The New Complexion of Retention ServicesFebruary 18, 1999 |
The New Complexion of Retention Services
Attacks against race-sensitive admission policies are prompting many campuses to refocus retention programs that once targeted minority students
By Michele N-K Collison
While opponents of affirmative action programs wage their very public battle to dismantle university programs that consider race as a factor in admissions, colleges and universities around the country are quietly modifying their retention programs for minority students so that these initiatives do not meet a similar fate.
Several administrators say universities are dropping race as a criteria for participating in cultural and academic programs that were created to increase the chances
that Black, Latino, and Native American
students would graduate from traditionally White universities.
“Universities are quietly modifying programs that might make obvious targets,” says Isaac Colbert, senior associate dean for graduate studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who believes many universities are still committed to building and maintaining environments where students feel comfortable.
From the outset, many of the retention programs — although targeted to Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans — have always accepted White students, administrators say. MIT’s program to increase the number of minority students in graduate science and engineering programs, for example, has always admitted some White students, Colbert says. But the university decided to drop racial language from descriptions and advertising of the program.
“In the current climate, you can’t say this program is for Black, Hispanic, or Native American students,” says S. Gordon Moore Jr., director of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Office of Minority Education.
Like MIT, Moore says White students have always been a part of Georgia Tech’s program. Still, many university attorneys have advised administrators to change the language of their minority retention programs so that the initiatives are not perceived as discriminating on the basis of race.
“It’s changed the whole way we had to approach our program,” Moore says. “But we’re trying to position ourselves so we don’t ever feel the wrath of anti-affirmative action groups.”
More Inclusion Needed
Campuses that opt to make their programs more inclusive face the challenge of doing so without eroding the level of service they offer to students of color.
“We were just not interested in getting into a legal battle,” says Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
Hrabowski created the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program to increase the number of Black students who pursue careers in science and engineering. The university decided to change the program three years ago after a federal court ruled that the University of Maryland-College Park could no longer give out scholarships on the basis of race. Now all students are eligible to apply to the Meyerhoff program, but they must demonstrate an interest in working with underrepresented groups.
“We are still supporting African American success in the sciences, but we are also training a broader group of students who have the time to think about issues of race,” he says.
Today, 70 percent of the Meyerhoff scholars are Black, while 30 percent are White and Asian.
Though the current examination of retention programs is jarring, some welcome a chance to focus attention on programs that have been viewed as little more than “babysitting” services on campus.
“Many of these programs are operating off an old paradigm and they need to rethink their strategies,” says Moore. “It’s time for new blood and new energy.”
Others agree that it may be time for
some of the minority programs to undergo changes.
“Many of these programs have been viewed as academic welfare,” says Michael Olivas, professor of law at the University of Houston. “Now many administrators are reading the tea leaves and broadening these programs to make them more acceptable.”
For All Students
Retention programs for minority students were created during the late ’60s and ’70s in response to demands by Black students and professors that universities improve the graduation rates of minority students on traditionally White campuses. Now college officials are starting to recognize the value retention programs have for all students.
“These programs shouldn’t just be for underrepresented students,” says Richard Tapia, a professor of mathematics at Rice University who also directs a summer program for minority students to encourage them to pursue graduate studies in math and science. “If these programs worked well for minority students, why not implement them for all students?”
Homes Away from Home
“The new word is diversity,” says Dr. M. Rick Turner, dean of the office of African American affairs at the University of Virginia. “Universities want to be much more inclusive of other students. So you hear a lot of talk about first-generation college students or reliance on socioeconomic status.”
The status of Black or multicultural centers is also coming under scrutiny on many campuses because critics charge that universities are tolerating segregated housing. In 1995, the New York Civil Rights Coalition (NYCRC) filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights alleging that two of Cornell University’s dormitories had been allowed to make race-based housing assignments in violation of civil rights laws. The OCR ruled that the university didn’t violate any laws by maintaining the Latino Living Center and the Ujamma Residential College.
“Colleges are encouraging racial balkanization on campus,” said Michael Meyers, executive director of the NYCRC. “Colleges are creating special programs and special facilities for minorities, and that just contradicts the mission of higher education.”
But others argue that cultural centers play an important role on campuses.
“These centers represent a way for students to connect with a large number of Black students on predominantly White campuses,” said Frederick Hord, president of the National Association of Black Culture Centers. “These centers, [they] feel, [are] their only home away from home.”
Several campuses, including the University of Maryland-College Park and Purdue University, have built new Black cultural centers, according to Hord, who is also director of the cultural center at Knox College. But he cautions that the cultural centers that will survive in the future are the centers that affiliate with academic programs.
“Centers have to move away from their babysitting image,” he says. “They have to do research and have libraries and become connected with the critical academic component of the university.”
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