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Farewell, President Powers

President Bill Powers

William C. Powers wasn’t destined to be a national leader in higher education on issues of race and diversity. Born in 1946 and raised in Los Angeles in a middle-class family, he remembers himself as a typical product of the liberal consensus of the post-war era, when a broad philosophical commitment to racial equality often coexisted with a blindness about how racism and discrimination played out closer to home.

“I remember in junior high and high school being appalled by segregation in the South,” he remembers. “At the same time, though, racial epithets were a commonplace. De facto segregation was unnoticed and unquestioned. And I didn’t notice that complexity.”

It wasn’t until well into Powers’ time at The University of Texas Law School, when he was asked to be part of the admissions committee, that issues of race and diversity entered his life in a meaningful way. The school was so lacking in diversity that it was deterring students of color from applying, and it was getting in the way of efforts to position the law school as a top-tier institution.

The politics became unavoidable after 1992, when Cheryl J. Hopwood filed a federal lawsuit against the university alleging that the law school’s admissions process, which did take race into account in its decisions, had unconstitutionally denied her admission in favor of a number of Black and Hispanic students.

The case, Hopwood v. Texas, was eventually decided in favor of Hopwood, and would lead to a shift in the admissions policy and a significant drop in the numbers of black and Hispanic students at the law school

When Powers became dean at the law school in 2000, his emphasis on diversity led to the quadrupling of the number of African American students and doubling of the number of Hispanic students.

“It was retail 101,” he says. “We really recruited. I had every student of color to my house. We set up programs in the Valley. We focused on orientation, and on making sure that it was student-friendly. Our goal was to change the perception one student at a time if necessary.”

The Commitment Takes Form

In 2006, not long after taking office as the 28th president of UT Austin, Powers promoted Dr. Gregory Vincent to the position of vice president for diversity and community engagement.

The promotion was significant in that Vincent would report to the president directly and have a full portfolio, uncommon for chief diversity officers at the time. More importantly, the promotion signaled a recognition from Powers that there was no simple way to reckon with the university’s complicated relationship to race and diversity.

In 1997, in response to the Hopwood decision, the state had passed HB 588, which stipulated that all students who graduated in the top ten percent of their high school classes in Texas were guaranteed admission to all state universities.

This was followed, in 2003, by the US Supreme Court decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which reaffirmed that university admissions were allowed to take race into consideration as one element in a holistic decision-making process. Any kind of quotas, however, were prohibited.

What these two decisions meant, in practice, was that UT Austin was likely to have a baseline level of racial diversity in its undergraduate population.

If the university wanted more diversity than that baseline, however, it didn’t have a lot of room to maneuver.

So the task, particularly with respect to African-American students, was to make the university seem as welcoming a place as possible, and therefore persuade more students of color to apply and matriculate. It was also to recognize that making the campus a more inclusive place was a necessary end in itself, apart from whatever effect it had on the demographics of its undergraduate population.

It was with these goals in mind that in 2007 the DDCE was established, with Vincent at its helm. In addition to the programs that Vincent had already had in his portfolio as vice provost, the new division included programs and initiatives from the community relations portfolio, from academic affairs, and from the provost’s office.

“The new alignment made sense on a number of levels,” says Vincent. “Adminstratively, it brought together a lot of people who were working toward the same goals from different angles. Conceptually, it was a recognition that you can’t really do diversity without engagement, and that a great deal of the ‘engagement’ we were already doing was with underserved communities. And morally and financially it was a declaration that diversity wasn’t going to be a boutique concern at the university. It was going to be there in everything we did, not just on campus but throughout the state.”

The University of Texas and its VP for institutional diversity are among the most visible in the country. The unique scale and scope of this particular division is broadly recognized across the country as one of the largest and most influential in higher education.

Juan Sánchez Muñoz, Senior Vice President for Institutional Diversity, Equity & Community Engagement, Texas Tech University

The goals of the division were manifold. It was involved in efforts to recruit and retain students and faculty of color. It assisted in the creation of the new Department of African and African Diaspora Studies, one of the largest of its kind in the nation, and the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies. It continued and deepened the conversation about the university’s fraught history with race and racism. It reached out to alumni of color to make sure that their voices and stories were integrated into the larger story of the university. And it did the kind of retail work that Powers had done at the law school, but on a much larger scale, persuading people and communities across the state that the university valued diversity.

By the end of Powers’ tenure as president, the DDCE had grown to encompass more than 50 units across campus, including groups—like the University Interscholastic League, the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, and the UT Charter School System—that reached into lives and homes throughout the state. 

Going to East Austin

Of particular significance, on this last front, was the work that Powers and Vincent did improving relations with the historically African-American community in East Austin.

When Powers took over as president, and installed Vincent as a vice president, one of the first charges he gave him was to put the university at the service of the East Austin neighborhood, and to look for opportunities for collaboration and engagement.

The campaign included, the creation of the Community Engagement Center, which acts as a home base for a variety of East Austin-focus projects; support for East Austin-based community nonprofits); and the creation of a series of civic awards to honor leaders in Austin’s African American, Hispanic and Asian American communities.

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.

-Shirley Thompson, Associate Professor, Department of African and African Diaspora Studies

Powers cites as an example of the improved relationship the recently announced plan to build graduate student housing, tennis courts, and a parking garage east of I-35. The plan was formed in cooperation with East Austin residents, and even earned a seal of approval from the president of the Blackland Community Development Corporation, which evolved out of the activist group that fought UT to a standstill in the 1980s.

“It’s been an astonishing turnaround,” says Powers.

Fisher v. Texas

Of all the diversity efforts that Powers vigorously led as president, the one that he’ll be most remembered for, ironically, is one that he didn’t choose.

In 2008, Abigail Fisher, a senior at Stephen F. Austin High School in Sugar Land, Texas, applied for admission to The University of Texas at Austin and was rejected.

Fisher, along with another white student who was rejected from that year’s class, filed suit against the university. She alleged that as a result of the university’s race conscious admissions policies, she was denied admission in favor of less qualified black and Hispanic students.

“It never dawned on any of us not to fight,” says Powers. “We never sat around and asked what we should do on Fisher. We got sued. We defended.”

Universities throughout the nation watched with gratitude as UT mounted a vigorous defense of affirmative action in the Fisher case.

-Gibor Basri, Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion, University of California at Berkeley

At each stage of the suit, university leadership did more than just file the legal documents and strategize about how to present the best case. Powers stepped forward as the most visible national defender of the importance of diversity in higher education.

“I think there were a lot of people around the country who thought, ‘Those Texans will throw in the towel,’” he says. “It was very important that the national academic community saw us fighting hard.”

In 2013 the Supreme Court chose to punt on the decision, remanding the case back to the circuit court that had already found for the university. In 2014 the circuit court once again ruled for the university, and in February of 2015 Abigail Fisher once again appealed to the Supreme Court, leaving open the possibility that the university may ultimately lose its battle.

Even if it does, however, Powers’ leadership in the fight will remain an important part of his legacy.

The Power of Symbols and the Symbol of Powers

 In 2013, Powers was elected chair of the Association of American Universities, an elite group of research-intensive public and private universities. It was as clear a signal as possible that Powers was recognized, by his peers, as a national leader in higher education.

It was also evidence that Powers had become a symbol himself. Primarily as a result of his long battle with Texas Governor Rick Perry and his allies over the future of higher education in Texas, but also due in no small part to his involvement in the Fisher case, Powers had become a symbol among his peers of a certain vision of what higher education in the United States should look like, and of the willingness to fight for that vision against competing visions.

On campus, as well, he has become a symbol, of the possibility of forging a 21st century university that is both true to the best in its traditions and committed to reckoning with the worst of its history. Through his leadership, students, faculty, staff and the community have seen that it’s possible to have a modern university with a soul.

Photo by Brian Birzer