President Powers: UT has historically been on the “wrong side” of civil rights argument

Madlin Mekelburg

UT President William Powers Jr. said although the University has made great strides in advancing civil rights, historically, UT has been on the “wrong side” of the argument.

“The University of Texas has had a special role in the history of civil rights — first, of course, on the wrong side of those issues as a segregated school and in Sweatt v. Painter, on the wrong side of that case,” Powers said in an address at the Civil Rights Summit on Wednesday. 

Powers said today, UT continues to emphasize diversity and equality, despite its history.

“We’re thrilled to host this summit because diversity and civil rights embody our campus values — a campus where students learn in a diverse atmosphere, learning how to work and live in a diverse world,” Powers said. “One of LBJ’s greatest legacies was civil rights and diversity, and we honor that not just this week, but on our campus every day.”

Powers touched on the ongoing Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas, which deals with UT’s affirmative action admissions policy and the role of race in the admissions process. Powers said he strongly believes universities should be able to follow race-conscious admissions policies.

“We take ethnicity into account as one of many factors in a holistic review of the students who are not automatically admitted under the top 10, now seven, percent rule,” Powers said. “Not being able to do that would be a real setback to diversity, not just on our campus, but on campuses across the country.”

Powers said the summit allows UT students to hear a firsthand account of history.

“There is a difference between reading about something in the history books and listening, yesterday, to President Carter talking about his growing up in a very segregated South,” Powers said. “Part of moving civil rights forward is having the next generation of leaders understand where we all have come from.”

Rhetoric and writing sophomore Maria Reza participated Wednesday in a protest in support of immigrants who have been deported and their families. Reza said she believes the University could do more to support student immigrants.  

“Last semester, we had to fight a lot for a simple resolution from Student Government about undocumented students,” Reza said. “You can argue that the University does a lot for diversity, but you still have to fight a lot to actually see it.” 

Powers also briefly addressed the controversy surrounding UT System Regent Wallace Hall, who is under investigation by the House Committee on Transparency in State  Agency Operations for potentially overstepping his role as a regent, including targeting Powers. A report of the investigation, written by Rusty Hardin, special counsel to the committee, suggests Hall likely committed impeachable offenses. Powers said he has not read the entirety of the report and declined to comment on its content.

“I think I’ll leave it to [the committee] on how to evaluate the report,” Powers said. “This has been a difficult time, and it has diverted the campus from a lot of important work.”