Mentor Programs Under Challenge Are Not Race Based, University Says

October 29, 2007

An organization opposed to affirmative-action preferences has asked the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights to investigate as discriminatory several programs, jointly operated by an institute at the University of Texas at Austin and that city’s public-school system, that provide mentor services for middle- and high-school students.

The investigation could quickly amount to naught, however. That’s because the advocacy group, the Washington-based Project on Fair Representation, says it based its suspicions that the programs in question were off-limits to certain racial and ethnic groups on an article in the Austin American-Statesman that relied on a school-system news release. When interviewed today, university officials said the release had been inaccurate in stating that the programs were “for African-American and Hispanic school-aged males at four high schools and five middle schools.”

Kevin Michael Foster, who oversees the programs as director of the university’s Institute for Community, University, and School Partnerships, said the mentor services were available to students of any race or ethnicity. Black and Hispanic students do indeed account for the overwhelming majority of those served, he said, but that is mainly attributable to the racial and ethnic composition of the enrollments of the schools involved. The schools were selected for such programs because they were among the lowest-performing in the Austin Independent School District.

In a July letter to the school system outlining the institute’s plans for operating the programs, Mr. Foster said “male students across all ethnic groups” would be served. At the same time, however, he said that the programs would have “an awareness of the role of ethnicity in our society and in our schools,” and that the institute was “particularly interested in responding to the unique needs, interests, and desires of Latino and African-American students, and in promoting collaboration and positive relationships between these populations.”

Meanwhile, if anyone has concerns about the program’s being off-limits to girls, the university and school system already have in mind a solution. They plan to expand the programs to also serve girls next spring. —Peter Schmidt