News & Media

Higher Ed’s Future May Lie in its Past

By Suchitra V. Gururaj, Ph.D., Assistant Vice President, Community Engagement, Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at The University of Texas at Austin

Suchitra Gururaj Author Photo

Across a higher education sector experiencing the impacts of demographic shift, stagnant enrollments,
and increasing competition, construction of new buildings has become difficult to justify. As well, with
buildings averaging 50 years old, the costs of deferred maintenance can be onerous.
One solution to this conundrum is historic preservation. The rehabilitation of historic buildings creates
multiple benefits for an institution. First, there is the cost-effective approach to expansion, potentially
supported by Rehabilitation Tax Credits.

Second, because universities are, as Bensen and Harkavy state, “not only in but of their local
communities,” renovating a building of historic significance may elevate an institution’s reputation as a
community-engaged organization.

The University of Texas at Austin engaged in such preservation work starting in 2017 with the purchase
of the first building designed by John Saunders Chase, the first Black graduate of the university’s School
of Architecture. Located in East Austin—formally created by the city’s 1928 master plan as the Black and
brown district of the city—the building was erected in 1952 as the headquarters for the Colored
Teachers State Association of Texas. Its second life was as the House of Elegance, an East Austin beauty
shop that served generations of patrons. The building will continue its legacy as the John S. and Drucie R.
Chase Building, which will host the public-facing programs of the Division of Diversity and Community
Engagement Center for Community Engagement (CCE).

In our renovation, our CCE team was active in neighborhood association meetings with the Robertson
Hill and Blackshear neighborhood associations. As an anchor institution, we reached out to other
anchors in our new neighborhood– schools and libraries—to understand how we might partner. UT’s
Project Management and Construction Services (PMCS) team invited Donna Carter, FAIA, expert in
historic preservation and the first licensed Black female architect in Texas, to advise around renovating
the building in the spirit of Chase’s design. Our stewardship and relationship building in the community
promoted a seamless process and encouraged partner trust and patience even through the pandemic
and the Texas winter storm when PMCS had to suspend the renovation process. Indeed, community
members appreciated PMCS’s clear communication, expertise, and obvious care around this passion

The rehabilitation of historic buildings may promote a sense of belonging and welcoming for students
who engage with that history. To posit the building as the intersection of diversity and community
engagement in a gentrified East Austin, our team seized the opportunity to tell the stories of those who
made East Austin a community – the residents, the homeowners, and the organizers. Working with
service-learning students in UT’s Moody College of Communication, our team produced a trove of
personal stories
. Students interviewing elders became co-authors who not only came to understand the
significance of the Chase Building and East Austin but to gain wisdom, support, and often understanding
in their conversations. Says Stephanie Lang, director of the Center’s community-facing programs,
“through the power of storytelling, we have witnessed not only the positive impact of these stories on
those who risked having their legacies erased but also the transformative impressions on our
participating students.”

Finally, historic preservation offers a new model for all types of anchor institutions to participate in a
place’s inclusive and equitable growth. In Austin, the newly formed Austin Economic Development
Corporation (AEDC) seeks to foster equitable growth by connecting public and private partners around
urban development. Says AEDC Chief Transaction Officer Anne Gatling Haynes, “as we develop out the
Cultural Trust program for the City of Austin, designed to preserve permanent affordability for
music/arts/culture and makers through real estate investments, we are focused on assuring that the
breadth of agents active in the cultural ecosystem have direct representation, preserving the unique
DNA of this City in place.”

As higher education institutions, claiming our place and investing in enhancing it, rather than eliding it,
may make good economic and engagement sense.

  • Commission on Economic & Community Engagement
  • Commission on Innovation, Competitiveness, & Economic Prosperity
  • Council on Engagement & Outreach

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