Thomas Palaima

Classics professor Thomas Palaima speaks at the Harry Ransom Center on Friday afternoon about UT’s declining percentage of black students and faculty. Panelists discussed instituionalized racism at universities in light of recent controversies.
Photo Credit: Chris Foxx | Daily Texan Staff

In light of several recent investigations into racially insensitive fraternity misconduct around the nation, including one involving the UT Fiji chapter, panelists discussed Friday institutionalized racism at universities.

 Although the black population in Texas is 12.4 percent, the University’s faculty is 3.5 percent black and the student body is 4.1 percent black — percentages that have been declining since 2010, according to Thomas Palaima, panelist and UT classics professor.

 “Part of what I think is missed within the institution of higher education is essentially contact with the experience of the people who are targets or an understanding of what it must feel like [to be targeted],” Palaima said. “If you have a small dye in the big sea, how are you ever going to change the color perspective?”

In the current system, college students might not realize that they benefit from discrimination or fully understand the harm of perpetuate stereotypes, according to Rachel Quist, Plan II and art history senior. Coming in close contact with people who have different backgrounds is one viable solution, Quist said.

 “What I think is a huge problem is the way in which behaviors that are directly harmful to disenfranchised groups are normalized in society in such a way that they become invisible to the people who might actually do things to stop it,” Quist said. “I grew up unaware that we were not in a post-racial society until I entered into a less homogeneous environment, and I heard what people had to say, and I heard about their real experiences that are nothing like my own.”

 One way to deal with racial divisions is to force integration, according to Ryan Rafols, government senior and former UT Delta Kappa Epsilon chapter president.

 “We don’t have a very diverse culture and population at UT. We like to think we do, but when you look at actual statistics, it’s not very high,” Rafols said. “So we can either accept more people of diverse backgrounds at the University and let things play out over time, or we can do forced integration and programs.”

 The problem has less to do with fraternities and more to do with the unchanging dynamics of institutions, including universities, according to Palaima.

 “You’re not going to eliminate [racism] unless you change the institutions, and even make people realize there have to be changes in attitudes,” Palaima said.

Photo Credit: Colin Zelinski | Daily Texan Staff

More than a decade after the world-changing 9/11 attacks, the UT community continues to see the devastation of that day seriously affect its campus, down to the classes the University offers.

With the horror and destruction of 9/11 also came analyses by Americans of how to combat a new threat. Questions were asked, studies conducted and conclusions drawn. Thomas Palaima, classics professor and Middle Eastern studies expert, said it was discovered that the U.S. government, a government that spends more money on military defense than any other nation in the world, was ill-equipped to deal with conflicts in the Middle East.

“One of the problems with 9/11 was that one found out that we did not even have, even in the specialized areas of the government and the military, the number of experts in Middle Eastern culture and languages that we should,” Palaima said.

He said in response to the lack of qualified military personnel, UT and many other universities across the country soon began to adjust their curricula, increasing the size and strength of their Middle Eastern studies programs. He said the increased focus on the Middle East did not spill over to interest in other cultural studies programs.

“It would be good if we applied the same concern across the board in other areas, and I just don’t see that,” Palaima said.

Palaima said he believes the focus on Middle Eastern studies has actually decreased the overall size of ethnic studies programs nationwide, as total resources have shifted and ultimately decreased. Should the U.S. come into conflict with certain other parts of the world, Palaima said the U.S. could end up in a situation similar to that after 9/11, with a lack of expert personnel and a subsequent unbalanced shift in academics.

Kristen Brustad, department chair of Middle Eastern studies and associate professor of Arabic, said she has seen growth in her department because of 9/11.

“The number of Arabic majors went up fairly dramatically over these last ten years,” she said. “We now have the largest graduate program in the country in terms of Arabic studies. It used to be only the large universities had an Arabic program, but now, it is small colleges and community colleges as well, and now a number of our graduates are teaching in those schools.”

According to statistics from UT’s office of institutional research, the number of students enrolled in the Middle Eastern studies department at UT increased by 97.67 percent, when comparing 2002 fall enrollment with fall enrollment from 2011. That included a 52 percent increase in the number of undergraduates, bringing the number of students from 25 to 38. There was an 80 percent increase in the number of students pursuing a master’s degree, from 10 to 18. And there was a 262.5 percent increase in the number of Ph.D. candidates, from 8 to 29.

The same statistics for the departments of Slavic and Eurasian studies and Spanish and Portuguese show a 37.04 percent decline, from 27 to 17, and a 40 percent decline, from 440 to 264, in total Spanish and Portuguese enrollment respectively.

Palaima said a replicate situation took place in the U.S. following the Cold War, where Russian studies were escalated as U.S.-Soviet conflict grew.

“It is a very similar situation,” Palaima said.

Brustad said, luckily, one thing that has not seemed to change at UT is the tolerant atmosphere for Middle Eastern students.

“Recently, I would say not at UT, but at the climate at large, I hear a lot more negative rhetoric in the public discourse at large,” Brustad said. “Former students of mine from before I came to UT, where I taught before, who now work for the government have even been attacked because they are Muslim or Arabic.”

Mai Khattab, a member of UT’s Arab student association, said she has seen that acceptance while at UT for the last two years.

“For us, as Arabs here at UT, we are treated just like any other group,” Khattab said. “We have never had anyone be offensive and treat us badly or anything.”

Academi, the private military company formerly known as Blackwater USA that was contracted to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, has acquired a new director with close ties to UT.

Billionaire entrepreneur Red McCombs, namesake of the McCombs School of Business, is now the chairman of Academi’s board of directors. McCombs joined the company during its restructuring last December to “manage the company and enhance its governance and oversight capabilities,” according to a December press release announcing the decision.

More recently, as part of an article published in Harper’s April issue, the publication released a series of videos on their website showing alleged Blackwater contractors indiscriminately firing at Iraqi traffic, smashing into cars and running over civilians.

Beginning in 2003, the U.S. State Department contracted Blackwater to provide a wide variety of services in Iraq and Afghanistan from training and deploying special-forces soldiers to providing aerial reconnaissance.

Management and sociology professor John Butler said McCombs is likely joining the company as a good business practice, similar to when he donated $50 million to the business school in 2000, resulting in the naming of the school.

“Mr. McCombs understands the importance of defending this country, and you need someone like him to build an organization that’s so important,” Butler said. “Red McCombs has the leadership you require in such a company, and I expect that as part of his plan he will be rebranding its image as part of effective entrepreneurship.”

The company drew wide criticism in 2007 when Blackwater military contractors allegedly shot and killed 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Nisoor Square, Baghdad, which resulted in the company temporarily losing its contract to operate. The company was also investigated that year by the State Department for allegedly smuggling arms into Iraq for designated terrorist organizations.
McCombs could not be reached for comment.

Finance junior Philip Kaminer said he believed that it wasn’t an issue to have McCombs associated with the company.

“Despite the fact that Blackwater has done military contracting, it’s a legitimate corporation and has to be seen as legitimate enterprise,” Kaminer said. “It would be different if he was funding mercenaries, but if its acceptable for the government to put millions of dollars behind these companies then it is perfectly fine for a businessman to support them as well.”

Thomas Palaima, a professor of classics and middle eastern studies who researches war and violence, said that while he was concerned about the activities of Blackwater, it was more important to understand where funding comes from and how it is spent.

“It’s a very dangerous thing to get private contractors involved in fighting our undeclared wars, but that’s a different question,” Palaima said. “Does Red McCombs have the right to throw his money into Blackwater, make a profit and then put his money into the University? Of course he does. At least, President Powers seems to think so.”

It is common for large sums of money to enter institutions through questionable means and institutions still accept funding, Palaima said. He added it was more important to raise discussion about institutional priorities allowing this to happen.

“If you’re really concerned about where money comes from, just look at how many of the great fortunes are attached to conflicts that later get donated to charity,” Palaima said. “Rockefeller was behind the killing of innocent minors, but nobody says we can’t have money from the Rockefeller foundation any longer. Someday people will look at Blackwater the same way.”

Palaima said the controversies surrounding Blackwater cannot change large public indifference or affect the business school’s image.

“The general public just doesn’t care very much to be informed about Blackwater and Afghanistan — the former vice president of the United States was highly involved in Blackwater,” Palaima said. “The bigger issue is the U.S. being able to conducting informal wars by using highly profitable private companies like Blackwater.”

Printed on Thursday, April 19, 2012 as: McCombs chairs private security firm

Mack Brown’s new assistant coaching staff will cost almost $3.7 million this season. Brown, UT’s head football coach and the state’s highest paid employee, leads a nine-member assistant coaching staff. Eight of the nine assistant coaches will receive pay increases this season. The only position to be paid less is the offensive coordinator. Six of the coaches are new to UT this season, and the five who left another collegiate coaching position will be paid more than they were last year. The University released the assistant coach salaries to the Austin American-Statesman last week in response to open records requests for the information. In a press conference, Brown said he found a changed hiring landscape from when he came to UT in 1998, when he started rebuilding the coaching staff. He said other than having much higher salaries, agents now handle the deals — and multiple-year contracts are more common. He said he took the shake-up following last season as an opportunity to start fresh, and he has enjoyed the challenge. “I thought we got exactly what we wanted. I think we got the best coaches possible for Texas,” Brown said. “We can hire good coaches at Texas. [UT Men’s Athletic Director] DeLoss [Dodds] lets us pay them.” A vocal critic of the increasing coaching salaries, Thomas Palaima is a classics professor and University representative to the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics. He said the coaches’ salaries are inappropriately high and result from a flawed relationship between the University and its athletic department. “I think it is literally obscene,” Palaima said. “The University is made up of many components. All of those components are or should be subject to central supervision and oversight and cooperative participation in the values and cultural and educational mission of the University. And there is one glaring exception and that is the NCAA athletics program.” Palaima said the money could fund the creation of a new NCAA sports team at UT, which would provide opportunities to more student athletes. Athletics receive no state funding and generated more than $140 million last year at UT. That revenue, which includes 90 percent of the University’s licensing revenue from UT product sales, makes the department self-sufficient. Budget Director Mary Knight said the UT System and the University once managed licensing for UT, but the athletics department has since taken over that responsibility. She said the academic side of the University receives 10 percent of the licensing revenue and more in years when the revenue is higher than normal, including when the football team won the national championship in 2005. She also said in the last fiscal year athletics contributed $5 million to the University’s general revenue to ease the 5-percent state budget cuts. “Having a successful athletics program is beneficial to the University as a whole,” Knight said. “Our athletics program is self-sustaining. We don’t put any state funds into athletics, so its not negatively impacting academics.”