January 15, 2021
Dear UT Community,
On March 8, 1962, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to our campus. The original plan was for him to stay at the Driskill Hotel, which was happy to have him. However, UT organizers worried he might be harassed during his stay and instead made a space for him in the Texas Union building, furnishing a room with a daybed and chair, linens and towels, pillows, blankets and soap—even some art work. The next day, Dr. King gave a speech to a crowd of 1,200 on campus, encouraging them to work for full integration at UT and to join the fight for civil rights across the nation.
One of the things he said that night sticks out to me. “I do believe there is a difference between saying something and doing something.” These words remain both wise and provocative as we strive to make UT a more diverse, welcoming and inclusive university. We need to act, not just discuss. And following the example of the Texas Union in ’62, we also need to “make room”—in our thoughts, hearts and values—for the life, legacy and hopes that Dr. King stood for. My hope for us all during this long weekend is that we can commit to both taking meaningful action and making room.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, MLK Day will look different this year. We cannot meet and march together. But we can still reflect and celebrate in solidarity. We can still explore the day’s meanings, examine the state of our nation, and decide how we move forward together. I was reminded of this yesterday when I attended the Black Faculty and Staff Association’s annual MLK Celebration Luncheon. My role was appropriately minor: to listen and learn. In doing so, I was reminded of how far we still have to climb as a nation. But I was also inspired to see how much talent and energy we have here on campus working for the cause of racial justice.
How will you “make room” during the coming days? Here are some ways you can get involved. First, the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement has partnered with the Office of the Dean of Students to present the 2021 MLK Day of Service, an initiative that connects the university community with safe volunteer opportunities that are in compliance with COVID-19 restrictions. You could also attend the LBJ School’s MLK Day Virtual Program, which focuses on UT Professor Peniel Joseph’s acclaimed book, “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” Joseph also hosts a podcast and he recently interviewed another UT academic, Don Carleton, director of the university’s Briscoe Center for American History, about his new book, “Struggle for Justice: Four Decades of Civil Rights Photography.” Carleton’s book focuses on UT’s photographic archives related to civil rights. Preserved at the Briscoe Center, hundreds of these images have been digitized and are available for viewing online, including many taken by Dr. King’s personal photographer, Flip Schulke. (UT’s statue of Dr. King on the East Mall is inspired by one of Schulke’s images.) In addition to safe volunteering with DDCE, or tuning in for the LBJ School’s program, why not browse through the Briscoe Center’s collections online to gain a sense of both the melody and the ambience of the civil rights movement?
On an institutional level, we’re making room too. In the wake of the senseless killing of George Floyd by Minnesota law enforcement officers in July, our campus joined the nation in a time of reckoning. After hearing concerns from many students, staff, faculty and alumni, I announced a series of actions aimed at creating a more diverse and inclusive community of students, faculty and staff. I also announced efforts to alter the symbolic landscape of campus. This included renaming the Robert L. Moore Building, commissioning a monument honoring The Precursors on the East Mall, and erecting a statue recognizing Julius Whittier, the Longhorns’ first Black football letterman.
In October, I provided an update that included news of the first $1 million in new funds to expand student recruitment, outreach and community engagement in underrepresented Texas communities, including Dallas, Houston and the Rio Grande Valley. I also announced that UT had received the Seal of Excelencia, presented to only five colleges and universities in 2020 for our commitment to Latino students. Finally, I commissioned a committee, chaired by Professor Rich Reddick, to chronicle the full history of our alma mater, “The Eyes of Texas,” so we can better acknowledge, share and learn from the song’s history. In November, we unveiled the finished statue of Whittier outside of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Next month, I’ll update campus again on these initiatives during the State of Black UT, a three-day event hosted by the Black Studies Collective. We’ll also have the chance to learn from and respond to the Eyes of Texas History Committee’s report when it is released toward the end of February. In the meantime, you can track our progress on the promises we’ve made through our diversity, equity and inclusion website.
We are making progress. In fall 2020, the university had record high Black and Hispanic undergraduate student enrollment. For the fall 2021 semester, we saw a record number of freshman applications, including record freshman application numbers from Black and Hispanic students. My point here is not to sound a note of triumph or self-satisfaction. As in ’62, the room UT is making for Dr. King is neither perfect, nor complete. Our plans remain dynamic and in flux, and we are adjusting as we learn what works well and contributes most to our community. We also have to be nimble because we are operating in real time in a world that is changing before our very eyes.
Nevertheless, we are making progress. Here on campus in ’62, Dr. King loudly proclaimed that “Old Man Segregation” was on his deathbed. “The only question,” said King, was how expensive our society was “going to make the funeral.” My fellow Longhorns, we live in tumultuous times—but ultimately, I believe that the commotion we see all around us is evidence of bad and hurtful things dying rather than thriving. And ultimately, I trust in our ability to act in solidarity and change the world.