How Black undergraduates at UT Dallas are powering a push against systemic racism on campus | #students | #parents

After the police killing of George Floyd this summer, hundreds of students signed a petition asking the University of Texas at Dallas to publicly show solidarity with its Black and African American community members.

A few days later, University President Richard Benson issued a statement calling for change and stressing the importance of the campus living out values of diversity and tolerance.

“OK,” senior Chizuruoke Ukachi-Nwata thought to himself. “Let’s take you up on that offer.”

Like peers across the country, Ukachi-Nwata is hoping to channel momentum around the Black Lives Matter movement and a national racial reckoning into sustained, institutional change.He is now one of nine students on UT-Dallas’ Living Our Values Task Force, a 23-member group of faculty, staff, and students that have been meeting weekly online since July.

Benson has charged the group with addressing issues of systemic racism, bias, equity and inclusion at the university, where Black students represent 5 percent of the undergraduate population.

Collectively, students say they’ve logged over 250 hours this summer working on task force proposals, on top of classes, jobs, internships, and for one, the logistical hurricane of organizing a march for George Floyd.

But they’re still waiting to see the outcome of their efforts. Task force activities have continued a month past the initial deadline of August 17, the start of the fall semester. With over 50 more hours volunteered since then, they’re frustrated and concerned that this initiative has been performative.

According to the university, there is no set deadline, but recommendations will be made to Benson on a rolling basis. Whatever happens next, said senior and task force member Tamara Havis, “really is going to change the dynamics in the university for a lot of students.”

Changing campus

Last year’s new student convocation. The University of Texas at Dallas’ celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019. Ben Torres/Special Contributor(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

UT-Dallas has undergone a remarkable evolution since the once small commuter school joined the UT system in 1969. Last fall, UT-Dallas enrolled over 20,000 undergraduates. Today, it is widely considered a high-level research university, especially known for its computer science programs.

The Richardson campus boasts the largest international student population in the state, and was ranked in July as the best school in the Southwest for LGBTQ+ students. But Black students said they don’t feel commitments to diversity and inclusion have applied as strongly to them.

George Fair, the university’s vice president for diversity and community engagement, is co-chairing the Living Our Values task force. Fair, who is Black, said there’s been more attention and emphasis on addressing issues of racial equity this year than any other.

Over the summer, the university also formed a police task force including students. Another working group is charged with developing recommendations related to diversity and implicit bias training for faculty and staff.

“The timing is right for something different to take place,” said Fair, who has worked for UT-Dallas for over 40 years. “I think that the university is mature enough now that it can get started (on) some of the areas… that we are missing, and this is one of the areas.”

Other universities in Texas are dealing with similar issues. A 45-person commission at Texas A&M has until October 30 to present a report evaluating diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. SMU has committed to reviewing an action plan from a coalition of Black campus organizations, while UNT responded to community demands and issued its own action plan.

The issues

Black students interviewed at UT-Dallas reported facing racism on campus in a variety of ways — from peers making jokes about “diversity picks,” to the frequent use of the n-word.

Some said they experienced inequitable treatment from faculty, with academic advisors suggesting they might not be cut out for their major. One reported discovering that a coworker, a university employee, said they liked “some Black people,” but not her, because she was one of the “mean ones.”

The main focus of the task force has been collaborating with relevant administrators to develop those proposals, along with a list of demands from the school’s Black Faculty and Staff Alliance, into actionable items for the president to consider.

The student demands mostly fall under the category of cultural competency and diversity training. They were written in June by seven of the task force students and are based on five or six hours of concerns from Black peers over an open Zoom call.

“The number one thing that [students on the call] said was that their only safe place on campus was in the multicultural center,” senior and task force member Axum Taylor said.

While administrators maintain that UT-Dallas has always prioritized Black students, the multicultural center is an example of a place students feel a disconnect between the university’s stated commitment and their experiences.

Taylor, who worked at the center last year, said the facility sometimes couldn’t meet student demand. Meanwhile, she said she felt resources developed by the center, such as diversity training programs, were underutilized by many faculty and staff. As the facility’s budget didn’t increase, she felt like she was part of “the office that was constantly silenced.”

For Ukachi-Nwata, the center’s leadership conference for Black students was the one thing that made him excited about UT-Dallas. He said the event made him feel at home, and led him to join the school’s Black Congress and meet multiple close friends.

“Yet I heard about this through word of mouth by another Black student, not at my orientation, which was supposed to serve me,” he said.

In addition to a multicultural orientation that would highlight resources for minorities, students say they want to see more equitable recruiting and retention practices, including expanded outreach in lower-income communities. The accessibility of scholarships is another key concern.

Last year, UT-Dallas awarded $70 million in need-based aid, which it said provides greater support percentage-wise to underrepresented minority students. $78 million went to institutionally awarded scholarships, a number of which consider need, socioeconomic background or adversity in holistic review.

But a large proportion of institutionally awarded scholarship funds at UT-Dallas are allocated on merit-based criteria that some students feel reinforce systemic barriers in higher education.

To Taylor, it often feels like the university views Black students as a demographic too small to be worth investing time and money in. Students are ultimately customers, she said, and deserve better service.

“Right now, even though we’re 5 percent Black students, we’re 5 percent dissatisfied Black students,” she said.

Progress

Last month, about six weeks after meetings began, task force co-chair Rafael Martín said the group was “in the stages of starting to prepare to send our first recommendations.”

“In academic terms, that’s lightspeed,” said Martín, who also serves as UT-Dallas’ vice president and chief of staff. “Universities are not known for their quick action on issues, but I think it speaks to the importance of these issues to us as an institution, to the people on the task force.”

Martín said student involvement was important to facilitate transparency about practical goals moving forward.

For example, another Black student body proposal is to create an African & African Diaspora Studies Department, with the goal of increasing course offerings and Black faculty.

“[That] requires, realistically, years of background work in order to establish the need for it, prove to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board that there’s demand for it, make sure that you’re not going to be competing unfairly with other universities with similar programs,” Martín said. “It’s all very inside baseball.”

Task force students like Havis said they recognize that some of their requests are long-term goals, and that institutional changes require extensive planning.

But she said she also hopes administrators can demonstrate the seriousness of what’s at stake to the entire UT system by expediting processes where possible.

“Every day, a student’s going through an experience that they can’t take back, and that matters,” she said, noting that as a freshman, others made her feel almost ashamed to be Black.

To Havis, the implementation of the task force itself has been inefficient. Five of the students weren’t initially granted voting power, though they were asked to contribute and do extensive research. She said students also had to push for a mental health specialist to be present as they were continuously asked to share negative experiences.

“I feel like those things happened later on because… they understood how serious we were, that this is not going to go away,” she said. “Yes, we’re tired, yes we’re exhausted, but we need this so much that we’re still going to go through with your exhaustive measures. But just understand that it’s exhausting.”

Moving forward

UT-Dallas plans to create a website for community members to track task force progress and share their own ideas, though the launch has been delayed to focus on task force work. In the meantime, students said they are looking into potentially providing the student body updates through social media on their own.

Meanwhile, the Black Faculty and Staff Alliance, which has two representatives on the task force and met with students over the summer to provide support, anticipates continued collaboration with administration after the task force concludes.

“We believe communication will be the key to ensuring this momentum remains steady and presses forward to enact real change on campus,” current BFSA president B. Hobbs said.

The task force students said they have been encouraged by faculty and staff that have offered backing or reached out to say they have also been awaiting change at the university. But they are still wary of pinning too much hope on the task force to get things done, especially with recent delays.

“That really just fuels my fire to keep on going, and be proactive about seeing if there’s maybe another way that could get more of the stuff pushed,” junior and task force member Isaiah Francis said.

Francis is part of a small group for the Black Lives Matter movement that he said peer allies can join anonymously if they are concerned. He added that many other campus organizations do great work and hold events that celebrate and bring the community together.

Meanwhile, in the School of Arts and Humanities, faculty started a public teach-in series under the theme, “Living Legacies of White Supremacy at UTD and Beyond.” They credit student activists like those on the task force for inspiring the creation of these conversations.

But Ukachi-Nwata said he thinks more public support might be necessary to make changes. He points to incidents with the school’s spirit rocks, which are located on campus and open for any student to paint.

Chizuruoke Ukachi-Nwata, left, Jasmine Cook, Isaiah Francis, and Axum Taylor pose near the spirit rocks at the University of Texas Dallas in Richardson, TX, on Aug. 15, 2020. (Jason Janik/Special Contributor)
Chizuruoke Ukachi-Nwata, left, Jasmine Cook, Isaiah Francis, and Axum Taylor pose near the spirit rocks at the University of Texas Dallas in Richardson, TX, on Aug. 15, 2020. (Jason Janik/Special Contributor)(Jason Janik / Special Contributor)

This summer, messages in support of Black Lives Matter, and others with names of victims of police brutality were crossed out multiple times, twice replaced with the phrase “Back the Blue.”

It’s a sign that UT-Dallas “isn’t feeling us,” he said.

Still, regardless of how much longer the fight continues, or how many task force recommendations Benson ultimately accepts or rejects this fall, Ukachi-Nwata said he’s satisfied that students have made their presence known.

“UT-Dallas will never be able to hide from this and say that they never got the chance,” he said. “We called them out. They were aware, they recognized it. And at this point, the ball is really in their court.”


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