Texas A&M Administrator Discusses Growing Up In The Segregated South
Texas A&M University Associate Provost for Graduate and Professional Studies Karen Butler-Purry oversees programs for nearly 15,000 graduate and professional students, one of the largest graduate enrollments of any public institution in the nation.
A professor of electrical and computer engineering (ECE), Butler-Purry leads the Office of Graduate and Professional Studies, designing programs, mentoring students and broadening participation of underrepresented minorities (URM). She said she uses her experiences as a Black student growing up in segregated Louisiana to deepen her understanding of the challenges minority students face today.
She was six, entering the first grade in Plaquemine, Louisiana in 1969, and the schools were segregated, despite the fact that 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation unconstitutional. In 1967, Louisiana’s constitution banned segregation in public facilities, but lawsuits delayed enforcement for several years.
“There were neighborhoods where it was almost exclusively Black, and neighborhoods that were exclusively white,” Butler-Purry said, adding that even when she attended an integrated school, “there wasn’t really a lot of mixing that happened except perhaps through after-school activities like sports and band.”
She said as a grade-schooler she became friends with a white girl around her age. “We would hang out a little, but then as we got older, that ended. I knew it was because we were a different color. We weren’t really supposed to be friends.”
Butler-Purry, a self-professed introvert and bookworm, said she and her two brothers were lucky to be somewhat insulated from much of the social discord around her thanks to her parents and a tight community of Black neighbors and teachers, who set high expectations for the younger generation.
“One of the things I remember from growing up was this pride that older Blacks had and this desire to see young Blacks succeed,” she said. “There was this village that you felt a part of. It was this motivation that helped you to want to succeed.”
Her father, Percy Butler Sr., a math teacher, and her mother, Eva, a paraprofessional in special education, encouraged Butler-Purry’s great interest in learning, especially math.
“I wanted initially to be a math teacher like my dad but one of their teacher friends said, ‘You can become an engineer. Engineers make more money than teachers,'” she recalled with a laugh.
Butler-Purry said despite the tight village of supporters around her, she witnessed systemic racism as the mode of operation. “It was prevalent. Opportunities that should’ve gone to the top students academically were given to white students, even when they weren’t the top.
“For my high school graduating class, the white guidance counselor was disturbed to have to select me and another Black student for the top scholarships and awards. We even had separate proms,” she said.
Upon graduation, Butler-Purry went to Southern University in Baton Rouge, about 30 miles from home, and earned her bachelor’s in electrical engineering. Her master’s and Ph.D. were also in electrical engineering, from the University of Texas-Austin and Howard University, respectively.
Butler-Purry said microaggressions were somewhat common during college, especially due to the fact she was a woman in a male-dominated field.
“Sometimes my male professors, they were not intentionally trying to hurt me, but some weren’t very encouraging of my decision to pursue a Ph.D. One even said, ‘Well, you might not get a husband if you get that Ph.D.,'” she said.
That unsolicited advice fell flat. She got both. Her husband, Ralph Purry, is a retired Marine Corps master sergeant. They have a daughter, Eva, who is in the 9th grade.
In 1994, Butler-Purry began teaching at Texas A&M and said she has enjoyed it greatly. When she first started as a professor she was apprehensive about whether or not the students would embrace her, since most of their other electrical and computer engineering professors were white and male.
“But I realized that if you show the students that you care, no matter where they were from, they would appreciate who you are and respect you,” she said.
Even though she is no longer teaching classes, she still mentors students, and said it’s especially rewarding when her unique experiences as a person of color are valued.
Texas A&M Provost and Executive Vice President Carol A. Fierke said Purry has done an outstanding job of developing mechanisms to enhance mentoring and continue academic momentum of graduate students.
“She has also done an exceptional job in leading the transition of OGAPS to a Graduate and Professional School,” Fierke said. “She will continue to develop best practices to enhance the excellence of the graduate and professional student and programs at Texas A&M.”
Among her many accomplishments while at Texas A&M, Butler-Purry:
- Expanded the university’s efforts in graduate student professional development in teaching through continued participation in the National Center for Integrated Research, Teaching and Learning Network;
- Facilitated the university’s first-ever climate survey of graduate students and leads efforts to implement changes to address the findings;
- Participated in several national projects facilitated by the Council of Graduate Schools to establish best practices in graduate education. Two of the projects include the STEM Master’s Completion and Attrition project and Doctoral Initiative on Minority Attrition and Completion project;
- Leads two collaborative projects with three Texas A&M System institutions funded by the NSF Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate program to open multiple pathways to the doctorate and professoriate for URM populations;
- Is the principal investigator for The Texas A&M University System Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Project to increase the number of URM STEM graduates;
- Is the principal investigator of the Texas A&M Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD) in biomedical sciences.; and
- Received the 2005 American Association for the Advancement of Science Mentor Award for efforts to mentor URM students and leadership in promoting Ph.D. careers for them in electrical engineering and computer sciences.
Butler-Purry said there is a need for more Black professors at Texas A&M and nationwide. “I see students who are searching for someone who shares their identity,” she said, adding she is grateful she can be here to support students who may feel alone or isolated.
When she looks back at her days as a young child in a confusing environment, Butler-Purry said in spite of the separation of races and continued discrimination against Blacks even after integration, “People couldn’t make me something that I wasn’t. At least I knew my identity. It never in my mind made me think I was lesser because I was Black and they were white. I knew that maybe we couldn’t be together, but it wasn’t because they were better than me.”
After 25 years at Texas A&M, Butler-Purry said she had hoped the number of Black faculty would have increased significantly, but that’s not the case.
Butler-Purry said unconscious bias also plays a role on campus. For example, after many years on campus, she’d often go to meetings where she didn’t know everyone and, “I had to give my background and my pedigree to demonstrate that I deserved to be here.”
Although there is work to be done, Butler-Purry said she is pleased to see progress in terms of the Hispanic student population. As of fall 2020, 21.9 percent of Texas A&M students identify as Hispanic. However, she added, there is work to be done in terms of representation of Hispanic faculty. She said she is encouraged by the recruitment success of the Vice President for Diversity’s ACES Fellows Program and the impact it will have on faculty diversity.
One way to make tradition-rich Texas A&M more inclusive, Butler-Purry said, is to develop new, inclusive traditions. She said she attended the same university for her undergraduate degree as her parents and that the traditions of her parents’ days were still there, but there were other traditions that were added over time to suit the changing student population.
“The new traditions must include ones that everyone is encouraged to participate in not just separate traditions that are labelled as traditions for minority students,” she said.
“I think that it’s okay to have traditions, but traditions have to evolve and be inclusive of the people who are there in that space at that time, because that’s what a tradition is about – making people feel like they belong.”