At UT Dallas, there is a select group of students with more privileges, opportunities, and access than the rest of us. These students, called “McDermott Scholars,” are selected by the university as the most gifted and promising high school seniors from an international pool of applicants. Those who are selected are then given  funding and resources throughout their undergraduate career.

Financially, they each receive an incredible amount of assistance: full funding for tuition and fees; a generous living stipend, a textbook stipend, $12,000 to study abroad, $3,000 for “professional development”, free tickets to cultural institutions around Dallas, and round trip airfare to and from their home, every year. In addition to these monetary benefits, McDermott students receive an inordinate amount of support from the university, including six full-time staff members and free excursions to cities around the country.

UT Dallas administrators, and the aforementioned scholars themselves, will tell you that scholars work hard for their scholarships. They will also tell you about the legacy of Margaret McDermott, who endowed $32 million to the university to create the elite scholars program in 2000. It just so happens that the “nation’s and world’s best and brightest minds,”are predominantly the children of the wealthy and educated—between 2009-2019, 40% of McDermott Scholars came from families making over $100,000 a year, although that class makes up only 20% of American families overall. Likewise for families making over $200,000 a year: they make up 19% of McDermott Scholars in that time period, but only about 7% of American families. In addition to being wealthy, McDermott Scholars are predominantly white and Asian. While 12.7% of Americans and 39.6% of Texans are Hispanic or Latino, only about 7% of McDermott Scholars from 2009-2019 are. Even more startling, the number of black students in the program from 2009-2019 was so low that when students requested the official count in a public records request, they were told that it was “too small to report,” and that releasing it would “potentially cause a FERPA violation.” In fact, the McDermott program has consistently failed to recruit black scholars since its founding. This year, for the second year in a row, the McDermott program matriculated no black students. 

These dismal demographic figures create a self-fulfilling prophecy, because McDermott alumni help make admissions decisions and play a large role in shaping program policy. However, as seen in the data from 2009-2019, the demographics of the alumni pool are profoundly skewed towards whites and asians, which may bias them towards preferring applicants in the same demographics. 

However, an even bigger driver of inequality in the McDermott program is the information it bases admissions decisions on. The only hard requirement that potential applicants must meet, beyond being a “first-time college freshman,” is achieving an extremely high score on the SAT, ACT, or PSAT. This is a deeply flawed requirement, because standardized tests reflect and reinforce racial and socioeconomic inequality. As stated by the National Education Association, the largest labor union for teachers in the United States, “decades of research demonstrate that African-American, Latino, and Native American students, as well as students from some Asian groups, experience bias from standardized tests.” Furthermore, according to the Brookings Institution, standardized tests like the SAT reproduce generational inequality, because white and upper class students are much more likely to have access to better schools and special tutoring. There are “large racial gaps” in SAT scores, and relying on them to dole out scholarship money only furthers racial inequality.

Other admissions factors that the McDermott program considers are also problematic. For example, the program prefers that applicants have “long records of leadership in school and community volunteerism.” Who has the time and money to dedicate to leadership positions and extracurricular volunteer work? Primarily, upper class and white students. The program looks highly upon research experience and community service, but ignores those who needed to dedicate their time to part-time jobs. The data in the public records request backs this up: it includes information about whether applicants had paid employment, family obligations, or other circumstances that would prevent them from participating in extracurricular activities, but that section of students was also “too small to report,” indicating that less than 10 students in 11 years of the program fit those criteria. The McDermott program is actively reproducing inequality, because its admissions decisions are based on factors that are linked to class and race in unsettling ways.

The inequality at the heart of the McDermott program highlights a general issue with merit scholarships and what they entail, but there’s plenty the program could do to make its admissions process more equitable. According to the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access committee in the McDermott Council, the program could start by removing the standardized testing requirement. In an article published in March, the UTD Mercury detailed what that would entail:

Changing the endowment to remove the rank requirement would require consent from UTD and the Eugene McDermott Foundation. For UTD approval, the change must be requested by program administration, which includes the program director and the McDermott Scholars Selection Committee. A formal memorandum must then be sent to the Provost who in turn makes a request to UTD’s President who, after receiving approval from the McDermott Foundation, then makes a formal request to UT System.

The McDermott administration has known about this process for years, but according to a source familiar with the program, they have not even started it by requesting the change.

Given these stark demographic disparities, it is only natural to wonder if such a system is equitable or just. Why should some students be blessed with the opportunity to study free from financial worry, with a special group of dedicated administrators seeing to their every need, while so many others struggle to even afford a place to live and food to eat, let alone tuition and fees? These are deep structural questions of justice and fairness. As a result, it’s hard to concretely connect them to the McDermott Scholars Program, which is such a localized phenomenon, specific to UT Dallas. Aside from these moral dilemmas, more pressing are the privilege and inequality that manifest in the decisions of the program administration.

The administration plays a large role in shaping its culture, and many scholars I talked to recounted to me instances of program administrators making troubling decisions with respect to race and class. For example, this year, students on the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access committee wanted to have an implicit bias training for participants in the admissions process. The University’s Multicultural Center offered to send somebody to do a training, which would take only thirty minutes, but program staff said they didn’t have the time.

Another example: every year, first-year McDermott Scholars take a class trip to Washington, D.C. During an excursion to Gettysburg, they are each assigned a prominent figure from the Civil War era to “role play” as. In a recent class of McDermott Scholars, where there were only two black scholars, and during their Gettysburg visit, program administrators made one of them “role play” as Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, who fought in the Civil War to keep black people enslaved. The student in question told me that they were deeply uncomfortable with being forced to assume such a role, and that they followed up with program administration several times after the trip to express their discomfort, but their concerns were ignored, and program administration never apologized for their actions.

These examples demonstrate that the McDermott Scholars Program staff has a history of making decisions that build a culture of privilege and inequality.

In the face of a pandemic which disproportionately affects low-income families and people of color, making the McDermott program more accessible and equitable is more important than ever. I am calling on the McDermott Scholars Program to begin the process to remove the rank requirement from the endowment, and for the Program to commit significantly more resources to meaningful diversity and inclusion initiatives.