IMAGE:  February 2003  GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
Volume 95, Issue 3
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Minority Report

Amy Braverman

Dan Dry


While the Supreme Court takes up affirmative action in higher education, Chicago has its own racial hurdles to clear.

Almost four decades since the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 25 years after the Supreme Court issued a confusing decision that effectively allowed for racial considerations in higher education, the issue at U.S. universities is far from settled. The Court plans to revisit race-based admissions policies this spring, taking up two cases that white applicants filed against the University of Michigan. The issue of having an Afro-American studies department is debated on many campuses. Harvard's Afro-American studies department lost two high-profile, black faculty members to Princeton after academic skirmishes with Harvard president Lawrence Summers. And closer to home, last August when the New York-based Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (JBHE) ranked the nation's top 26 academic institutions on recruiting and retaining black students and faculty, Chicago came in last.

PHOTO:  Policy board cochair Ken Warren: The Mellon Fellowship program lets second-years "see what a Ph.D. would feel like."
Policy board cochair Ken Warren: The Mellon Fellowship program lets second-years "see what a Ph.D. would feel like."

Long before the ranking appeared, University administrators had recognized the problem. A mid-1980s report by School of Social Service Administration professor Dolores Norton decried Chicago's then-falling black enrollment rate and suggested steps to reverse the trend, only some of which were employed. As the JBHE noted, Chicago's stats are still far from desirable. Only 4 percent of the College's 1999-2000 student body—the most recent figures the JBHE could get at the time—was black (used here interchangeably with African American). In 1999-2000 the four-year average rate of black students graduating within six years was 67 percent, compared to 83 percent for whites, 88 percent for Asians, and 73 percent for Latinos. The black graduation rate climbed 2 percent the next year. On the faculty front, in 2002 blacks made up 2.7 percent of the total and 1.6 percent of tenured faculty.

Although Chicago officials acknowledge that the numbers are low, many found fault with the JBHE's methodology. Why rank public and private schools together? How did Caltech rank one spot above the U of C, when twice in the last six years no black freshmen enrolled there and only two of Caltech's 309 faculty members are black? Chicago administrators also were dismayed at the Journal's assertion that the University "has never been an enthusiastic supporter of affirmative action in student admissions," but they conceded that, as the JBHE noted, the low black enrollment is particularly noticeable "in a city in which the population is about one-half black."

"They confuse lack of results with lack of effort," says vice president and dean of College enrollment Michael Behnke, hired in 1997 from MIT (16th in the JBHE ranking). Behnke's directive was to put Chicago on more students' radar screens, including blacks' and Latinos'. "The problem was that too few people were hearing about us, too late, and the message wasn't strong enough," he says. "We had this myth of self-selection—that the right people knew about us—and people thought if we expanded our applicant pool, we would be getting the wrong people for the wrong reasons, that we'd turn into a second-rate Princeton. That was simply wrong. While we clearly attracted a lot of incredible people, there were lots of others who didn't know about us," including minorities.

One of Behnke's staff's first steps was to change the University's student-prospectus publications, making them "more up-front about the kind of place we are." The office also redesigned minority-geared pamphlets, quoting Latino and black students who emphasize—besides the core curriculum—the campus's "mix of students," its "urban community" and cultural organizations, and Career and Placement Services. And Behnke's office sends these materials to more prospects—140,000 high-school sophomores and juniors, including more than 20,000 sophomore and about 38,000 juniors of color.

In 1998 the admissions office began paying for admitted black and Latino students to visit the school and stay with current students of color; around 100 a year take the offer. This year the office expanded its budget to fly in some applicants of color as well, according to associate director of College admissions André Phillips. "It's a huge step forward," Phillips says, "and it gives us the opportunity to influence decision making prior to application deadlines." Because the policy change was made in the middle of the current recruiting cycle, only nine applicants were flown in this year. After evaluating the program, Phillips says, the office will decide how to expand it.

In 2001 the office created a "student-of-color strategy group," Phillips says, to "think in an organized way about how to recruit this underrepresented community." And continuing a practice that's been in place at least 20 years, current black and Latino students call admitted students of color to discuss life at Chicago. Admissions officers also visit more high schools, especially in the Chicago area, and work with national minority organizations that sponsor recruitment activities.

The College's active recruitment may be starting to show results. Early-action applicants for the 2003-04 school year increased 21 percent over the current year, 43 percent among Latinos (from 111 to 159), and a whopping 75 percent among blacks (from 57 to 100). Of those, Chicago offered admission to about 55 percent more Latinos and about 50 percent more African Americans than a year ago.

PHOTO:  Office of Minority Student Affairs director Kathy Stell: "This place was practicing affirmative action before it had a name."

Office of Minority Student Affairs director Kathy Stell: "This place was practicing affirmative action before it had a name."

As those figures show, the efforts have been more successful with Latinos than with blacks. Out of a total 5,361 applications in 1997, 239 were from Latinos. Five years later 447 Latinos applied out of 8,139 total. Latino enrollment has also increased. Of 1,000 first-years in 1997, 49 were Latino, growing to 87 out of 1,114 in 2002. Black applicants in 1997, meanwhile, numbered 299, increasing to 353 last year. Enrollment has varied, with 41 African Americans matriculating in 1997, dipping to 39 in 1999, up to 56 in 2000, and dropping to 45 in 2002.

While national surveys suggesting that both black and Latino families prefer a pre-professional over a pure liberal-arts education might account for the low overall minority enrollment, it doesn't explain the University's lopsided results. Chicago's own surveys of admitted minorities who enroll elsewhere haven't shown any statistically significant patterns, and Behnke is left to speculate why Latinos are more likely to matriculate than blacks. One guess is that the city of Chicago "is a real beacon for Hispanic students" because of its large Mexican population. Of course, Chicago is also a center of black culture, but Behnke points out that the University's relationship with the South Side has had its ups and downs.

That checkered history certainly resonates with local blacks. Although the U of C has never barred blacks, Jews, or women and is the institution where Georgiana Simpson, AB'11, AM'20, PhD'21, became the first black woman in the United States to earn a doctorate, many African Americans view Chicago as unwelcoming. Among the black community, says political-science professor Cathy Cohen, "there is a general consensus that the U of C has not always been a positive force on the South Side." Cohen, who joined Chicago from Yale last summer and directs the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, says many African Americans "see the institution as a place that has tried to protect itself from the South Side, that has driven out poor people from Hyde Park, that is alienating to students and faculty of color." Some Chicago staff members, she says, have told her that they will allow their children to apply to any college except the U of C "because of racism they encounter here on a daily basis."

Kathryn Stell, JD'86, assistant to the provost and deputy dean of students in the University, has her own theory: "A lot of places see the U of C as conservative, but it's more a sense of being libertarian," she says. "This school never practiced exclusion the way the Ivy Leagues did. Relative to what was going on in the rest of academia, this place looked like it was on the cutting edge." In the 1920s and the 1950s Chicago admitted communists and others refusing to take the Red Scare loyalty oaths. In the 1920s Chicago philanthropist and University trustee Julius Rosenwald, president and chair of Sears, Roebuck and Company, established scholarship programs for African American doctoral candidates. "This place was practicing affirmative action before it had a name," Stell says. After the 1960s Civil Rights movement, she continues, society shifted, "but the U of C stayed put. Everyone was engaged in positive social engineering then with affirmative action and accommodations, but the U of C didn't move. It wasn't interested in where you came from or who you were, but just that you were smart"—a progressive notion in the first half of the century but not in the second half. "An organization has to change, evolve, adapt to circumstances."

And that, Stell says, is what the University is finally doing. In addition to Behnke's efforts with College students, the University is attempting to recruit more black faculty and staff and improve relations on the South Side. One of Cohen's deciding factors to join the U of C, in fact, was the administration's active efforts in these areas. "I do think there's a new commitment to bettering the experience of black faculty and students," Cohen says, "as well as Asian and Hispanic faculty and students." The Race Center, for example, has been given new life after a shaky start in 1996—the same year black sociologist William Julius Wilson left for Harvard. Michael Dawson, the center's first director (and Cohen's dissertation chair at the University of Michigan), was appointed political-science chair and Race Center director at the same time, Cohen says, so the center wasn't given the priority many had hoped. After Dawson followed Wilson to Harvard in 1999, Race Center faculty members approached the administration about giving it stronger support. University officials "realized they needed to build something on campus to root black scholars and people studying race and ethnicity to the University," Cohen says. Last year the University named Cohen the center's head and gave it a new home at 5733 S. University, sharing a house with Gender Studies. While the Race Center is for faculty and student research on race and ethnicity, Cohen envisions the large first-floor rooms, with their white walls and dark-wood molding, as homey areas for students to confer and work—once the furniture arrives.

The center also may attract more African American faculty, Cohen hopes. While Harvard focuses on recruiting big-name black scholars like Dawson and Wilson, the U of C is sticking with its longtime recruitment strategy of going after younger, perhaps lesser-known scholars. Besides Cohen, the University recently has hired rising stars like assistant professors of English Jacqueline Stewart, AM'93, PhD' 99, and Jacqueline Goldsby, classical languages & literature associate professor Danielle Allen, assistant professor of sociology Omar McRoberts, AB'94, and assistant professor of political science Melissa Harris-Lacewell.

"It has more impact to cultivate a school of younger, multidisciplinary, cutting-edge scholars to complement the core of better-known names," dean of students in the University Stephen Klass says, "rather than to continue to compete with other elite institutions over the same pool of celebrities." Hiring younger scholars is "a way to enhance the academic excellence of an important set of related fields at this institution."

PHOTO:  Race Center's Cathy Cohen: "There is a general consensus that the U of C has not always been a positive force on the South Side."

Race Center's Cathy Cohen: "There is a general consensus that the U of C has not always been a positive force on the South Side."

"In most fields race and gender are important factors to consider," agrees provost Richard Saller. "There's no question that in studying these fields minority faculty bring special experiences; though they're not the only ones who can study race, they bring perspectives others can't." Chicago's diversity goals in faculty hiring, Saller stresses, are rooted in its goals of academic excellence. In biomedical research, for example, "there are some areas of health treatment that have very clear differences in ethnicity and race." In the humanities "there are some areas in African American cinema studies that have been understudied." In music "we've never had anyone who specializes in jazz, one of the major American art forms."

Humanities dean Janel Mueller, in fact, plans to go after a jazz scholar (who may or may not be black). She's offered faculty positions to black Cornell English professor Hortense Spillers and MIT linguist Michel DeGraff, and she's courting an African American art-history scholar. Recently raising the number of black professors in the English department to three, Mueller adds, "has been a perceptible magnet for black-student enrollment" there.

Other magnets include new fellowship programs for minority students, which helped bring the incoming minority Ph.D. cohort in the social sciences to 10 percent, Saller says. English professor Kenneth Warren, meanwhile, is Chicago's faculty coordinator of the national Mellon Fellowship program, which encourages minority undergraduate students in underrepresented fields to work on research projects with faculty. The program allows college sophomores "to see what a Ph.D. would feel like," Warren says. If the students later pursue doctorates, they continue to receive Mellon financial assistance.

Elsewhere in the University, Pritzker School of Medicine associate dean of multicultural affairs William McDade, PhD'88, MD'90, recruits minority residents and students, bringing the most recent first-year medical class to 19 percent. McDade, an associate professor of clinical anesthesiology, also works with programs that coach minority students to become better medical-school candidates. He worries about the diminishing number of African American males in medical schools nationwide—a trend that is all too likely to continue: "We need a pipeline system," he says. "We have to cultivate students from grade school to high school to college." Through an American Medical Association program called Doctors Back to School designed to pique young blacks' interest in medicine, he recently visited his own grade school on the South Side.

Enrollment alone, however, isn't enough. When they arrive on campus some black College students sense little administrative support from the University. "The University breaks you down and doesn't build you back up," says third-year Jasmine Harris, an economics concentrator from Paducah, Kentucky. Harris, president of the Organization of Black Students (OBS), says many black students in Chicago classrooms are expected to represent their entire race during discussions. They feel socially isolated because they don't share the same interests as their white peers, she adds, or their peers assume they don't share the same interests. Even something like a dorm movie night exposes the majority's lack of sensitivity. "None of the movies the RH suggested had any African American directors or actors," Harris says. "We don't need something every moment of every day, but now and then it's just nice to show you're aware."

Harris can name five or six black students from her year who transferred schools, contributing to the 33 percent of black students who don't graduate. "The University is under the impression that black students who leave school aren't prepared for the academic rigor," she says. "In a few cases that may be correct, but it has more to do with the environment of the University." It's an environment that rewards competition and individual achievement over group work and collaboration, but some black students, Harris says, may do better in groups because they are so community-oriented—inclined to seek each other out for both social and academic support.

Olusola Akintunde, Reynolds Club assistant director and OBS adviser, agrees that Chicago can be an uncomfortable place for black students. Although he has seen positive changes in recent years, the lack of African American faculty (Harris has never had a black professor; there are none in economics) and lagging social environment still grates on students he meets. They begin to feel resignation and apathy toward the University, Akintunde says. "There's just not a general understanding of minority issues."

In fall 2001 OBS representatives approached the dean of students office about creating a multicultural space on campus where students could gather to study and socialize. After months of meetings among students and administrators, the upstairs mezzanine of Harper Library—including the Weiss Lounge, the meeting room, and a new office area—was planned to open in late January to meet that need. But Akintunde says that simply getting University officials to understand the need for such a space was difficult. "Most people would say, 'Go to the C-Shop or a cafeteria or something. No one is stopping black students from gathering there.'" While the majority sees those areas as generic, he says, they're actually quite "Western" in decoration, music choice, and general atmosphere. The multicultural center he envisions has "more cultural books, people of color, music, art"—an atmosphere that black, Latino, or Native American students might have in their own homes. And while the Harper spot is not many advocates' first choice because it's fairly small and tucked away, "it's a step in the right direction," he says. "Sometimes it helps just to know you're being considered."

PHOTO:  OBS's Jasmine Harris: "The University [thinks] that black students who leave school aren't prepared for the academic rigor."

OBS's Jasmine Harris: "The University [thinks] that black students who leave school aren't prepared for the academic rigor."

In the intellectual U of C environment, Akintunde says, he often hears rambling arguments that avoid the relevant issues. At meetings, he says, some whites will ask, "What is a minority anyway? I'm Irish American; I'm a minority." This line of arguing, he contends, dilutes the problems that black, Latino, and Native American students encounter. "Intellectually," the young man with a Nigerian accent says, "I can argue that I'm not black. But that's just talking in circles."

In the last year or so Akintunde has noticed a shift in attitude. Assistant vice president for student life William Michel, AB'92, Akintunde says, has followed up on many black students' concerns, "marking a real progression instead of nebulous conversation." Michel, a behind-the-scenes guy who, at the age of 32, has worked for the University since his graduation, acts as a liaison between College students and University administrators. When OBS approached his office about the multicultural space, as well as concerns over the lack of black faculty and student support from the University, Michel recalls, "we sat down with students, and those conversations were linked with conversations the [Coordinating Council for Minority Affairs (CCMI)] board had already been having, so we were able to listen to their concerns and work with students and colleagues on some of them"—including a mentorship program in which minority graduate students are paired with College students for social support and a new College mentorship program that pairs minority students of similar academic interests.

Working with minority students, Michel says, was a natural step after the many recent, large-scale campus improvements—such as the Reynolds Club for student activities, the Bartlett dining commons, the Palevsky residential commons, career services, and the in-progress Ratner Athletics Center. "We believe there are opportunities for specific efforts to enhance the life of smaller groups of students," Michel says. And like other recent changes, he argues, increased diversity aids students' education. "I think it's crucial for the intellectual academic development of all of us," he says, "if this is to be an environment where a wide variety of views and perspectives shape intellectual discourse and research."

Michel's sentiment is also why provost Saller and dean of students Klass have restructured CCMI, previously an administrative policy group. The council has been split into two parts: the Office of Minority Student Affairs (OMSA), focused completely on student services, and a still-unnamed policy board, cochaired by Klass and English professor Warren, that deals with the full range of minority faculty, staff, and student issues. Stell, OMSA's first director and the liaison between the two groups, says, "We needed to make that split between policy and practice more pronounced."

The policy board, Warren says, will reassess current programs to better coordinate minority-related efforts. The lack of coordination, Warren says, has created a dearth of knowledge about programs and activities on campus, which in turn may lead to poor rankings by groups like the JBHE and misperceptions in the larger community. Many issues the group will discuss also affect the student body as a whole, Warren says. Compared with other elite schools, for instance, "we have lower retention rates of all students"—not just blacks, he says. Broadly conceived solutions, therefore, "are important parts of the initiative and central to the mission of the institution." In addition the group will address faculty and staff hiring, particularly hiring minority staff in higher-level positions.

Klass sees the policy board as the group that will "hold the appropriate people accountable." In a decentralized place like Chicago, the board is meant to be the hub of the minority-affairs wheel. Its accountability, Klass says, lies in "establishing appropriate guiding principles that support generalized goals, and then designing a set of measurements to track how successful we are in attaining them." Race Center director Cohen, however, worries that no single person is held responsible for all of these initiatives. "The University has the opportunity to say, 'We have not done well on this in the past. This is what we're going to do now.'" There should to be a high-level person, she argues, whose job would be on the line if the goals are not met. Many campuses have an office of minority affairs, she says, whose director is responsible for monitoring and improving minority students' experiences.

Chicago should look to outside institutions for other types of guidance as well, Cohen adds. For example, Yale, ranked 13th by the JBHE, has set up a thriving graduate program and cultural center. Duke, ranked first, continues to increase its black enrollment. Stanford, ranked 12th, has a strong comparative-race-studies program. And Harvard, ranked eighth, is a model for recruiting black faculty—though Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, Saller notes, have an equal or lower percentage of black faculty than Chicago does.

Chicago, meanwhile, is watching the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule on the Michigan cases by June. Although the Court decision will affect public schools more directly than private institutions like Chicago, Klass says, "it sets the national climate on the topic." And farther down the road, Warren believes, "the forces that have led the challenge" at Michigan "are figuring out how to extend the challenge to private institutions."

In the meantime Warren welcomes the progressive efforts at Chicago. Still, many of these efforts are recent enough that results have yet to appear. In more than one way, as Warren notes, "the jury's still out."



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