On the Political Economy of Institutional Racism

By Tom Philpott and Scott Henson
May 1990; pages 4-5; Volume 1, No. 6

With the recent surge of fraternity bigotry, UT students and faculty have directed new and long-overdue outrage at the University's institutional racism. The lack of ethnic studies, the Eurocentrism of required classes and a startling lack of minority professors and studies - these problem combine to impede a diverse open exchange of ideas at the University. Meanwhile, as the Board of Regents continues to double graduate-school tuition in separate colleges one by one, it adds a new facet to UT's systematic racism: unaffordable tuition, which amounts to a direct attack on the already tiny number of students of color enrolled in graduate school.

President Cunningham has used the racism controversy to divide students: He's responded by pitting Greeks against the leaders of the Black Student Alliance and the progressive coalition that supports them. He's failed to address either the Eurocentrism curriculum or the need to diversify faculty. Instead, he's floated the possibility of banning Round-up, thus inflaming Greeks and intensifying their resentment of the BSA. But institutional racism must be attacked at its source. The real problem is the administration itself, in its continued subservience to outside interests.

Molecular Biology vs. Financial Aid

If UT's priority were confronting institutional racism, it would do three things: Expand the curriculum to include African, Latino Native American and Asian studies; replace UT's ancient financial aid building; and keep tuition affordable. University policies, however, illustrate that its real interests lie far from combating racism.

Take for example, the University's decision to build the new Molecular Biology building. The building itself will cost $25 million, the same amount a new financial aid building would cost. Cunningham defends the deal as a "one-time expenditure," but a financial aid building would also be a one-time expense. The total expense for a new molecular biology program is estimated at $70 million over the next seven years.

Similarly, the University's preparing to purchase a $25 million supercomputer to replace the $20 million supercomputer it bought in 1985. When then-UT president Peter Flawn was plugging the first supercomputer to the regents, he estimated that another supercomputer investment wouldn't be necessary for at least 10 years.

Be that as it may, the University's spending priorities are clear. High-tech research capital take precedence over student demands or societal needs. Financial aid is a class issue, and in America - especially Texas - class issues are race issues. The ethnic background of students receiving financial aid demonstrates that point. African-American students constitute 3.7 percent of the student population, but make up 6.6 percent of students on financial aid.

Similarly, Latino students make up 10.3 percent of the student population, but 15.4 percent of students receiving financial aid. Asian and Native American students combined account for 7.5 percent of students receiving financial aid, while making up only 5.9 percent of the student body. The financial aid building clearly serves the needs of students of color disproportionately to their numbers at the University.

The recent Bush/Cavazos education budget would drastically cut financial aid, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Even so, the current building has for years been overburdened and understaffed. Originally a restaurant, the building is too small and its computer system too feeble to handle the 24,000-plus students who depend on it.

During peak periods of demand, student must often relate their families' financial status to aid counselors with other students present, since space constraints force counselors to double up. Students wait in long lines every semester, and spread hours hoping to get through on the phone, trying to confirm the status of their financial aid. At the beginning of each semester, students typically attempt about 22,000 calls per day to the building - only about 700 of which get through.

But rather than spend $25 million to facilitate expedient financing for 24,000 students each semester, UT prefers to pay $25 million on a Molecular Biology building, which the administration intends to serve at most 50 students.

UT's Corporate Curriculum

Even more egregious, UT chooses areas for curriculum expansion based on profit motives rather than on real student needs. When the University ignores student demands to create departments that study marginalized cultures, it does so in deference to programs that subsidize industry and create potential for profit from patented research. This amounts to institutional racism.

The University's most recent planning document, The Strategic Plan, 1990-1995, outlines its intention to create four new degree programs - molecular biology, marine science, nutritional sciences and Slavic languages - as well as off-campus and evening programs that "respond to present and future needs of the industry."

As part of its Molecular Biology push, for example, the University explicitly declares its subservience to industrial labor markets. The Strategic Plan states that "the revolution in genetic engineering has given birth to new industry, biotechnology, which is currently blossoming in the Northeast and Pacific coastal states." This justifies, according to the Strategic Plan, the creation of a $70 million molecular biology program whose "graduates will be trained to meet the acute demand for professionals to develop Texas's embryonic biotechnology industry."

UT also plans to implement, according to The Strategic Plan, a new nutritional sciences Ph.D. program, which will "strive to build even stronger ties to the many outstanding, closely related programs in molecular biology, molecular neurobiology, biotechnology, biological sciences, biochemistry and allied health fields." The creation of the nutritional sciences degree constitutes a direct response to shortages in the labor market. As The Strategic Plan warns darkly, emphasized in italics, "there are more positions available for nutritionists that there are fully qualified persons to fill them."

The University will also provide a graduate degree program in Marine Science. According to The Strategic Plan, one objective of the program will be to "furnish a modest flow of students uniquely trained to address practical environmental and natural resource problems common in the coastal zone, with an emphasis on Texas bays, estuaries, and the adjacent continental shelf." The Strategic Plan doesn't mention that "environmental ... problems common in the coastal zone" often result from the very high-tech and biotech industries that the University sees as its mission to subsidize. And again, the program will address shortages in state labor markets - hence the "modest flow of students" - rather than the intellectual needs of students.

UT's economic motivations for creating a biotech program mirror its motivations for entering other fields. UT will shape its new Slavic languages doctoral program to meet the needs of the U.S. industries wanting to compete in newly opened Eastern European markets. According to The Strategic Plan, "recent studies indicate that the field is entering a period of sustained growth in terms of both employment possibilities and financial resources made available by governmental and private sources."

By contrast, UT Oriental and African language department currently teaches not a single African language. Yet again, the needs of industry take precedence over students' intellectual development. This example embodies UT's institutional racism - while African and African-American students are denied access to African cultural and language studies, UT trains students, it hopes, to exploit newly opening economies in Eastern Europe.

Tuition Hikes: the Racism Critique

UT's socioeconomic admissions policy

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports in its April 25, 1990 issue that the number of African-American doctorate recipients declined 23.2 percent in the last 10 years. Given this context, and considering the sharp reductions in health benefits and the lack of child care for graduate employees, we're appalled to see that the University has begun doubling graduate student tuition in selected departments. Like the financial aid situation, tuition hikes are a class issue and therefore a race issue.

The implications of tuition hikes for people of color are clear. Higher tuition means fewer minority graduate students will graduate, which creates a smaller pool of future Ph.D.s on which to draw for future faculty. It also means that fewer minority graduate student teachers (assistant instructors) will teach undergraduates.

According to the report of the ad hoc Committee to the President on Undergraduate Education, graduate students teach about 30 percent of all undergraduate English semester credit hours, and some 80 percent of all credit hours in the Spanish department. In the Liberal Arts college as a whole, about 25 percent of all undergraduate credit hours are taught by grad students - in the Communications college, the figure approaches 30 percent.

The dearth of people of color in teaching positions already hurts retention rates for minority undergraduates. It also deprives non-minority students of opportunity to learn from people of different backgrounds and cultures. Tuition hikes only exacerbate both problems. Progressives who demands that UT broaden its curriculum must also fight tuition hikes. If students of color can't afford to attend graduate school, who will teach the new broadened curriculum?

Tuition hikes are a part of a larger trend. UT tuition, while low by national standards, has risen by a factor of 10 in the past decade. In the meantime, the UT-Austin budget rose by over 60 percent after inflation. The bulk of this windfall has gone to further UT's corporate agenda.

Patent Law and UT's Profit Motive

Universities have for the last 50 years geared their activities, especially their research efforts, to industrial prerogatives - at the expense of affordable tuition and quality teaching. But it wasn't until the '80s that universities began to link their policies explicitly to their own profit motives.

The UT System spent hundreds of millions of dollars in this period on capital improvements for high-tech research. That money could have gone toward keeping tuition affordable, hiring minority faculty, upgrading African-American and Mexican-American studies centers to departments, or creating departments to study other marginalized groups like women, Native-Americans, Asian-Americans, gays and lesbians.

An October 1989 article by David Noble in Newsday describes the method by which university link their policy decisions with their profit motive: "In 1980, after years of intense collaborative lobbying by industrial and academic leaders for reform of the patent law, the universities for the first time gained automatic ownership of patents resulting from federally funded research, and hence the right to sell exclusive licenses on these patents to private corporations.

"This prompted a reworking of academic policies regarding intellectual property in the interest of profitmaking and paved the way for massive indirect public subsidy of private industry via the universities."

The University of Texas takes this profit fetish to absurd extremes. The Institute for Constructive Capitalism (IC2), a UT think-tank, has spent years researching ways to "commercialize" this or that technology. IC2 director George Kozmetsky, former dean of the UT business school, serves as the chief economic advisor to the UT System Board of Regents (see page 8). Titles of recent IC2-sponsored symposia include: "Commercial Applications of Defense R&D," "Commercializing SDI Technologies," "Technology Marketing and the Entrepreneurial Spirit," and "Commercializing Federal Lab Technologies."

Most of these conferences/publications are geared toward commercializing university research. In 1987, for instance, IC2 and the RGK Foundation (a privation foundation run by the Kozmetsky family and not affiliated with UT) sponsored a conference entitled "Plant Biotechnology: Research Bottlenecks for Commercialization and Beyond." This conference and the book that grew out of it focused on the commercial potential of the growing genetic engineering and molecular biology fields.

In other documents, IC2 has advocated that universities genetically engineer "square trees" that would stack more easily for the timber industry, as well as "herbicide-resistant" crops that can withstand the strong industrial pesticides produced by chemical companies. Such commercialization schemes explain UT's decision to create a molecular biology program. When IC2 develops a method for commercializing African studies research, we're sure UT will upgrade the African studies center to a department. It may even start teaching African languages.

Against Racism: a Broader Agenda

But until economics fall into place, administrators won't fund such programs without a student revolt. The UT System's decision to spend $70 million to fund a molecular biology program must be seen as a case study in how the needs of industry - in this case, chemical and pesticide companies - take precedence over the needs of students. In an era when students desperately need increased resources to study non-traditional cultures, subsidizing the chemical industry so lavishly amounts to institutional racism and sexism.

That $70 million, however, needn't fall into the hands of industrialists. The growing coalition of students who this semester marched to fight fraternity racism and Eurocentrism curriculum must now demand a halt to the construction of the molecular-biology building. Students should demand that the money saved by channeled to stave off tuition hikes, upgrade ethnic studies centers to departments, and create new programs in women's and gay/lesbian studies.

The administration could conceivably fund such programs by convincing the Legislature to impose a tuition hike. But that would only replace one form of institutional racism (Eurocentric curriculum) with another (unaffordable tuition). The structural problems that plague this university must be attacked at their source - by mass student revolt aimed at diverting UT's vast resources toward the creation of a humane, inclusive environment.