Professors, students seek diverse representation on campus

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Photo Credit: Rachel Tyler | Daily Texan Staff

Editor's note: This article is part of a package about diversity on campus. Click here to read the other stories.

In her hometown of El Paso, business freshman Anysha Fortenberry said every one of her role models was Hispanic. She admired these family and community members for their passion and hard work, but she felt like she never saw any of them in positions of power.

Her first five days at UT exposed her to leaders who were often people of color ­— from political leaders and business professionals to professors and first generation college students. As part of the high school leadership program Subiendo, Fortenberry said the talks and dinners she attended helped her see her potential.

“[The speakers] made us feel like we could do anything,” Fortenberry said. “They were minorities, too, and they showed us how far they got and how far we could go.”

Fatima Varner, human development and family sciences assistant professor, said for students of color, such as Fortenberry, mentorship and representation of diverse faculty can be extremely important.

“People in general tend to affiliate with people who look like them, even if it’s subconscious,” Varner said. “Students of color can sometimes fall through the cracks if they don’t have anyone to relate to.”

Since 2012, minorities have made up more than half of the overall student population at UT. But the University’s faculty has not been subject to the same trend.

More than 75 percent of the teaching faculty in the last five years has been white. Varner, who won’t begin her time at UT until January 2016, will teach in the College of Natural Sciences. As of last year, less than 1 percent of the department’s teaching faculty was black.

While conducting research on factors that affect academic achievements of minority students, Varner said having faculty members from different backgrounds benefits both students and the University as a whole. 

“When you have a diverse faculty, you’re more likely to get diverse perspectives,” Varner said. “Diversity includes not just faculty of color but also faculty who might be first generation and gender diversity, as well.”

When it comes to conversations about increasing representation on campus, Varner said it can be easy for people’s subconscious bias to affect their hiring decisions.

“Sometimes when these conversations [about diversity] come up, the first thing some people say is that they don’t want to lower quality,” Varner said. “It represents a bias people already have. There can be an increase in representation without lowering quality.”

Varner said throughout her time in higher education, she’s seen the different ways people can benefit from working with a diverse faculty.

“It’s important to see people from different backgrounds,” Varner said. “It can decrease stereotypes, and it tends to increase the diversity of topics presented in class.”

Former business lecturer Veronica Stidvent said a department or college’s lack of diversity isn’t always due to a lack of trying, but a lack of applicants.

“It’s a pipeline issue,” Stidvent said. “I think being able to recruit and find the right candidates when there’s a smaller pool of applicants — it plagues a lot of industries and careers.”

Stidvent was one of five Hispanic teaching faculty members in the business school last year. She said in terms of classroom discussions, differing perspectives can be more important than different backgrounds.

“It’s more about diversity of thought,” Stidvent said. “What you’re looking for in a classroom is diversity in perspectives. People can look very different but think the same.