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Black Eastsiders: Powers a Friend

Will the next UT president continue Powers' work repairing the relationship between UT and East Austin?

By Jessica Luther, Fri., July 18, 2014

UT President Bill Powers
UT President Bill Powers
Photo by John Anderson

When the news broke, over the July 4th weekend, that UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa had demanded the resignation of UT-Austin President Bill Powers, under threat of dismissal, there was plenty of backlash. Over 14,000 people signed an online petition expressing their support for Powers; the Texas Exes, led by new president and former U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, also defended the president. UT's Faculty Council issued a resolution praising Powers for fulfilling "duties and responsibilities ... with distinction, exceptional leadership, and vision." The public backlash eventually led to a reversal, and Powers will stay on through next year.

There was yet another group angry at Cigarroa, because of their respect for the work that Powers has done in the local community: black residents of East Austin. 

UT-Austin has had a long and troubled relationship with African-Americans, due to administrative (and state official) resistance to integration in the Fifties and Sixties, and recurrent incidents of racism on campus. There is also lingering anger over two East Austin expansions by the university in the Sixties and Seventies. In his forthcoming book Shadows of a Sunbelt City, geographer Eliot Tretter writes that under the power of eminent domain, UT displaced "approximately 1,000 people, mostly African-Americans." And, "[w]hile many people received relocation funds, the amount of money received was insufficient for people to buy a new home."

These wounds remain raw. Many East Austin residents say that growing up here, young people are often told not to visit UT because of campus racism. Lifelong East Austin resident Ed Roby, who graduated from old L.C. Anderson High in 1960, says that even today, "Go to East Austin and say 'UT,' and get rocks thrown at you."

Yet since 2006, when Powers became president, the tension has been easing. Bo McCarver, board chair of the Blackland Com­munity Development Corporation, formed after the UT annexations in an attempt to provide affordable housing in the East Campus area, told Austin Post earlier this year that East Austin residents and UT are "getting on pretty good now. President Powers has been here several times and we have a liaison person with the university."

Terri Givens, an associate professor of government who served as vice provost, says that Pow­ers was the first UT president to visit East Austin in his official capacity. "His repair work," she says, "went beyond East Austin to Dallas, El Paso, the Rio Grande Valley, all over the state." Promoting the Longhorn Scholars Program, set up to support students "from selected Texas high schools whose graduates have historically been underrepresented" at UT, Powers traveled to high schools to recruit students, many of them students of color.

Locally, the university liaison is Gregory Vincent, whom Powers promoted to vice president for Diversity and Community Engagement when he created that UT division. Edmund Gordon, chair of the Depart­ment of African and African Diaspora Studies, says what the division has done is "to reach out to the local central Texas and particularly Austin community of color. Dr. Vincent has been particularly involved with the black community." The DDCE has an Austin Community Advisory Council, maintains a Community Engagement Center, and supports the Social Justice Institute, among other local initiatives.

Roby is the executive director of the Prairie View Inter­scho­las­tic League Coaches' Association. PVIL was the governing body for academic, athletic, and music competitions in black high schools in Texas during the decades of segregation. The PVILCA has a home now in UT's Community Engagement Center, where it proudly displays memorabilia. Roby says that after he wrote a short letter to Vincent asking for support for the PVILCA, Vincent responded quickly, sent his whole staff to a meeting with the PVILCA, and provided the space the association needed. "UT," Roby says, "has been very, very instrumental in keeping the PVIL dream alive." UT-Austin's own football team is infamous for having the last all-white national championship team (1969); helping sustain the history of black athletes during the segregated system has aided in establishing a better relationship.

Austinite Nat Bradford, one of the earliest black students to attend UT following integration (they call themselves "The Precursors"), says Powers has been "bent on making the school one of inclusion instead of exclusion." According to UT's Office of Information Management and Analysis, the percentages of faculty and students of color between 2006 and 2013 has slowly but steadily increased. In 2006, 3.9% of UT's students were African-American, 15% were Hispanic. By 2013, 4.5% were African-American and 19.1% were Hispanic. Bradford is passionate about what Powers has done for diversity at UT, and characterized the ongoing struggle of Gov. Rick Perry and some regents to oust the president as "slowing down progress." 

Bradford notes that Powers supported the creation of the AADS Department, the first black studies department in Texas – of particular import to the East Austin community. Gordon says Powers "has been a champion" of the department, as well as the Mexican American and Latino Studies Department (approved, but not formally announced). Neither, Gordon says, would have been possible "without the strong support and leadership of the president."

Shirley Thompson, an associate professor of AADS, says that "under Powers' leadership and with more substantial resources, we have had the personnel and the infrastructure to offer programming and support for programs in East Austin and to integrate service learning and community engagement more fully into our curriculum." Kevin Foster, also an associate professor of AADS, says that Powers has "empowered faculty and administrators to work in local community contexts," and they have been able to start "repairing and building bridges between the local community and UT."

Now that the Powers and Cigarroa have agreed that Powers will stay on through the next school year and legislative session, the immediate controversy may subside. But as UT begins a search for a new president, East Austinites will be watching to see if Powers' support for progress in repairing a long, uneasy relationship between their community and the university will continue under new leadership.

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