The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Alabama are two very different campuses. The football teams have had varying degrees of success in recent years, both schools have distinct takes on the Southern aesthetic and a raincoat might actually be worth buying in Tuscaloosa. However, it’s become clear that there is a more meaningful gulf between the two schools in how their respective administrations approach diversity.
Every historic Southern state university has to deal with the vestiges of discrimination on its campus. As a student at Texas and a former student at Alabama, I’ve had an opportunity to see how each institution approaches what can be a delicate issue.
In the past two weeks, coverage by UA’s student newspaper, the Crimson White (for which I wrote during my time at Alabama), revealed that multiple sororities at the University of Alabama had declined to bid a particularly qualified applicant because she was black.
According to an article in the Guardian, people familiar with the university’s historic Greek system, including UA alum and Alabama governor Robert Bentley, have suggested that the outsize influence of Greek alumni has led to the sustained segregation.
For years, senior administrators like President pro tempore of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees Paul Bryant, Jr.; UA president Judy Bonner; and before her president Robert Witt, who is now Chancellor of the University of Alabama system, have shrugged off the responsibility to instigate change, despite the fact that, according to the Crimson White, other Southern schools with comparable Greek systems like Auburn and Ole Miss have made meaningful strides toward an integrated campus community.
Although Bonner worked with sororities to initiate a new round of rush that culminated in multiple African-American girls receiving bids, there is no denying that there’s a serious problem with racism on a school’s campus when it takes days of negative national media attention to force the school’s administration to address decades-old blatant, institutional discrimination.
The severely delayed actions of the UA administration stand in stark contrast to those of the University of Texas in the Fisher v. Texas Supreme Court case. In the publicity surrounding the case, President William Powers Jr. and his administration received significant attention for the racial component of the holistic evaluation used in UT’s admissions process.
Although the use of racial background in admissions decisions is a concept with its own merits and problems, the University’s strong defense of it demonstrates its clear commitment to diversity. UT spent years and, according to Inside Higher Ed, almost $1 million dollars defending its diversity policy in front of the Supreme Court, whereas Alabama felt it was enough to simply pay lip service to the concept in press releases that shrug off real responsibility to lead institutional change.
At Alabama the segregation of the Greek system, barring a few newer organizations, was an open secret. Although I can only speculate as to the reason why segregation and deep class divisions at Alabama are so persistent, the administration there has shown itself to be unwilling to address the problems from which these issues stem.
While the University of Texas deals with its own challenges in regard to race, defending its admissions policy in Fisher and, according to CNN, renaming a residence hall previously named after a Klansman show a good-faith effort on the part of the president and the regents to remove obvious legacies of discrimination from campus. Although the University can’t promote diversity in every aspect of campus life, it can strive to create an environment in which racial divides are not openly tolerated.
The past several months have shown stark differences in how administrations can confront these issues.
Alabama’s administration chose to ignore racial problems until BuzzFeed and The New York Times reported on it. UT’s administration chooses to confront them head-on, even at steep financial cost.
So even though these universities may be facing difficulties, be they in the performance of the football team or the prejudices held on campus, it is important that the administration lead its students in achieving all the glittering generalities laid out in the admissions brochures.
Matula is a finance junior from Austin.