Norma Cantu: A lifetime fighter for equal access to quality education
Posted: 04/29/2013
Share |

Norma Cantu (BS '73) has devoted her life to ensuring all young people have equal access to a quality education.

Norma Cantu (BS '73), selected as a 2013 UT Pan American Pillar of Success, is congratulated by UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen during the Alumni Ball held earlier this year. Cantu is a longtime civil rights activist and a professor of law and education at UT Austin.
It's been a brave journey for the lawyer, educator and longtime civil rights activist who is known for her commitment to "doing what is right." Earlier this year she was named, with four other alumni from The University of Texas-Pan American, as a "Pillar of Success" to honor her achievements and contributions to society.

"What I was motivated to do was to be part of a group of people who wanted folks in the Valley to have choices," said Cantu, who was humbled by her nomination and selection.

She grew up in Brownsville, Texas, the oldest of Federico and Gregoria Cantu's six children, all of whom became college graduates. Cantu recalled her mother checking her children's homework nightly as they sat around the kitchen table to study.

"It was not negotiable about going to school. They were very firm and committed to all of us completing our education," Cantu said.

An avid reader and a high achiever, she skipped grades twice in elementary school.

"She was very talkative and paid attention to everything that was going on," her mother said. "If she doesn't like something or if she thinks something shouldn't be, she'll tell you."

After graduating from high school at 16, she attended Texas Southmost College, then Pan American University, where she graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and government when she was 19. A member of the Pre-Law Society, Cantu said the early '70s was an exciting era of growth and free speech on the Pan Am campus.

Encouraged by her Pan American ethics professor and parents, Cantu applied to Harvard Law School and was accepted into one of its earliest classes to include Hispanic females. And when most students were just completing their undergraduate studies, Cantu graduated with a law degree at 22.

"It was eye opening when I got to a private college and I saw that the library was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week - they could afford the staff, the utilities," she said, comparing Harvard's facilities and programs available then to those at Pan American. "I knew that people from Brownsville can become Cabinet members, can become judges, can become national leaders - they are just as good as anywhere else but what became clear to me in 1973 was the gap in resources."

That realization started Cantu's lifelong career focus of addressing such inequities and discrimination in any form.

During a 14-year stint at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) as a regional counsel and education director, Cantu became a tough litigator participating in historic cases affecting educational funding, access to higher education and gender and disability rights. She was a co-counsel in a successful challenge by low-wealth students to Texas' public school finance system, which led to reform in the state's school funding laws.

"Until that case happened, people didn't even know that the constitution of Texas was about educational access failure. They weren't even aware that this was an important issue but after the case, people now ask political candidates where do you stand on the funding for schools, where do you stand on the fairness of tax rates, what are your intentions in regard to equal opportunities in education. It changed the social fabric of Texas," Cantu said.

Cantu also helped lead the charge, in LULAC vs. Richards, that the state was shortchanging South Texas in its distribution of higher education dollars. That case prompted the legislature to appropriate millions in extra funds for border colleges and universities.

"What MALDEF has done that is really helpful to the Latino community is that it has focused on the economic development of Latinos, giving Latinos the tools to join the middle class. These kinds of cases opened up career opportunities that people could become educated to work in higher wage jobs," she said.

Norma Cantu (BS '73) is pictured with her family members by the UTPA Visitors Center Pillar honoring the alumna for her achievements and success. The professor of law and education at UT Austin is a former regional counsel for the Mexican American Defense and Educational Fund and the first Hispanic female to serve as the assistant secretary for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education.
Cantu admits to submitting her own name among those MALDEF regularly recommended to officials in Washington, D.C., to ensure a more diverse pool of candidates to be considered for U.S. government posts. She subsequently was nominated in 1993 by President Bill Clinton to serve as assistant secretary for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. Her nomination was approved unanimously by Congress.

Cantu's list of accomplishments there, during a busy time for civil rights enforcement, were numerous, including restructuring and modernizing the office's management and improving the timely investigation and resolution of cases. Cantu also worked with then-U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley to expand college grants and loan programs available to students.

"We were really committed to diversity and seeing to it that college was both affordable and accessible," Cantu said.

Riley says he is grateful for her strong leadership and stellar public service during their two terms working together.

"Norma's steadfast belief that civil rights laws reinforce sound education practice contributes greatly toward ensuring equal access to quality education for all of our nation's students," Riley said. "Her great energy, brilliance, collaborative style and passionate commitment have made a positive difference in the lives of students, parents and the entire education community that will benefit our nation for decades to come."

In 2001, Cantu assumed a joint appointment as a professor in education and law at The University of Texas at Austin, where she chairs the Department of Educational Administration.

Cantu says through the combo roles at UT Austin she is helping to train a new generation of school executives and leaders to make decisions that are educationally applicable and legally defensible.

UT Austin President William Powers Jr., former law school dean, says he has seen first-hand how students benefit from her deep experience in civil rights, state and federal policy, and advocacy.

"She's a success story because she works for the success of others," Powers said.

Cantu also continues her life's work in civil rights as a board member of MALDEF and Excelencia in Education.

She said her advice for her fellow alumni is to be proud of where you come from but also be committed to work to make it even better for those who follow.

"The alumni can be very helpful. Some students may need financial aid support and alumni can donate scholarships. And other students may need mentors and encouragement. The students need to hear from other graduates that it is doable, its achievable, and that we care," Cantu said.

Hear more about Cantu's impactful life in this video: