Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Resilience, Reconciliation, and Redemption: An Initial Historical Sketch of Pioneering Black Students in the Plan II Honors Program

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Resilience, Reconciliation, and Redemption: An Initial Historical Sketch of Pioneering Black Students in the Plan II Honors Program

Article excerpt

From the inception of the integration of predominantly White institutions in higher education marked by Sweatt v. Painter in 1950, The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) has been a battleground for educational equity. The university continues to find itself at ground zero in the battle for race and equity in higher education and embroiled in the debate over affirmative action, first in Hopwood v. Texas (1996) and then in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (2013; 2016). For these reasons, UT Austin serves as a bellwether institution for public, predominantly White institutions (PWIs) when it comes to integration. The legal challenges, coupled with evidence of a challenging campus climate for students of color, reflect the kind of hostility recently reported at Michigan, UCLA, and other public flagship institutions such as Texas A&M, where a group of visiting students from Dallas's Uplift Hampton Preparatory School were racially harassed and taunted by a group of White men and women who told them to "go home" (Heinz). As UT Austin continues to confront challenges in recruiting Black students and maintaining a supportive campus climate for students of color (Jaramillo & Cannizzo), it is important to consider the ways in which the institution has and has not changed in the past sixty years. In addition, it is worth noting that although Black undergraduates began attending UT Austin in 1956 (albeit in small numbers), Black students did not graduate from the prestigious Plan II Honors Program until twenty years later.

High-achieving Black students in higher education settings have been the focus of many research studies, which have noted that their success is contingent on a number of factors such as faculty engagement, mentoring, and a sense of community (Bonner; Fries-Britt, "Identifying"; Griffin). This study documents the experiences of the first Black graduates of the prestigious Plan II honors degree program who attended UT Austin in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While participants lauded the rigor, breadth, and small size of the honors program, they also experienced many of the same struggles as present-day Black students, including tokenism, racism, pressure to prove their worth, and a desire for kinship. These findings can help to improve honors programs by illuminating the unique challenges experienced by Black honors students of the past and making connections to higher education today.

STUDY BACKGROUND

The Plan II Honors Program was founded in 1935 by H. T. Parlin, Professor of English and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (Click). Since then, the program has become one of the university's and the nation's premier honors programs (Sullivan; Willingham). Plan II alumni are among the most heralded graduates of UT Austin, with the list of prominent Plan II alumni including former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Dr. Betty Sue Flowers, Kinky Friedman, and Austin Ligon (founder of CarMax) (McAndrew). While these alumni are worthy of recognition, they are all White. Black Plan II alumni of note include filmmaker Shola Lynch and former Texas State Representative Ron Wilson (Plan II Honors), but Black students are under-represented in the Plan II student body. Two factors that account for the underrepresentation are a separate Plan II application, in addition to the one required of all UT Austin students, and the fact that high-achieving students of color who apply to elite institutions often receive multiple competitive scholarship offers. These factors contribute to UT Austin's loss of prospective Black students to other universities, especially elite private institutions.

This moment in U.S. history is an opportune time to examine the involvement and experiences of Black students at UT Austin, both in Plan II Honors and beyond. In 2010, the documentary film When I Rise was released, reflecting on the life of opera superstar Barbara Smith Conrad, who was in the first class of Black undergraduate students to enter UT Austin in 1956 (Hames). …

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