Historically, however, the university went to great lengths to perpetuate white supremacy. Today, standardized testing is widely seen as an objective index of merit. In Texas, in the immediate post-Brown era, it seems to have been used as a bureaucratic cudgel to maintain Jim Crow.
Less than two weeks after the Brown ruling, in May 1954, H. Y. McCown, the university’s admissions dean, dashed off a note to the university president with a proposal to “keep Negroes out of most classes where there are a large number of girls.”
“If we want to exclude as many Negro undergraduates as possible,” McCown wrote, the university should require African American students seeking admission to undergraduate professional programs to first spend a year taking courses at Prairie View A&M or Texas Southern University, both black schools. Essentially ignoring the thrust of Brown, the regents adopted the proposal.
But the gap-year solution was only a temporary one. In June 1955, the four-person Committee on Selective Admissions, composed of senior faculty and high-ranking administrators, argued that if UT loosened the graduate-student application process, “the University would be in a position to plead that it is acting in good faith to bring an end to segregation, and it should have some bearing with the courts in any attempt to postpone the admission of Negro students at the undergraduate level.” The university had already been forced to integrate the graduate-student ranks after the 1950 Sweatt decision; the committee seems to have been suggesting that graduate-school admissions would act as a fig leaf for obstruction at the undergraduate level.
Read: Is standardized testing a civil-rights issue?
The committee went on to observe that if the 2,700-person freshman class was admitted according to state population proportions, 300 would be black. And it noted that white UT freshmen had significantly higher aptitude-test scores than incoming freshmen at three Texas black colleges. A standardized-test cutoff “point of 72 would eliminate about 10% of UT freshmen and about 74% of Negroes,” the committee stated in a footnote. “Assuming the distributions are representative, this cutting point would tend to result in a maximum of 70 Negroes in a class of 2,700.”
In a cover letter to the report, committee members included advice that further suggests they were at the very least mindful of, if not pleased by, the role standardized testing would play in the admission of black students: “We suggest that the President of the University in the near future ask the other state institutions to exchange ideas on this subject and if possible to collaborate in the program of testing. In these discussions, the admission of Negroes will naturally have a prominent place.”
There are, of course, many reasons a university might impose a testing regime. Until the mid-20th century, UT practiced an open-admissions policy—at least for nonblack applicants, as the scholars Thomas D. Russell and Dwonna Goldstone have explained. But a postwar boom in students, including returning GIs, raised doubts about how long such a policy could remain tenable. In The Big Test, Nicholas Lemann points out that many large universities in the 1950s adopted the SAT because they aspired to transform themselves into elite research institutions. But UT moved firmly in this direction only when administrators saw an anti-integrationist virtue to testing.