Texas universities promised action after summer’s racial reckoning. But they’re still reluctant to shed Confederate relics.
Students of color said they feel most of their calls to eliminate racist symbols from campuses have been ignored or intentionally mired in lengthy, bureaucratic processes intended to delay answers to difficult questions.
This wasn’t the first time Texas universities had faced these pressures. But as students joined protests across the nation condemning the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and called for an end to racial injustice,they turned to their university leaders to address those ills on campus. School officials pledged to act.
But eight months later, the song is still playing at UT-Austin. Statues of Confederate leaders and segregationists still watch over Texas campuses. And many students of color feel most of their demands have been ignored or intentionally mired in lengthy, bureaucratic processes intended to delay answers to difficult questions.
“The fact that it’s taking so long is disheartening,” said Kendall Vining, a Rice junior, who co-wrote a list of 19 ways administrators could create a campus more inclusive for Black students. “It means that, of course, somebody else is still trying to decide what's best for us, rather than us literally telling them what could be done to help.”
While Texas campuses are implementing some significant changes — like diversity training, increased scholarships for students of color, new curriculum on racial inequityand more recruitment for diverse faculties — many students said the efforts don’t directly address their demands or go far enough to dismantle the legacy of white supremacy on their campuses. Black students, who remain underrepresented on most large college campuses in the state, said the buildings and statues that remain serve as a reminder that they attend schools that weren’t intended to serve them.
“When we have people who don’t know what it feels like to be oppressed try to make decisions about the oppressed, they often overlook the real demands and they only see racism from their narrow point of view,” said Qynetta Caston, a student at Texas A&M where just 3% of students are Black.
Yet Black students across the stategrew frustrated as school officials relegated some of the hardest questions to newly assembled diversity committees. They worry universities are using committees to stall until outspoken students graduate.
But school leaders argue broad, cultural change takes time.
“There’s always a desire to move faster and do it better,” said Joe Carpenter, a spokesperson for the University of Texas at Arlington, where students were asking administrators to increase faculty of color and rename multiple buildings even before Floyd’s death. “Some things, to be done right, take the involvement, not of one individual to just dictate something. Some of these initiatives aren't going to be successful if they're the idea of one person or if they are implemented by one person.”
“It’s like the administration really believes that white supremacy is a reformable thing, rather than something that needs to be completely wiped away.”
— Shifa Rahman, a Rice University junior
As cities across America watched protests fill the streets, dozens of universities removed statues and renamed campus buildings named for people with racist histories.
But Texas universities have largely dodged demands to remove historical reminders — countering with committees vowing to study the issue and other offerings to improve diversity.
“It’s like the administration really believes that white supremacy is a reformable thing, rather than something that needs to be completely wiped away,” said Shifa Rahman, a Rice University junior who organized sit-ins at the statue of Willy Rice. Rice set aside money before he died that helped establish the school in 1912 with the specific goal of serving white Texans.
A group of students at Rice have participated in the sit-ins nearly every evening since Aug. 31.
Rahman said administrators can’t expect students to study among symbols of people who promoted white supremacy and still build an equitable campus. These symbols need to be abolished, he said.
Students at Rice don’t just want the statue removed. A list of demands also included more Black faculty and improved lighting for Rice identification photos so students with dark skin are properly photographed.
In 2019, Rice launched a task force to explore the university’s historical connections to slavery, segregation and racial injustice, but has not released a report yet. President David Leebron said in an email to The Texas Tribune that they expected this work to take between two and four years. He also said they recently added a group to the task force who will discuss buildings and statues on campus, including the Willy Rice statue.
“We have repeatedly said that the statue issue would be addressed after the task force finishes its initial report and we have all the information — and all the varied opinions — essential to making the right decision,” Leebron said. “As you might expect, there is a wide range of opinions on the statue and various alternatives have been suggested for addressing the history behind it, which is why it’s important to approach this issue thoughtfully.”
In the meantime, Rice, where 5% of students are Black, announced a new diversity training and is piloting a diversity course this spring. Rice also hired its first vice provost for diversity, equity and inclusion.
Never-ending diversity committees
Texas students agitating for change said their patience is wearing thin.
“For every action that the university takes, there has to be like a committee, and then another committee to verify that committee and we’re just like in the cycle of committees,” said Alcess Nonot, a senior at UT-Austin and president of the UT Senate of College Councils.
UT-Austin administrators pledged to review the school’s diversity and inclusion action plan in the wake of the summer protests. The university had already taken down multiple Confederate statues in 2017, which resulted in at least one lawsuit that the university won. They also launched a new committee to study the history of the school’s alma mater song, “The Eyes of Texas,” after students asked the university to stop singing it. The song premiered at a minstrel show in the early 1900s and the phrase “Eyes of Texas” was taken indirectly from comments Gen. Robert E. Lee used to make to students when he became a college president that “the eyes of the South are upon you.”
Former Texas A&M President Michael Young set an Oct. 30 deadline for a final report with recommendations to improve race relations, diversity and address historical representations on campus, specifically the Sul Ross statue. Texas A&M released the report Monday evening, three months after the original deadline, during a special Board of Regents meeting where regents unanimously approved a four-year, $25 million investment in scholarships and fellowship to increase the number of Black students and faculty. The report mentioned the debate over the Ross statue, but did not provide any specific recommendations.
"When Texas A&M rejected segregation and allowed Black and/or African American men and then women to enroll, each decision was controversial and divisive," the report concluded about the Ross statue. "Any poll of current and former students at those times would likely look much like the current surveys that have been conducted over the statue. The decisions made by our leaders in those times reflected that the institution was moving and growing in."
However, system Chancellor John Sharp said in August, citing an attorney general opinion, the statue could only be moved by an act of the Legislature. Sharp said in a 2018 letter to the Aggie student newspaper that the statue would be on campus "forever" because Ross deserved to be honored for his service to the university.
AtBaylor, university leaders launched a new scholarship program and created a new diversity trainingvideo, though it was largely panned by students and the Baylor Lariat student newspaper's editorial board as "missing the mark." A commission to review historical representations on campus, including statues of the three university founders, is expected to issue recommendations this spring.
Students like LexyBogney, a senior and president of the Baylor National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter, said they suspect these commissions and committees are used to placate alumni and donors that might disagree with student demands.
“Even when [Baylor was] just saying, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ you could see so many alumni on Twitter and Facebook, just saying, ‘Why would you guys fall for this?’” Bogney said. “I think this slow change is kind of coming from them trying to appease regents and alumni.”
Indeed, alumni and donors atmany Texas schools have been vocal in countering student demands for change, flooding university inboxes with threats to pull their money and even organizing counter protests, as they did at Texas A&M to support the Sul Ross statue.
Building new statues
In some cases, universities resistant to removing statues are erecting new ones honoring people of color. Texas A&M is building a statue of Matthew Gaines, one of thefirst Black state senators in Texas.
Students have been pushing for the Gaines statue since the 1990s, struggling to raise the necessary funds until last year. For Caston and other students, adding a statue of a Black man doesn’t negate the presence of the Sul Ross statue.
“Until they actually acknowledge the real issues that they have helped create and maintain over the years, they can never be diverse and inclusive,” said Evan Bookman, a senior who serves as the university’s NAACP chapter president.
A spokesperson for Texas State said the university will also name two previously unnamed streets at the campus north of Austin after distinguished alumni of color, too.
“Questions about renaming Beretta and Flowers Halls have arisen in task force discussions,” said spokesperson Jayme Blaschke, without answering additional questions. “This will be an on-going inclusive conversation about complex issues that require collaboration and time to fully research.”
UT-Austin, where just 5% of students are Black, is also erecting multiple new statues on campus rather than renaming buildings at the request of students. They’re building a statue of the first group of Black undergraduate students, known as the Precursors, and built another of Julius Whittier, the first African-American letterman on the Longhorns football team.
UT-Austin was one of the only universities in the state that renamed a building in the wake of the summer protests. The Robert L. Moore Building became the Physics, Math and Astronomy Building. Moore was a decorated professor who opposed integration.
Still, students hoped the university would go farther. They had demanded that UT-Austin remove an additional statue and rename six more areas of campus including T.S. Painter Hall. Painter was the university president when Heman Sweatt sued after he was denied admission to UT Law School because he was Black, culminating in the Supreme Court case, Sweatt v. Painter. The university lost, allowing Sweatt to be the first Black person to attend UT Law School in 1950.
Instead of renaming Painter Hall, UT-Austin officials said they would name an entranceway to the building after Sweatt and create a space to honor Sweatt within the building.
“It was actually kind of offensive,” said Audra Collins, a computer science major at UT-Austin and president of the Association of Black Computer Scientists. “To honor Heman Sweatt, you want to put a plaque or dedicate the entrance to the building of his oppressor?”
UT-Austin’s Vice Provost for Diversity Edmund Gordon is leading the effort to honor Sweatt and said he understands the students’ perspective.
“The notion that to just name an entrance after Sweatt within a building named after Painter is ironical,” he said. “ But I would like to be able to continually demonstrate that irony rather than have it changed.”
Gordon opposed previous decisions at UT-Austin to remove Confederate statues because he thinks it lets people forget the history and policies that have allowed Black students to remain underrepresented and underserved on campus.
He remembers when the UT System renamed a residence hall that was previously named for William Stewart Simkins, a former UT law professor who fought in the Confederacy and was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The residence was named after Simkins in the 1950s to intimidate Black students after the Supreme Court decision that integrated schools.
“If you ask students if they know what the name of [the residence hall] was before, it’s completely been erased from our memory,” Gordon said. “And I think that’s a problem.”
Students also wanted school leaders to address the impact of policing at their own universities. Those calls grew louder as students and activists across the country called for cities to defund police departments and reallocate money to other services.
“Systemic racism [has] been developing for centuries. There are no magic wands to wave.”
— UH spokesperson Shawn Lindsay
University of Houston graduate students demanded UH stop contracting with Houston police, citing police shootings among city officers there. They also called for anti-racism training for university officers. Other students said majority Black events are over-policed on campus.
Officials launched a slew of committees and work groups to examine UH policies, including policing and security.
University leaders are currently reviewing work group recommendations for possible approval, but no official changes have been made. Students criticized university leaders for not making more tangible changes, arguing there have been too many conversations about racial injustice without meaningful action. A spokesperson defended the university’s efforts.
“Our work to confront racial injustice continues, and it remains a University priority,” said UH spokesperson Shawn Lindsay. “Systemic racism [has] been developing for centuries. There are no magic wands to wave.”
Students said they’ve watched universities act quickly in other instances.
“Typically, if the school administration wants something done relatively quick, it takes a few strokes of a pen, and it's done,” said Brian Kirksey, vice president of the Black Student Union “This is something that's been an ongoing conversation for a few months now...It's definitely frustrating.”
“Picking and choosing”
As students across Texas continue to push for change, Black students at Baylor University said they were reminded last semester that true inclusivity and equity will take more than removing statues and adding new scholarships.
Administrators told students it was “inappropriate for the intended audience,” according to multiple students. Instead, school officials held a separate pre-recorded Zoom discussion about systemic racism on campus with students and faculty where the video was aired.
“‘Inappropriate for the intended audience’ meant that Baylor did not want to exhibit a video concerning the daily life that we African Americans must live in every day to their intended audience of the white majority,” the fraternity said in a statement on Instagram in September.
Baylor administrators defended their decision to move the video to another platform to the Tribune and said the video was viewed more than it would have been at the talent show, which people had to pay to access.
But Black students, who total 6% of student body,said administrators were still limiting when it’s appropriate to talk about race. The earlier statements from university leaders of support for Black lives over the summer started to ring hollow.
“Clearly, that was just another learning opportunity for Baylor to see that they can't pick and choose when they want to stand on different platforms and what they support,” said senior Mya Ellington-Williams.
Disclosure: Baylor University, Facebook, Rice University, Texas A&M University, the University of Texas at Arlington, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Houston and the University of North Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Correction, March 1, 2021: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified John Sharp’s role with the Texas A&M University System. He is system chancellor, not president.