Every week, the Daily Texan editorial board will sit down with a campus or community figure to ask them about issues related to students. These conversations, edited and condensed for clarity, will run in the paper every Monday. This Monday, our Q-and-A is with Dr. Gregory J. Vincent, the vice president for diversity and community engagement at UT-Austin. Dr. Vincent holds professorships in both the College of Education and the School of Law and has formerly served as the assistant attorney general of Ohio. The DDCE, which he has led since 2006, promotes diversity on campus.
Daily Texan: Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement?
Dr. Gregory J Vincent: I was hired during the Faulkner administration, and President Faulkner, along with Provost Ekland-Olson, made the decision to bring on a chief diversity officer. And so I was hired in 2005 to serve as the chief diversity officer. When President Powers was named president in 2006, he cited diversity as one of his four systemic priorities. And in order to operationalize that priority, he created the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. He named me vice president in 2006 and the division really came together in 2007.
DT: One of the goals of the DDCE is to create a diverse learning environment. But how do you create a diverse learning environment on campus when you can’t control the conditions immediately adjacent to campus?
GV: Well, I think you can control some of the conditions. You can create a climate of mutual respect, a climate of civility. I think you can have expectations and norms. I think you can say, “This is what we’re about,” and you can set the tone both at the presidential level and at the local level. So I think you have the ability to create a campus culture that’s geared to diversity and respect, excellence, all of those values that we hold dear. There are going to be people who fall outside of that, and there have to be consequences for those actions that fall outside of those norms that we have set. I firmly believe that the vast majority of people want to do the right thing. They want to do it the right way. And so, when you set those norms and expectations, most people will fall in line with that.
DT: What was your first reaction when you heard the accusations that were leveled by student Bryan Davis during the recent bleach balloon controversy?
GV: Well, I take those [incidents] very seriously. Before I went into higher education, I was a civil rights attorney. I’ve devoted my life and my career to eradicating those kinds of actions and making sure that everyone feels protected and safe. And so I take [those incidents] very seriously. Because there was that potential [that this was a targeted attack], we felt it was absolutely critical to do our due diligence. We wanted to make sure we had any evidence that might be there. And, you know, we were committed to doing a full, comprehensive investigation to find out if there were contaminants, if there was something like bleach, and whether students from underrepresented backgrounds were being targeted. Even if it was a harmless prank, we take that seriously, because it causes some students to feel unsafe. And if you have students of color being potentially targeted by bleach balloons, that is a different level of incident. That could potentially be seen even as a hate crime. And so we had to investigate that in that vein. That’s the reason we collected physical evidence, that’s the reason we did the things that we did. My hope was that it was a prank and not targeting.
DT: And how did you go about [ruling out that the attack was racially motivated]?
GV: Well, one way was direct evidence. Obviously, any incident, whether it’s the same race or not, when you’re using a contaminant, that’s a very different situation. If you throw bleach on someone, you have to know that that’s a potential to cause harm. The other thing we looked at is, are there other students who are not members of protected groups who are being targeted? We know there has been a tradition of throwing water balloons at new fraternity initiates or women who are rushing sororities. That being said, that practice, even though it may have stemmed from a harmless prank situation, has caused a problem that needs to be addressed and solved, and that practice of throwing water balloons out of windows is not an acceptable practice.
DT: How did you react when Davis accused the University in an op-ed in the Burnt Orange Report of “scooting the issue under the rug”?
GV: I would just say to that, the evidence speaks for itself. If you read our statement in full and you look at our actions, we stand by those actions . And that’s all I really have to say. I would just say, our actions are consistent with what we said we were going to do. We said we were going to have an investigation; we did that. We said we were going to take this seriously; we did that. We stand by our work and our investigation and our outreach to the student.
DT: Moving forward, even if UT were to succeed in getting a more diverse campus, how do you confront questions of traditions — how do you confront the fact that we have a multicultural Greek system and a non-multicultural Greek system?
GV: You’ve got to remember, these fraternities and sororities have been there for 100, over 100 years. I’m a member of a predominantly African-American fraternity and we’re over 100 years old. And so breaking down those traditions becomes very important. What we know, and just to use the University of Alabama as an example, one thing we have to do is cut out the negative pressure from alums and external forces. That’s a huge part of that and really making sure that the fraternities and sororities have the freedom to pick. I think the big issue, from what we’ve seen from the University of Alabama, is that alumni pressure. I think we have to begin to address that.
DT: Do you have any plans to address that?
GV: Well, again, I think it will be interesting to see what the University of Alabama’s done. I think the president has really weighed in down there to really say, you know, this is our expectations and norms. I think that also changing the pledge/rush process to be able to do it throughout the year, you know, one of the interesting things, having not been in that process, I find it very interesting that [the rush process] is very immediate. Almost as soon as you get on campus, you haven’t even taken a class yet. That’s interesting to me. And in the multicultural fraternities and sororities you’re talking about, we have our students wait until their second semester freshman year. And so I think it’s important to know the campus. I’m talking as somewhat of an outsider about this experience, but I do think opening up access is really critical. And I do think, given where students are, and their exposure to a more diverse learning environment, I do think that those things will change organically.