Founder Michael L. Davis Began MEC as Bridge for Students by Leslie Blair
For 25 years, the Multicultural Engagement Center (MEC) has been a home-away-from-home for diverse student populations. More importantly, the MEC has helped generations of students gain leadership experience and foster change on their campus, a tradition that started with the center’s founder, Michael L. Davis (’89).
The MEC got its start in 1988 as the Minority Information Center (MIC). It was born from a “spirited political environment” on campus stemming from activism around the university’s investments in South Africa according to Davis. He recalls that this activism exposed racial fissures on campus, but most appalling to him and others were the low graduation rates for students of color. At the time, only 35% of Black students graduated in five years or less and 45% of Hispanic students did so. Many Black and Hispanic students ultimately left the university without graduating.
“As we looked at the conditions that drove that trend, we found feelings of isolation,” said Davis. “Students of color often came from small school environments or from a tight familial network to this very large university. It was easy for them to feel lost. We realized students needed a bridge.”
Davis, who recently served as deputy assistant secretary of labor during President Obama’s first term and is now the head of institutional client relationships for Calvert Investments, was a finance major active in Student Government and in the Black Student Alliance. The idea for a Minority Information Center was one he championed, and he spearheaded the effort to get a center started that would centralize academic, social and financial information for African American and Hispanic students.
At the time, there was a significant level of distrust students had of the university and of institutions overall, sentiments that were even more pronounced in communities of color.
“We needed something student led,” said Davis. “Students were more likely to trust other students.”
Davis and other students heavily involved in the establishment of the MIC—April Cheatham Sands and Michelle Howard Diggs—received a great deal of support from the university administration. “It was a unique time,” said Davis. “The anti-apartheid movement was strong on campus. The Steven Biko committee, a student organization dedicated to the elimination of apartheid, would build these shanty huts on the west mall to display the conditions that black South Africans endured; other students would repeatedly knock the shanties down or run them over them with utility vehicles. There were large student marches. The university was looking for a way to build a bridge with students.”
Davis noted that former Dean of Students Dr. Sharon Justice, along with Assistant Dean Rosa Hunt and Brenda Burt who worked in the Dean of Students office, were all very supportive and essential to the establishment of the center. Student Government played a role in the MIC as well, providing funding for the effort.
The opening of the MIC in the basement of the University Teaching Center stands out in Davis’s mind. Then-president Bill Cunningham came for the opening of the center as well as local media.
The Daily Texan reported the location of the center as a negative. However, Davis thought it was positive because it wasn’t near the administration’s offices. “The out-of-the-way location became a respite,” he remembered. “Students started to trickle in at first, but that soon became a flood as we built relationships with African American and Hispanic student organizations. Providing computer access to these organizations was actually a big deal then since computers weren’t widely available at the time. Even though there was some suspicion by the organizations that the computers were being monitored by the administration, we were able to convince them to come.”
The leaders of the MIC also convinced the administration to fund Hispanic and African American art for the space. “We wanted to send a message that the center was for all Hispanic and African American students,” said Davis.
Building relationships with the student groups was sometimes a delicate matter. Some student groups were more strident than others and Davis and other leaders in the MIC had to build trust among all. Davis also said they began training the students who staffed the MIC. “We all became very educated about the resources that the university had available for students, from scholarships to tutoring.”
They also began building relationships with the Texas Ex Students Association not only for the organization’s resources but for access to the network and support they afforded to current students. “The MIC provided an avenue for communication with communities of color that the university was struggling with given the politics of the time.”
And how did the founding of the MIC affect Davis’s education and career? “The MIC experience convinced me that I could do something significant in business,” said Davis, who went on to graduate school at Harvard. “In essence, it was a start-up venture that helped people and that’s how I viewed it. How do you organize, find great leaders to take it to another level, secure funding and market it? All of those are business elements,” he explained.
“That the MIC has lasted so long and continues to evolve is humbling and I am thrilled that it continues to provide a platform for student leadership,” said Davis. “A lot of the principals I’ve used in my career hearken back to the MIC and the opportunity to learn from that experience. It was an exciting time and I will always treasure it,” he said.