Interview with Victor Sáenz, Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin on Supporting Latino Men in Higher Education, Project MALES (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success), Community Colleges, and More
About Victor Sáenz, Ph.D.: Victor Sáenz is Chair and L.D. Haskew Centennial Professor in Public School Administration in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), where he is also Associate Dean for Student Success, Community Engagement, and Administration. Dr. Sáenz is an influential scholar of educational equity. His research focuses on improving the educational outcomes of underserved students, particularly young men and boys of color. He is co-founder of the award-winning venture Project MALES (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success), and co-creator of the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color.
Dr. Sáenz is co-editor of a number of important volumes on equity in higher education, including Handbook of Latinos in Education: Theory, Research, and Practice, now in its second edition, and Ensuring the Success of Latino Males in Higher Education: A National Imperative. His publications have appeared in journals such as Journal of Minority Achievement, Creativity, and Leadership, Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, and Educational Policy. His research and applied work in educational equity have earned him a Distinguished University Faculty Award from the Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education, a Mentoring Award from the Association for the Study of Higher Education, and many other accolades.
Alongside his roles as Professor and Associate Dean, Dr. Sáenz holds appointments with the LBJ School of Public Affairs, the Center for Mexican American Studies, and the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies, among others. Dr. Sáenz received his Ph.D. in Higher Education and Organizational Change from the University of California, Los Angeles and both Master’s in Public Affairs and Bachelor’s in Mathematics from The University of Texas at Austin.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become invested in issues of equity in higher education and, in particular, researching and advancing the educational outcomes of boys and young men of color?
[Dr. Victor Sáenz] I come from a family of educators. I am a proud product of public education, and public education defines every step of my educational and professional journey. I was a teacher early in my career. I have an undergraduate math degree from The University of Texas at Austin and landed a teaching job as a math teacher. That was my first job out of undergrad.
I think my experience in Austin during the early and mid 1990s was quite instructive in shaping my future pathway. It was during a time of significant racial strife on this campus. UT Austin has always been one of the centers of attention around issues of race and affirmative action in higher education. I was a student at UT Austin in one of the many moments the university was being sued for their admissions policies. That is how I became interested in pursuing graduate work and understanding college issues. I wanted to understand why there was such a disparity in education, particularly at the selective or elite level of higher education. It raised questions of why this was happening in a political sense and also philosophical questions of merit and who was considered meritorious.
This launched me toward a graduate program in public policy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin. I spent the formative years of my early 20s in Austin and lived here for almost a decade. That experience has shaped my perspective on racial and ethnic diversity’s role in shaping educational environments on college campuses and how race is used as a factor in admissions. Now, more than 20 years later, I remain very interested in those same questions of who is gaining access to higher education and why, and, more importantly, how we can continue to expand our notions of access, merit, and equity in this realm.
The other part of my educational journey included my doctoral education at UCLA, which is also a public school. For that, my partner and I ventured to California. Even though I am a fourth-generation Texan, I knew I needed to go beyond the borders of the state and immerse myself in a whole other political and policy environment. We were in California for almost seven years. I spent four years as a Ph.D. student and another two as a postdoc. The environment could not have been more different from Texas. It was very interesting to see how a state with very different political and policy realities would approach the same set of challenges that we are facing here in Texas. That was an important part of my training and consciousness raising.
Finally, I returned to Texas in 2007. I have been a faculty member at my alma mater for 16 years now. Returning has been an interesting experience. Texas is home, but it is also a place where there is a lot of work to be done on equity issues. In particular, over the last twelve years, I have focused my efforts on building educational opportunities for young men and boys of color in education.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Would you introduce us to how you define educational equity in your research and practice?
[Dr. Victor Sáenz] These are complicated and at times ambiguous ideas. I think of diversity as being factual: the number of people in different categories whom we can quantify, measure, assess, and count. I think about equity and inclusion as being more action oriented. What is it that we are doing to help enact more inclusive and equitable environments for all students? Equity can be thought of as ensuring that we have opportunity structures in place that are available to all. That is a baseline way of defining equity. At the same time, absent historical context, this can be too simplistic. Equity has to consider the historical context of systematic exclusion and denial opportunities for historically underrepresented, underserved, marginalized, and minoritized populations.
That is an academic answer. For the everyday person on the street, the terms diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and social justice have become increasingly politicized in a rhetorical way in a time when there is already confusion about what these terms mean. I serve as Associate Dean for Student Success, Community Engagement and Administration. Improving the experiences of all students is part of my day-to-day responsibilities for the college.
This is a state where there is currently an increasing amount of political pressure on the part of our governor and lieutenant governor to scale back these initiatives. Certain actors in our political arena have seen fit to politicize them and obscure the reality, and I think truth, of these efforts for political gain. As an academic, I try to remain as objective as I can, but it can be frustrating and even demoralizing to those of us who have dedicated our careers to understanding and advancing these ideas.
Still, I remain an optimist. I think there are a set of moral imperatives we need to respond to given historical inequities and denials of opportunity, which we cannot conveniently brush away or sweep away. There is also an economic, more pragmatic imperative to this work, which I think can resonate with a critical mass of people across sectors and industries, public and private, and might persuade the reasonable voter out there too. With the diversifying population in the United States, the future of our workforce depends on equity in education to train our next generation of workers and make them competitive.
We have to be able to make both of these arguments consistently, thoughtfully, and carefully, because there are elements in our political culture that are not interested in having an open, honest dialogue. In fact, it is in their interest that we do not do that. I feel we need a broader coalition of sectors working to advance equity: industry, military, and other groups. There is interest convergence for these groups on these issues, because diversity has pragmatic and economic benefits for them. We need to work to make people recognize that.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Your research, for example your co-authored book Ensuring the Success of Latino Males in Higher Education, stresses the decline in Latino college students despite overall gains in collegiate diversity, including among Latina populations. Would you discuss the unique factors or barriers your research has identified as contributing to this disparity, and some of the specialized interventions you have proposed to address this issue?
[Dr. Victor Sáenz] There’s a national conversation right now, which we see for example in Richard Reeves’ Of Boys and Men, about what is happening to our boys. In those conversations, I try to push us further and say, “If we triage these issues affecting boys and young men, which we often have to do because of our limited resources, we will not address the roots of this problem.” There is no question the greatest inequities exist for boys of color. There are many national and local efforts like the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance that have helped to raise consciousness about these issues and elevated this issue in the public eye.
Young men of color face disparities at every step of their educational journeys, whether they are framed as the school-to-prison pipeline or the cradle-to-career pipeline. As I approach this work, the narrative that I embrace is not one of doom, gloom, and “look at the sobering data.” If we focus only on how dire things are for men and boys of color, we miss the opportunity to interrogate further. We need to both understand and critique the underlying structures that perpetuate these outcomes, whether it is early childhood opportunities, special education tracking, the school discipline pipeline, or the juvenile justice system. On and on.
Every one of these areas deserves more scrutiny and criticism because those are the structures that are failing boys and young men of color, not the other way around. It is not the fault of these boys. It is the fault of the systems that are unable or unwilling to change. Ultimately, those systems are run and perpetuated by us: educators, school leaders, policy makers. I come at this work from this perspective: let us think about the larger structural issues, and also think about how we can support these young men on journeys that are often rife with failure, the denial of opportunity, discipline, and the redirection of progress.
I have devoted the majority of my career to studying the educational pathways and opportunities for Latino young men. I did not come to this work alone. My colleague Luis Ponjuan is faculty at Texas A&M University. We started working together many years ago, recognizing our common research interests and similar backgrounds. This work is personal for both of us, and we start with our own positionality. These issues resonate for us because of our own experiences. It is important to recognize that, because I think this is one of the reasons why diversifying our faculty ranks is so critical. It facilitates research and work that is more broadly reflective of the diversity of people that we serve in higher education.
At the beginning of our work in this area, there was very little research and understanding of the educational journeys and experiences of Latino male students. Many of my counterparts across the country were researching African American young men, and I continue to be inspired by that work. The Hispanic population is now the largest minority group in the country, and in states like California and Texas they are now the majority community. This demographic reality gives more urgency to focusing on the Latino population. In both states, over 50% of the student body identify as Hispanic. If half of this growing population is facing systematic challenges in graduating high school and entering college, it is incumbent on us to ask why.
We found very willing partners in our early days of doing this work. We had institutions reaching out to see if we could help them better serve their Latino populations. We began to build partnerships with community colleges and universities who had already recognized this as an institutional priority but were at a loss for identifying research that could support their efforts.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] You are Executive Director of Project MALES (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success), an award-winning venture to improve educational equity for Latino students that you co-founded in 2010, and you also helped create the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color, which works to coordinate the equity measures taken by K-12 and higher education leaders across the state. Could you introduce us to these initiatives, and how they attempt to address the link between equity at the K-12 and collegiate levels?
[Dr. Victor Sáenz] When I returned to Texas, I was fortunate to have the support of the university in the development of Project MALES (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success). [Luis Ponjuan and I] launched Project MALES 12 years ago. We had no intention of starting any kind of initiative in the early days of our work. But, speaking for myself, as a tenured faculty member at a place like UT Austin I am inclined to make sure my research is of benefit to the communities that I represent, and I do so unapologetically, recognizing the wide lack of faculty diversity. In many ways I feel responsible.
Project MALES has become the manifestation of our research agenda focused on Latino males in education. It allowed us to take what we learned from our research and put it into practice in a very real way. The strategy we seized on based on that early research was peer mentoring. We recognize for Latino young men, the challenges they face navigating high school and college are, in many ways, not different from those faced by other groups of students, but there is an added layer of social and family pressures that can emerge given the gender and social norms in the Latino community.
These young men often feel like they need to go work and be providers for their families because that is what they have been raised to do. We also recognized that they frequently lack a connection to an older peer who attended college, or someone in their immediate network that might be able to guide them in overcoming or reconciling their sense of familial obligation or responsibility and help them recognize a college degree as a better strategy to help fulfill those responsibilities. That is how our peer mentoring project was born.
Our programming draws from best practices across the discipline. We are heavily influenced by “Near-Peer Mentoring,” for example [which suggests people should be mentored by those relatively close to them in age and background]. Early in the peer mentoring program, we learned that mentoring is not throwing people in a room and having them figure it out. You have to be intentional, and there has to be a curriculum around it.
We have leveraged the opportunities we have here at UT Austin to carve out an academic service learning experience for students. The peer mentoring program is built around a service learning course where peer mentors are earning college credit and being trained to mentor middle school and high school boys in the regions. We are taking a broad, pipeline approach, and anchoring it in the core of our institution by grounding it in a service learning course. Our undergraduate students at UT will tell you that there is a reciprocal set of benefits in this, and we are trying to seize on this as a learning experience for all involved — the mentors and the mentees.
That is how Project MALES was born. Since then, there have been a number of offshoots from this work that still operate under the umbrella of Project MALES. Our local work is through our student mentoring program in partnership with many local schools in the central Texas region. Our statewide work is now in its 10th year in the form of our Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color. That consortium launched through the support of several Texas-based foundations that helped us envision a state wide response to this crisis faced by men of color in Texas.
The funders, like the Greater Texas Foundation and the Trellis Foundation, have been key thought partners for us. They have helped us become a backbone for a statewide network of K-12 schools, two-year colleges, and four-year universities, to convene consistently around this issue and share ideas and best practices for supporting men of color. I am honored to say that we have convened almost 30 times in different ways.
At the national level, we have applied our research agenda on Latino boys in education and on men of color more generally from the outset. This work has continued through the Project MALES Research Institute. Those are the three levels of our work: local, state, and national. We have a very ambitious agenda every year, and we have a great team to make it all happen.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] One important focus of your research in this area has been on two-year and community colleges. Could you discuss how you view the importance of community colleges and two-year institutions to fostering educational equity? What are some of the challenges you have explored in that context, for example, in your recent publication, “How Community College Staff Inflict Pervasive Microaggressions: The Experiences of Latino Men Attending Urban Community Colleges in Texas”?
[Dr. Victor Sáenz] I am a big advocate for community colleges, and I am privileged to work alongside and learn from so many community college practitioners here in Texas. From one corner of the state to the other, this sector is often at the frontlines, being innovative and entrepreneurial in providing support for all of their students. In particular, I have observed these institutions being extremely innovative around providing support to men of color through different initiatives. I think, in many ways, that sector of higher education often has the best handle on the needs of their highly marginalized students.
This is partly because higher education is structured such that community colleges depend on enrollment for their revenue. But if we reduce it to that, we are missing the point. I constantly observe a strong and passionate commitment to student success among this sector. The many people around the state of Texas whom I have worked with have a wholly unique commitment I do not necessarily see often in other sectors like four-year universities.
Through the work I have done as part of the Consortium [The Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color, discussed in detail above], I have seen it all from community colleges. I have seen innovation, I have seen them taking risks, I have seen them provide platforms for students to lead. They facilitate initiatives that are student-centered and student-led not only in name but also in action. I support putting students and student voices at the center of all we do, and I have learned so much from this community in that regard.
They also face some of the most significant challenges in helping these young men get to the finish line, whether they are challenges related to academic preparedness and the need for development education courses or the constant push-and-pull of factors that force many young men to stop out [or drop out]. For many of these students, higher education is not a very linear experience at all. These are not students who come right out of high school to two-year associates then go off into careers. That is the exception and not the rule. In response, community colleges have to be extraordinarily creative in how they are engaging these young men.
Even while community colleges are being very proactive in supporting these young men, it is often the job description of only a small handful of people at a large institution to really provide that supportive space. The microaggressions and negative experiences of students we explored in the article you mention often do not come from these individuals. They can come from students’ instructors and other staff.
This shows us, again, how much we have to think about our structures and systems: to better train our faculty and staff, to be mindful of these challenges for these young men, and recognize that these young men are often already tentative in their enrollment and institutional affiliation. One negative experience, inside or outside of the classroom, can wreak havoc on a student’s pathway. I think community college administrators and faculty, and those working in higher education more broadly, need to be mindful of how sensitive that experience can be.
Further, the last four years of COVID have also seriously challenged our ability to support these young men. We have seen serious declines in enrollment and retention. I am currently working on a research study funded by Trellis on community colleges and four-year universities working to re-engage the students who stopped attending due to COVID-19, which were disproportionately Latino male students. There is a lot we are trying to learn in real time right now about how two-year and four-year universities can combat these losses.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] At UT Austin, you serve as the Associate Dean for Student Success, Community Engagement, and Administration. Could you tell us more about this role and how you approach it?
[Dr. Victor Sáenz] I began this work when I took on the role of Acting Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusive Excellence, stepping in for a colleague due to illness. In 2023, the College changed the title of my position, and I became Associate Dean for Student Success, Community Engagement, and Administration. I made this transition after serving as Department Chair for the Department of Education Leadership and Policy, which I held for six years. This role means I am busier than ever, but affords me another vehicle to pursue my passion for equity and social justice.
The College of Education has the very important responsibility of training future teachers, school leaders, counselors, and physical and mental health professionals. In those spaces, the professionals we are training need to prepare to serve the diversifying population here in Texas and beyond. They also need to lead. We want our program to produce the next generation of leaders in their respective higher education institutions and specializations. That is a big part of what I do in this role. I work to ensure that our program areas across the college, at the undergraduate and graduate level, are adequately integrating equity as part of their efforts toward greater student success.
In my view, and as suggested by my position’s previous title, equity and excellence are mutually reinforcing values and goals. Everything we do as the College of Education has to be organized in light of that. This role was originally the vision of our Dean, Charles Martinez [Jr.], who instituted this office several years back as a way to plant our flag as a college in relation to the issue of equity. Many of us in the College of Education have research agendas that unapologetically embrace these values, given that we are tasked as public servants to serve the public view. In my view, that means serving the entire population of the state.
This returns to what I said toward the beginning of the interview regarding thinking about equity as action. We can take action toward equity through how we organize our curriculum and the kinds of competencies we build among all our degree programs to ensure we are unapologetically embracing equity. I do not see this role as political. I see others with their own agendas making it political. That is unfortunate because the work is real, necessary, and essential to advancing the future that I think we all want and can benefit from.
That these efforts are a threat to some suggests to me the urgency of the work and how much work there is left to do. The anti-CRT [critical race theory] effort, for example, provides even more evidence of the importance of grappling with these ideas and grappling with them in safe spaces where we can be vulnerable, ask questions, and make mistakes.
How is learning and growth going to happen for any of us if we are not given opportunities to engage one another thoughtfully, safely, and vulnerably? I am hoping as Associate Director I can generate more of these spaces on campus. Many community members are fearful in this political context, and its chilling effect is real, which some might argue is the point. I have nothing to hide or be ashamed of. We need a more commonsense approach to these issues to work against the way a few political actors have coopted the entire debate.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Based on your research and experience, do you have advice you would give to scholars, educators, or practitioners working to advance educational equity in their own institutions — either for Latino youth or more generally?
[Dr. Victor Sáenz] I said at the beginning of our discussion that I am a proud product of public education. I say this very intentionally. An inclusive, equitable public education is, in my view, the foundational principles of our democracy manifest. The advice I would offer, which I give to students entering UT Austin, is that this is your university. It is your institution. It belongs to you, and it belongs to all of us. For too long, there have been educational spaces where some communities feel they do not belong.
I take pride in being part of my institution, even though we here at The University of Texas have a complicated and ugly history of racial exclusion and segregation. We are not going to sweep that history under the rug. We are going to face it head on and understand it. We are not going to be nostalgic for our history, we are going to call it out for what it is. So many higher education institutions in this country have origin stories that are rife with hate and the subjugation and oppression of others. The slave trade, segregation, on and on. These used to be the values of our institutions, and they laid the economic foundations for our institutions.
Why would we ignore that, and not take it as a learning opportunity and a teaching tool? The point is not forcing people to feel guilt or remorse. These things happened generations ago. If we are feeling guilt or remorse in our contemporary context, we need to ask ourselves why that might be. Why is it in the interest of some to not engage in these discussions? What are we afraid of? Why can we not relitigate these issues within an educational context?
Efforts to ban books or do away with particular theories suggest that we have a long way to go on this journey despite the progress that we have made. My advice would be to recognize the work that remains to be done and to acknowledge that wishing away the history of the ideas and institutions of higher education will only exacerbate existing divisions. We need to focus more intently on how we might be honest with each other about the work that still needs to be done.
Thank you, Dr. Sáenz, for sharing your insights on equity in education, supporting young men of color, your work with Project MALES, and more!