Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

The Tough Sell

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

The Tough Sell

Article excerpt

The Tough Sell: With the appointment of its first African American vice president, the University of Texas tries to overcome its legacy of minority exclusion

When James ill graduated salutatorian from a segregated Austin high school in 1945, attending the University of Texas (UT) was not an option. Back then, the university didn't admit Black students.

The irony that he became the university's first African American vice president earlier this year is not lost on Dr. Hill. And the appointment comes at a time when a court-imposed ban on affirmative action programs in that state has sent the enrollment of African Americans and Chicanos/Latinos plummeting.

"To not [have been] able to get admitted here [as an undergraduate], but to now be an officer is quite an accomplishment for me," says Hill, a lifelong jazz fan whose new office displays paintings of John Coltrane and Louis Armstrong on its walls. The vice president's chatty, grand-fatherly manner attracts smiles from colleagues as well as strangers.

Top UT officials insist Hill's appointment wasn't tokenism.

They say the forty-five-year veteran educator, who most recently was an associate vice president at the university, was simply the best qualified for the job.

"I would have recommended him if he had been White," says Dr. Edwin R. Sharpe, vice chancellor for academic affairs of the UT System.

"It isn't tokenism at all. That's the furthest thing from the truth."

Sharpe and others acknowledge that skeptics may dwell on the fact that 115 years passed at UT before an African American was named vice president. However, they say that minorities can have successful careers at predominantly White schools such as UT. And they say they hope Hill's promotion helps reverse some of the image problems UT has had since the 1996 Hopwood court ruling against affirmative action.

"The university is committed to serving all people of Texas, of all ethnicities," Sharpe says. "All voices should be at the table. It is entirely appropriate to have a ranking vice president who is African American."

The seventy-year-old Hill, who has been married for forty-eight years and has a grown daughter, said he has not retired yet because he wants to "make things better here; to show the world that the door is open here -- especially for minority students and employees.

"I can make a contribution. I can show people that the environment here is not one of Lino Graglia," he says, referring to the controversial UT law professor who sparked protests a year ago when he said that minorities cannot compete academically with Whites.

Hill, who earned master's and doctorate degrees from UT after it desegregated, is one of President Larry Faulkner's eight vice presidents. Each of these administrators oversee budgets ranging from less than $1 million to more than $200 million.

As vice president for human resources and community relations, Hill oversees a $14 million budget and more than 170 employees in eight divisions. His areas of oversight include personnel, UT initiatives at public schools, and the university's equal employment opportunity and affirmative action office.

The Early Years

Hill's new role is a stark contrast to where he started in his relationship with the university more than fifty years ago.

A native of Austin, Hill is the second-youngest of his parent's five offspring. His mother was a homemaker whose primary responsibility was rearing the children, while his father worked in a railyard and swept streets.

Although neither of his parents were educated beyond grade school, Hill recalls, "It was always assumed we kids would go to college."

After graduating second in his high school class of thirty-four students, Hill attended the historically Black Huston-Tillotson College two blocks from his east Austin home. His older siblings had attended there, and the band director recruited him to play trombone. …

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