholarships totaling $8 million that would target economically disadvantaged students. In Texas, those students are disproportionately minority.

"What we are doing is misunderstood," Gates said. "We have a specific effort at getting more students to apply to Texas A&M that's based totally on under-represented groups."

For UT, improvements have been more progressive, but officials there still recognize a need for greater parity.

"We deeply and profoundly recognize that more needs to be done," said Sheldon Ekland-Olson, UT's provost and executive vice president.

Ekland-Olson said chronic public school issues such as high dropout rates, which have a disproportionate impact on blacks and Hispanics, have exacerbated UT's challenge of increasing minority enrollment.

He pointed out, however, that both institutions have made meaningful improvements in enrolling under-represented groups since the state adopted the so-called 10 percent plan, which guarantees graduates in the top 10 percent of their high school class automatic admission to the school of their choice.

Minorities and economically disadvantaged students from some of the most remote areas of the state are earning spots at both institutions in numbers never before registered, he said.

But until major changes occur at the K-12 level to improve dropout rates and better integrate the student population, selective universities won't be able to attract minorities at levels that reflect state demographics.

"Until we make additional progress, we're going to continue to see under-representation of minorities at the state's selective institutions," Ekland-Olson said.

mflores@express-news.net