A Legacy of Diversity: Reflections on UT’s first multicultural center
In the mid-1980s, student activism reached new heights on the Forty Acres. Students held sit-ins, protested on the mall and demanded UT Austin to withdraw investment and support for the South African economy.
The student-led anti-apartheid struggle spurred increased awareness of racial fissures on campus. Most appalling to Michael L. Davis (B.B.A, Finance, ’88) and many of his peers were the
low graduation rates for students of color. At the time, only 35 percent of Blacks and 45 percent of Hispanics graduated in five years or less. Many didn’t graduate at all.
“There was a general feeling of distrust and isola- tion that many students of color felt at the time, and we believed this experience was leading to re- duced graduation rates among them,” Davis says.
During this challenging period in UT history, Davis founded the Minority Information Center, the campus’ first multicultural center that provided a range of services to help close the graduation gap. Given the students’ widespread distrust of UT administration, he knew it had to be student-led to get the buy-in from his fellow Longhorns.
“With the center, we wanted to create a safe space, a sanctuary, where students of color could come, relax, connect and engage,” says Davis, who went on to graduate school at Harvard University. “We wanted to centralize academic, social and financial support resources available from the university and deliver them to our communities of color in an environment that felt like home.”
Since its early beginnings in 1988, the center—now called the Multicultural Engagement Center—has built strong relationships with ad- ministrators and student groups. Now it operates as a major hub for all students, faculty and staff and community members who are interested in learning about and promoting diversity on campus and beyond.
“The Center has far exceeded anything I could have ever imagined,” says Davis, who served as deputy assistant secretary of labor during President Obama’s first term and is now a member of the Global Institutional Services management team at T. Rowe Price. “The fact that it still exists after more than 25 years, has evolved to meet the needs of a broader community, and most im- portantly has helped so many students navigate and succeed at the university makes me smile.”
In 2014, Davis was honored with the Heman Marion Sweatt Student Legacy Award at the Evening of Honors ceremony. After accepting his award, he was overwhelmed with pride when several students were asked to stand up and be recognized for their involvement in the MEC.
“I marveled at the diverse and accomplished palette illustrated by those students and it was hard not to be emotional about having been a small part of something that had helped them so much,” he says.