Higher Education Can Help Lead the Fight Against RacismThis article by UNT System Chancellor Lesa Roe was published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as an op-ed.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned as America stumbles across the midway point of this most challenging year, it’s that change is necessary. And when it comes to changing the narrative on racism in America, higher education and the diverse students on campuses across Texas can help create a new tomorrow.
Adaptability has enabled Texas universities to continue educating students during the coronavirus pandemic. We have responded with a resounding can-do effort that will improve educational delivery and campus safety for decades to come. Now, we must evolve in order to fight systemic racism, not only on college campuses, but also in our communities and across our country, as we help shape future leaders.
All of higher education can serve as a catalyst for change, starting here. Texas ranks No. 2 nationally in federally designated Minority Serving Institutions, or MSIs, trailing only California. More than half of our 45,000 students across the University of North Texas System identify as minorities, and two of our institutions – the University of North Texas and the University of North Texas at Dallas – are designated as MSIs.
The recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans have shocked our nation, as we are once again reminded that racism affects people of color every day. We are proud of our students, faculty and staff who have participated in peaceful Black Lives Matter protests and, despite the challenges of coronavirus, our universities are immersed in deep, meaningful and often emotional discussions about racism.
UNT Dallas, with a student body that is nearly 80 percent Black or Hispanic, hosted a virtual speaker series earlier this month to advance discussions on race, equity and diversity. Our students were engaged by leaders of color, including former Texas Education Agency and Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams – the first Black Texan to hold a statewide elected executive office.
“Are young people engaged socially and politically?” Williams asked. “Are you committed to changing the narrative about America and working toward its betterment?”
By and large, our students are answering “yes” and demanding change. At our flagship campus in Denton, minority student organizations presented President Neal Smatresk with a list of diversity issues to address. Smatresk, to his credit, is listening, learning and taking action.
Last week, UNT announced mandatory diversity training; pledged to develop strict guidelines for search processes; agreed to form a police advisory group on campus; and pledged to build a new multicultural center on campus.
In Fort Worth, UNT Health Science Center is also investing in diversity and has committed $1 million to fund a new team charged with redefining solutions for equity on its campus and in the community. Similar to its strong public health leadership in Fort Worth during the COVID-19 pandemic, HSC intends to approach racism in Tarrant County as a public health crisis.
Higher education must also engage with diverse leaders to help us better understand how racism impacts students of color and how we can be a catalyst for change. Ron Kirk, the first Black mayor of Dallas, visited with UNT System officials recently. He expressed his pain, along with reasons for optimism.
“There is no better laboratory for intellectual freedom than a college campus,” Kirk said.
Indeed, students across the state are motivated to make it clear that racism will not be tolerated. We stand with our students. Together, we can convince those who profess a commitment to social justice to go beyond that initial telephone call, email, statement or forum and truly become change agents who will create a future of justice, equity, inclusion and the confirmation of humanity.