Leadership Message in Response to UT Austin National Society of Black Engineers Demands

Dear NSBE Leadership,

Thank you for your message. This is important to say because we appreciate the emotional energy that it takes to say these things repeatedly and the exhaustion that comes from fighting institutions of oppression. We hear you. We agree with you. And we are ready to work together to see real and meaningful change in the Cockrell School. As members of the Texas Engineering community, we know we must do better to address the needs of Black students — and all underrepresented minorities — within our school and throughout the greater STEM community.

We also appreciate the thoughtful list of concerns and actionable items that you have presented. Though the primary purpose of this message is to start a dialog on these and other essential issues, we want to make it clear that this is a time to go beyond listening, and we are eager to move into real action with real and measurable impact.

Regarding your eight specific grievances and action items, we wanted to address them point by point to eliminate ambiguity and begin a collaborative process of implementing the best path forward. Following are our initial thoughts:

  1. One pledge that was made when we established the Cockrell School’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) plan is to develop and make public an annual UT Engineering Diversity Report. This is scheduled to be completed in August 2020 at the conclusion of the inaugural term of the Assistant Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. In the interim, we want to share this report, which was prepared and submitted in November 2019 in response to a call from the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) for their Diversity Recognition Program. The report was authored by several members of our school community, including administrators, faculty, staff, and students. As a result of the effort, the school was recognized with a Bronze designation by ASEE, which includes a challenge to deliver on concrete DEI goals and access to resources to help us with continuous improvement. To be clear, we do not view this Bronze designation as an award or a goal achieved; we view it as an acknowledgement that we, along with several of our peer engineering schools and colleges across the U.S., are on a path to improvement. We understand we have much more work to do.
  2. The creation of a Black Youth Day event is an excellent idea. Within the Cockrell School, we are fortunate to have expertise in organizing outreach events of this scale. In response to your suggestion, we propose that the Cockrell School create a planning team this summer that will commit to investigating, organizing and holding a Black Youth Day within the next calendar year. We would love NSBE to lead this effort, but we also recognize that the systemic racism that has led to the dramatic underrepresentation of Black students in engineering is not simply a problem to be solved by our Black students. We are committed to seeing this to fruition, whether as supporting cast from the wings or as the driving force. The first step here is to initiate the conversation on who should lead this effort. We look forward to working with you on this.
  3. We would be delighted to accept your invitations and attend NSBE meetings on a regular basis. Please let us know when they are held — all we would request is that you give us sufficient notice to make arrangements for our own families and other work obligations. In addition, we would like to suggest standing monthly meetings — with us and with other members of our equity-focused student groups — at which we can sustain the conversations around achieving these and other goals.
  4. We also universally agree on the need to hire a greater number of Black faculty, administrators and advisors in the Cockrell School. We have made intentional efforts to increase the number of faculty interviewees from traditionally underrepresented groups and to extend more offers. Compared with last year, during the 2019-20 academic year, we more than doubled the number of interviewees who were from underrepresented minority groups, while interviewing fewer people overall. We are also making changes to our application and interview processes to try to address the dramatic underrepresentation of Black faculty in the Cockrell School. This past year, we made diversity, equity, and inclusion an important explicit component of every application and interview, and we are continuously collecting new practices from other colleges at UT and other institutions in the U.S. to influence and adapt our processes. We wholeheartedly welcome more discussions on steps we can take to add Black talent to the Cockrell School community at all levels.
  5. The Cockrell School commits to providing support for NSBE students to attend NSBE conferences. We also are outraged by the reports we’ve heard of the treatment of our Black students at EXPO. This must change. Our Engineering Career Assistance Center (ECAC) has implemented reporting mechanisms so that students can now provide direct feedback to companies. ECAC will also communicate with participating EXPO companies the importance of sending diverse recruiters and making the recruiting space more welcoming. We would like your additional suggestions on how we, as an institution, can improve these experiences and outcomes for our Black students moving forward.
  6. We, too, are deeply troubled by the unbalanced impact that food and housing insecurities have on our Black students. We recognize that these difficulties only exacerbate what is already a challenging engineering degree. In 2018, the Cockrell School created an emergency fund for students in financial distress to assist them on an emergency basis, and we have just recently established another student emergency fund, which will be supported by gifts from alumni and others, to provide additional critical support for students in need. We recognize, however, that your request is for a much more significant scholarship fund. Though we are limited by federal laws in this area, we have worked hard to ensure that student need and socioeconomic status are considered as part of scholarship awards. We are open to exploring additional ways that we can support scholarships for Black students in need.
  7. We believe that dedicating a space in honor of a Black alumna/alumnus is an excellent idea and something that would have a positive impact for decades to come. We would like to understand, in more detail, your vision for this space in order to identify possible locations and determine a name and mechanism for sustaining this over time. We will designate a Cockrell School representative to work with you to accomplish this objective.
  8. Finally, we also believe in implementing an ally program and promoting anti-racism for all members of the Cockrell School community. In fact, we have been discussing and developing ways to promote this among faculty (including as part of new faculty orientation), staff, and as part of the curriculum. We agree with you that such efforts must go beyond unconscious bias training to get at the roots of systemic racism (as well as other forms of systemic oppression). We hope that the development of new and high-impact workshops, trainings, and other efforts can be at the heart of our continued conversations. We are prepared to take action on this.

We are ready to meet with you whenever you and other students are ready, and we’re open to doing that through a town hall, or a meeting with student leaders, or in whatever format you feel would be most productive. We would like for that to be your meeting, as we recognize the importance that we come to your table rather than simply inviting you to ours. That said, we are more than happy to provide the administrative and technical support for a meeting (e.g., setting up zoom, sending announcements, etc.) if you would like. If that means having a one-on-one conversation between you and one of us to get that set up, we’re ready to do that immediately.

In closing, we know that you’ve shared your message widely and have received many signatures in support of these demands. We support and encourage you in this effort. We were unsure of your distribution lists or how you would like to share our response, so please feel free to share this message with anyone you’d like. We will also be posting it publicly on our channels and sharing it with our school community.

Once again, thank you for your thoughtful letter. We are absolutely ready and eager to work together to find the best path forward.

Sincerely,

Sharon L. Wood
Dean
Cockrell School of Engineering

Christine Julien
Assistant Dean, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Cockrell School of Engineering

Michele Meyer
Assistant Dean, Engineering Student Services
Title IX Liaison
Cockrell School of Engineering

View the UT Austin National Society of Black Engineers list of eight demands.