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UT Austin dean says diversifying design starts with decolonization

May 26, 2022, 5:00 PM UTC

The typical American design school’s curriculum is based on hundreds of years of Western theory and practice. At the University of Texas at Austin, administrators are working to deconstruct design education to make it more inviting to marginalized students and reoriented around their needs.

Speaking at Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference on Tuesday, Doreen Lorenzo, assistant dean of UT Austin’s School of Design and Creative Technologies, said that when the school eliminated the portfolio requirement, it saw a 74% increase in applications, which has in turn helped increase its diversity. 

“We’re not lowering the barriers,” she said. “[We’re] decolonizing things.”

She noted that the change has been long overdue: “Education systems are 450 years old, and they act that way.”

Lorenzo said that when she and her colleagues started to think about changing that multi-century system, they began by reflecting on why their programs were not attracting diverse applicant pools: “Why weren’t students coming to us? What were the barriers?” 

She identified the school’s portfolio requirement as a deterrent, especially for students coming from high schools that do not offer or emphasize design and art courses. “You’re going to tell me a high school kid that’s never taken a design course knows what a portfolio requirement is?” she asked. “I would run screaming if I was that high school student.”

UT Austin replaced the requirement with prompts for prospective students to complete, designed to measure creative potential. “If you’re creative, we’ll teach you the design part because you haven’t learned it anyway,” she said. 

Lorenzo said the uptick in applicants once the school did away with the portfolio requirement was “miraculous…And that’s where the diversity started changing.” Today, 68% of the school’s students identify as nonwhite, she said, while 62% of faculty do, too. 

There were skeptics who warned that the school would lose its accreditation. “They’re not going to take the accreditation away from the University of Texas,” said Lorenzo. “Not gonna happen.”

Increasing faculty diversity, she added, has been an essential component of decolonizing the school, so that students from marginalized backgrounds can see their experiences reflected in their educators. “That’s the most important thing, that they feel like they belong there.”

Though the school has taken significant steps toward becoming a more diverse and equitable space, Lorenzo said there’s always more work to be done. “It’s been a big change, and I feel a lot better that we are at least on our way there,” she noted. “Not that I would rest.”

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