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Texas A&M unveils eight-part action plan to improve diversity on campus
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Texas A&M unveils eight-part action plan to improve diversity on campus

Commission's report doesn't directly address future of Sul Ross statue

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The Texas A&M University System Board of Regents agreed Monday to implement eight action items in an effort to address racial issues at Texas A&M University.

The move is in response to a report released by the 45-member Commission on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, made up of current and former students, faculty and staff. The commission’s report, which was completed in November, was released Monday after the regents agreed to the action items, which come with budget of $24.75 million.

Actions include increasing the number of scholarship recipients and fellowship participants for certain programs, recognizing more “outstanding Aggies leading by example,” establishing a task force to tell the story of A&M’s history through displays and iconography, and documenting and communicating success stories of former students of color. There is also $1.5 million set aside to expand the student pipeline in fall 2021 and fall 2022, in part by “significantly” increasing the number of students from underrepresented groups by 2026.

Before approving the actions, regents heard from commission co-chairs John E. Hurtado and Jimmy Williams about the report, which presents findings but not recommendations, aside from asking that university leaders let the report “be only the beginning” of steps toward diversity, equity and inclusion for all Aggies. The Lawrence Sullivan Ross statue and A&M demographics, which showed that the university does not represent the state’s population, were major topics covered in the report. 

Community feedback in the report showed that there was significant interest in the statue being moved from Academic Plaza. Additionally, the report says donation-collection groups do not anticipate a long-term drop in funding as a result of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, including issues related to the Ross statue.

Interim A&M President John L. Junkins told the regents there is room for improvement, especially in terms of increasing the number of Black students and faculty members. He acknowledged that the eight action items he presented to them do not address all concerns raised in the report, but said others will continue looking at areas that have not been addressed.

“I decided early on that I couldn’t do everything that — all the issues that were raised in this report — but I looked for the tall poles and the tent, the things that required investment and the things that would make the most difference that we could get started on this spring,” he said.  

Commission co-chair Hurtado is an aerospace engineering professor and deputy director and chief technology officer of the Bush Combat Development Complex at RELLIS, and Williams is executive director and distinguished service professor of the Engineering and Technology Innovation Management program at Carnegie Mellon University, and also an A&M graduate.

The commission was formed this summer following protests on A&M’s campus regarding the Sul Ross statue. Former university president Michael K. Young asked the members to look into racial intolerance and historical representations such as statues, policies and practices. 

Ross was a Confederate general and former president of Texas A&M.

The report’s conclusion speaks specifically to symbols, naming and iconography, saying that “Leaders of our institution must decide how we want to be perceived, both now and in the future,” pointing out that messaging on this issue “speaks loudly to students, faculty and staff from marginalized communities.” 

“When Texas A&M rejected segregation and allowed Black and/or African American men and then women to enroll, each decision was controversial and divisive,” the document reads. “Any poll of current and former students at those times would likely look much like the current surveys that have been conducted over the statue. The decisions made by our leaders in those times reflected that the institution was moving and growing in a new direction.”

Donation-collecting groups including the Texas A&M Foundation, The Association of Former Students and the 12th Man Foundation all said in the report that dissent about diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, including issues related to the Sul Ross statue, is from “a small number of people who are spreading rumors and tend to be overly vocal about their opinions.” 

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Two of the three organizations said the changes to the university’s diversity efforts and the Ross statue could cause a drop in funding for about three years, but long-term funding “will not be greatly changed if the university stays true to its values.”

The 45 commission members were split into four subcommittees: community engagement, data and policies, values and mission, and campus culture and climate.

More than 350 people participated in five listening sessions, and more than 100 one-on-one interviews were conducted by the members of the community engagement subcommittee. Input also came through emails, an online form, letters and phone calls. 

The report says the second-most mentioned theme during the listening sessions was the desire to move the Ross statue. 

“These stakeholders generally believed that this statue now was a physical symbol of disrespect,” the report states. 

The most mentioned theme was a hope to improve diversity, equity and inclusion. The sixth most-mentioned was the desire to maintain the statue as it is, with many saying they want to honor tradition and commemorate Ross.  

“It should be mentioned that many who advocated to keep the statue acknowledged racism on campus and expressed the need for DEI improvements, but did not feel removing the statue would achieve this objective,” the report states. “About one quarter of the participants expressed a desire to make no changes to the Ross statue, while the remaining three quarters advocated moving or eliminating the statue.”

The report’s summary of the listening sessions notes that most older participants wanted to leave the statue alone while younger generations asked for the relocation or removal of the monument. But there were exceptions, and the document includes a statement from a former student who said that “If [current] students want it gone, it’s not up to old Ags, and I am an old Ag speaking.”

The report and the regents meeting sparked several conversations on Twitter. Student Body President Eric Mendoza said he is encouraged by the outlined actions. A&M student activist Qynetta Caston said Black student voices were ignored by the commission.

Demographic data makes up a significant amount of the 113-page report. In the executive summary, it is noted that A&M appears average when student demographics are compared to 59 similar land-grant universities. 

But the report says A&M lags far behind peer institutions like the University of Texas at Austin, University of Florida, University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles in six-year graduation rates of Black and African American undergraduate students. 

Additionally, it says A&M enrolls a larger percentage of non-marginalized students than Texas’ population, to the point that “the university is the second highest in this regard.” A&M enrolls a smaller percentage of Black and African American and Hispanic and Latinx undergraduate students than Texas’ population “to the point that it is one of the worst performing schools in this regard.” 

A statement released by the Board of Regents on Monday delves into the eight action items. It does not mention the Sul Ross statue. 

“Based on what we have learned from the Commission’s report, we believe we cannot achieve unity of pride and purpose for all Aggies unless we strive to ensure no Aggie is disrespected, mistreated, or excluded,” the statement reads. “If there are students, faculty, staff and former students who believe we fail to include them in the Aggie family, we are not yet what we aspire to be.”

Similarly, Junkins’ statement does not mention the statue, but details the action plan and who will be in charge of various tasks moving forward. 

“The overarching framework for these initiatives relies on our core values in fulfillment of our responsibilities as a land-grant university,” his statement says.

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With preliminary concepts for changes in campus designs mapped out and a pilot program for increasing Black student admission commitments under their belt, Texas A&M officials are moving forward with the recently approved four-year, $24.75 million plan to address diversity.

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