Although the Civil Rights Act was signed into law in 1964, full integration of Texas universities was still elusive well into Jimmy Carter’s presidential term.
In February 1978, Joseph Califano, then U.S. secretary of health, education and welfare, announced plans to conduct reviews in several states’ higher education systems that had practiced segregation in spite of the Civil Rights Act. The review lasted for nearly three years, with a conclusion of noncompliance released January 15, 1981 — the last week of Carter’s administration — in a letter that Cynthia Brown, assistant secretary for civil rights, wrote to Texas Attorney General Mark White.
“[Texas] has failed to eliminate the vestiges of its former de jure racially dual system of public higher education,” Brown declared in the letter.
After 30 months of negotiations and several court orders, White encouraged Texas universities to voluntarily follow a desegregation plan by recruiting more African-American and Latino students. This voluntary plan, which would become the first of multiple, enabled the state to continue receiving federal money while forestalling official rulings over its civil rights standards.
Texas Assistant Attorney General Jim Todd said the Office of Civil Rights was created primarily to handle investigations into Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin for any program receiving federal financial aid.
“The Office of Civil Rights investigates, and they have the authority to do one of two things: They can cut off federal funds, or they can recommend someone to the justice department,” Todd said. In a later report for the Tomas Rivera Center for Student Success by attorney Ron Vera, the Center found that these actions did not cause any significant changes to integration of Texas higher education until 1983.
“By instigating these voluntary measures, Texas would still be eligible to receive federal funds for higher education, and would not run the risk of losing its federal funding in a court hearing,” the report said
As these overarching legislative decisions were being made, Vivian Porche (then Harris) was a black psychology student and an officer on the African-American Culture Committee. She described the white students’ general attitudes toward her as being friendly but cautious. Overall, Porche said she enjoyed her experience at the University, in part because of the tolerance and welcome she found in the city of Austin. But one science professor remains prominent in her memory for manipulating facts to bring his racism to the classroom.
“The professor stood up there big as day and talked about how black people had smaller brains, and they weren’t as smart as Caucasians and just on and on about this stuff,” Porche said. “I remember getting so upset about this and having to control myself … I was hoping it wouldn’t be on the exam, because I was not going to put what he said down as correct.”
Porche later attended medical school and is now the first black female professor at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and the director of anesthesia at the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center in Houston. She also gave the commencement address at the University’s Warfield Center for African and African American Studies in December.
Education professor Richard Reddick said while the campus was formally desegregated during the Johnson administration, racist mindsets at the University took much longer to overcome.
“Desegregation and integration are two separate things, because while The campus was desegregated, [but] it certainly was not integrated,” Reddick said. “Integration is being actually immersed in classes and discussions and being able to have conversations outside of the classroom … Some people would argue it is still happening.”