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.
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 bodythe most recent figures the
JBHE could get at the timewas 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-selectionthat the right people knew about usand
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,"
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 emphasizebesides
the core curriculumthe 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 prospects140,000 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
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 1996the 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 workonce 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."
"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"
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 nationwidea 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.
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-orientedinclined 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 Libraryincluding
the Weiss Lounge, the meeting room, and a new office areawas
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."
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
Working with minority students, Michel
says, was a natural step after the many recent, large-scale
campus improvementssuch 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
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
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.
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 facultythough 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."