College of Fine Arts appoints first Latino dean

Ramón H. Rivera-Servera was admitted into the UT College of Fine Arts in 1999 from a working-class Puerto Rican family, when the arts world was just beginning to open up to diverse perspectives. 

On July 1, more than two decades later, he will become the first Latino dean of the College of Fine Arts, where 51% of undergraduates were non-white as of fall 2019, according to data from the college.

“It’s a good coming-home,” Rivera-Servera said. “The kinds of things I hear from my colleagues and from students, and the kinds of things that they’re doing, I’m enamored of the possibilities.”

As a student, Rivera-Servera said he found a home in the Center for Mexican American Studies’ Graduate Portfolio Program, founded in 2002, where Latinx graduate students across disciplines met to discuss their emerging — and sometimes controversial — scholarship.

Rivera-Servera said a new cohort of Latinx scholars revolutionized academia in the 1990s

“We were at a moment where the disciplines were still learning what the hell to do with us,” Rivera-Servera said. “When you’re in a room talking about Shakespeare … it’s shorthand, because we have all grown up to identify that as the cannon of theatrical excellence. But when I say Luis Valdez and Teatro Campesino, an activist theater among farm workers in California, I have to do a lot of contextualizing.”

Some faculty members said they anticipate innovation to be part of Rivera-Servera’s work as a dean.

“He’s someone who is going to be a transformative leader, not just be someone who could adequately do the job, not just a good administrator,” said John Yancey, associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion in the College of Fine Arts and a search committee member.

Rivera-Servera said he had been considering another deanship offer from another major public university, but he chose the UT position instead.

“The idea of coming back to UT was really working on me,” Rivera-Servera said. “In January, I got the call, and my husband, who was a student at UT as well, was there, and we were just ecstatic. We were just so happy.”

KJ Sánchez, a theater and dance associate professor, said she wanted the college to become more unified under Rivera-Servera’s leadership.

“I’m excited about him being dean because he’s already shown that he has the skills, understanding and talent to look at the college as a holistic body, and I expect him to operate in the economy of generosity,” said Sánchez, a member of the College of Fine Arts Diversity Committee.

Rivera-Servera said he wants to invigorate interdisciplinary work at the college, especially because his scholarship has covered a variety of subjects, from theater and dance to fashion and the visual arts.

“I see myself as somebody that interweaves all of those knowledges,” Rivera-Servera said. “I’m really looking forward to being in a community that has been thinking really rigorously about their disciplines and helping them think about the arts more broadly.”

Some Latinx students at the college said they see his appointment as a sign of change.

“More often than not, it’s surprising to have a professor who is a minority,” said Mia Gomez-Reyes, a Latina theater and dance sophomore. “It’s exciting to have someone who understands my community innately, in a different way than someone who has only heard about it or read about it.”

Gomez-Reyes said seeing herself reflected in college leadership motivates her to continue her studies and fight impostor syndrome that she sometimes struggles with..

“It becomes less about ‘I don’t belong here,’” Gomez-Reyes said. “If a Latinx professor gets here, if the head of my department, or the dean gets here and works here, then I don’t understand how I can’t be here.”

Rivera-Servera said his appointment is a new beginning for the College of Fine Arts.

“I was a student at a time when not everybody was invited and not everybody was open to the kind of scholarship that I was advancing,” Rivera-Servera said. “Arts education at UT should look like the rest of the world looks. We should strive for real balance and equity in our work.”