University of Texas football players kneel in silence for nine minutes at the end of a team march to the Capitol on on June 4 to protest the killing of George Floyd. [JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Editorial: Kudos to UT for meeting athletes’ demands; school should have done more to honor Heman Sweatt

Posted July 15th, 2020

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To their credit, Longhorn football players and other student-athletes seized on our national reckoning over race to demand better of the University of Texas. To its credit, UT quickly agreed it must do better — and this week offered a thoughtful package of reforms to make the university more welcoming to people of color.

We applaud the breadth and intention of the efforts announced by Interim UT President Jay Hartzell. Now Texans will be watching to see what materializes.

The package includes important symbolic changes, including renaming UT’s football field after Heisman Trophy winners Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams, establishing a monument on the East Mall honoring UT’s first Black undergraduates, and removing the name of segregationist professor Robert Lee Moore from a math and physics building.

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Heman Sweatt, center, stands in line while a student at Texas. The school will erect a statue and build an exhibit to honor Sweatt, UT’s first Black student. [University of Texas archives]
We wish UT would have gone a step further: The university should have renamed a science building after Heman M. Sweatt, the first African-American admitted to UT’s law school. Instead, T.S Painter Hall is keeping the name of the university president who denied admission to Sweatt until the U.S. Supreme Court intervened in 1950. UT told us it is keeping the Painter name while hoping to foster a teachable moment, and pointed to the exhibit and statue that will be added honoring Sweatt. In our view, the exhibit provides the teachable moment. The building’s name should be a reflection of UT’s values.

UT has also pledged a multimillion-dollar effort to recruit, retain and support Black students. Such an effort could be transformative. But it must not remain aspirational. UT must lay out specific benchmarks to measure its progress in serving students of color.

African Americans make up 13% of Texans but just 5% of the student body at UT, a number that has budged very little over the past two decades, despite other recruitment efforts. Efforts to hire and promote a more diverse faculty must be part of the equation. We noted the same thing last fall with respect to UT’s dearth of Latino faculty. Studies have found that minority students often perform better — earning higher grades and being less likely to drop out — when they have minority teachers who are supportive role models.

Much of the public attention lately has centered around “The Eyes of Texas,” a school song with problematic roots in century-old minstrel shows featuring performers in blackface. We also recognize the song is beloved by many who were unaware of its history. As UT has decided for now to keep the song, we hope the university will work to reframe it as an anthem of solidarity that all Longhorns can embrace.

UT has offered a slate of encouraging changes. Now it’s time for UT to do the work and cultivate a more successful space for Black students at Texas’ flagship university.

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