It’s often difficult to make a casual — very casual — stroll through sections of the University of Minnesota and not find yourself thinking, “this place is really white.”
Questions about diversity have dogged the institution for some time. When the General College was closed and folded into the College of Education, diversity — or the lack thereof — was often at the heart of the protests against the decision.
“It is not acceptable for students who enter General College to graduate after six years at about a 30 percent rate,” University President Robert Bruininks said in 2005. “And if they’re students of color, it’s about a 20 percent rate. We need much higher levels of success for the students who enter the University of Minnesota.”
How has that worked out?
“The six-year graduation rate for students of color for 2007 was 48.6 percent,” Vice President and Vice Provost Nancy ‘Rusty’ Barceló, of the U’s Office for Equity and Diversity, told me today. “In 2005, it was 47.3. So we went up a little bit, but the four-year graduation rate in 2007 was 31.3 percent and in 2005 it was 23.8 percent. So I think we’re doing some things; it certainly isn’t where we want to be. The broader university wants to raise it above the 60-percent level but what’s important is we’re beginning to see more students who start their sophomore year, staying through their sophomore year. That becomes a real good indicator that these students are going to see their way through the institution.”
According to a University of Minnesota Daily story on diversity at the U last month, the number of students of color on campus has increased 20 percent since 2002, an indication perhaps that the university wide commitment to diversity was not “a bluff,” as one opponent of closing the General College alleged.
Barceló’s hiring in 2006 was part of Bruininks’ plan. (Also see my interview with Darlyne Bailey, the dean of the College of Education)
Still, the U clearly has its work cut out for it. Today, for example, a press release from Penn State University trumpeted the fact that it and Michigan, are the only Big 10 schools whose graduation rate for African Americans is near 70 percent. A story in the Journal of Blacks in Education put the U of M’s rate near the bottom.
Though we didn’t talk specifically about the report (I hadn’t seen it at the time we talked), Barcelo has worked to address the concerns of parents and community leaders, especially in the Twin Cities. She says the U is working harder to recruit a more diverse student body. “There was this concern that we’d see this drop-off of underrepresented students (with the closing of the General College). For this year, there are about 28,000 applications to the University of Minnesota, 7,200 were underrepresented students and of those, 2,200 were actually admitted to the university.”
Read and listen to the interview with Vice President and Vice Provost Barceló below the fold
Listen to the interview with University of Minnesota Vice President and Vice Provost Nancy ‘Rusty’ Barceló.
Here are a few snippets of the conversation:
Q: What is your overall assessment of the concerns about the closing of General College back prior to your coming to the U, and the present day with regards to diversity?
A: Well certainly that was one of the concerns. I think that the students…as I understand it… there were concerns on both sides — the university concerns and the people who were most directly affected. And certainly I think there was concern that somehow community would be dismantled, and I certainly understood that. That was a huge issue because they felt they received support in the college and by going to a broader approach, that would be lost. And as a Chicano I understand that community is important to all of us, in terms of where we find ourselves etc. Especially when we’re not overly represented, you don’t want to be the only ones in your class.
And also I think just the whole issue of accessibility, that it was a point of accessibility that might not be true in the College of Business in terms of admissions kinds of issues. But at the same time there was concern among the broader university community that 64 percent of all diversity was coming through the college and that’s something that I certainly subscribe to; diversity should be a university-wide responsibility.
And so how do we begin to do that in new ways? In fact the thing that I’ve been encouraged by is truly the way the colleges across the university have taken very seriously that goal in terms of how we are all responsible, what are the kinds of things we should be doing, and I’ve been kind of encouraged by that and I’ve been pleased with the progress.
In fact, one of the new colleges that was formed — the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences — put together one of the strongest diversity plans that I have ever seen. I use it as a model. I have been pleased, quite frankly, with the number of requests that I receive from colleges and departments from across the country who say ‘here’s our goal. Here are some of the things we’re thinking about . Are we headed in the right direction?’
I’ve been involved in the Access to Success program and the seriousness with which each college has undertaken that task, it’s been very refreshing. And so I’m encouraged and I think the fall-off that we thought might happen… there was this concern that we’d see this drop-off of underrepresented students. That hasn’t happened; we went up and we went 1 percentage point down and I believe, for example, that the current figures for this year, there are about 28,000 applications to the University of Minnesota, 7,200 were underrepresented students and of those, 2,200 were actually admitted to the university. Now they won’t all show up, but we certainly hope to get a good representation from the pool. So I think admissions rethought how they do recruiting, using a holistic approach in addition to the traditional way of looking at grades. In some ways the class is diverse and in other ways they’re better prepared, but at the same time, through the Access to Success for those students who still need the support of community, I believe those programs will do that.
In addition through this office, through the College of Education and Human Development, as well as Athletics, we partnered by putting together a summer bridge program (Bridge to Academic Success), and that brought in a number of students who typically would’ve been admitted through the General College who needed extra assistance in academic preparation.
We brought them into what I call an “academic boot camp.” It wasn’t just a feel-good program, but it was an intense learning in the area of writing and math, and they took regular university courses for the summer as well as tutoring and I was very pleased with the results. There were about 80 students who lived in the residence hall, who went through this program.
After their first semester, these students, who were in many ways seen as the bottom of the admission class, achieved on average a 2.6 GPA and we’re still providing them the kinds of support… through this office, the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence, and through the Bridge program, they’re provided the academic support, which is the kind of things the General College provided them. So we’re very, very pleased with the results and some of those students — two of them had 4.0s.
I fundamentally believe if you raise the bar high, and you have the right kind of support programs in place, and you believe in the students, they’ll rise to the level of expectations. I think some good things are happening, we’re not there by any stretch of the imagination. There’s a lot more work that needs to be done. The sense is among the faculty and the department chairs, they want to do it right.
Q: And how do you know when you’ve been successful?
Metrics is key. We’re in the process of developing those measures. It’s not just about how many students come in the front door or how many graduate, there’s other things: how do you measure the climate? And I think through surveys and talking to students, they’re going to give us a sense of what’s working.
Also the community. When I first came here, I went out and met with community members throughout, especially in the metropolitan area, I met with the African American community from the North Side. When I went out in the community, it was clear to me that they didn’t have information about what the university was trying to do in the area of diversity, and so I think we had failed them in trying to communicate some of the good things that are happening. I think they’re wonderful weathervanes. They’re going to let us know what’s happening because their sons or their daughters or their neighbors are going to come home and say, ‘Life is good at the U,’ and I want to hear more of that.
That’s an informal way but I think it has to be more than just anecdotes. We have to develop some serious and effective measures and the president is asking us that — what’s the effective outcomes of this so if we have a Bridge program, our goal was to get at least 50 percent of them through, but in fact over 90% are doing well academically. so it’s exceeding our expectation. We had a minimal goal.
Q: When you say ’50 percent through’…
A: Through the Bridge Program, and in fact only two didn’t matriculate as freshmen in the fall. I think that’s outstanding. So we’re looking at different measures. Certainly we’re going to look at the traditional ways. We want to increase the number of students of color who are graduating. That certainly is one measure.
Q: What is that rate now?
A: The six-year graduation rate for students of color for 2007 was 48.6 percent. In 2005, it was 47.3. So we went up a little bit, but for four-year graduation rate in 2007 it was 31.3 percent and in 2005 it was 23.8 percent. So I think we’re doing some things; it certainly isn’t where we want to be. The broader university wants to raise it above the 60-percent level, but what’s important is we’re beginning to see more students who start their sophomore year, staying through their sophomore year. When they come in the freshman year, there’s a drop-off rate. It’s in the 80-percent range; we’re retaining 80 percent of the students who start. We want to increase that number. We want it to be in the 90s. That becomes a real good indicator that these students are going to see their way through the institution.
There certainly are factors that affect it and we’re looking at this and certainly I think the president’s directive in terms of looking at middle-income scholarships is really important.
That is a big issue when students become juniors; if they’ve incurred debt, they’re likely to drop out of school.
Q: So who don’t come back or don’t graduate, is it because of one reason or another? Is it an academic issue? Is it a financial issue?
A: It’s a combination. Often times people just assume that it is academic and we’re finding that isn’t the case. Most students leave here in good academic standing. It’s generally for personal reasons, often time financial or there’s an unexpected death in the family, or they just stop out. A number of students stop out and they end up coming back. In fact there’s a program that we just instituted with athletics to identify those athletes who are six or seven credits shy of graduation and bring them back to complete their degrees and we’re looking at that in terms of a broader university program. We think there’s a number of students like that out there. Some of them have raised families and they’re ready to come back. We’re trying to figure out ways to reach them, becuase their life experiences are valuable to us.
Q: When you first came back to the Midwest, you went out and talked to various communities. You referred to parents’ perception of the U. What was that perception and has it changed?
A: Parents and community leaders. I think it has changed. It wasn’t as positive as I’d have liked to have seen it. I think it was because they didn’t have updated information, for whatever reason. I think it has changed. As I’m out there they feel like something new is happening. The results still aren’t there yet that they’d like to see but based on those meetings, we formed an intercultural advisory group made up of representatives from all of those groups and they’re kind of taking it back.
Q: Specifically, what were their concerns (the parents) in 2006 compared to now?
A: The themes have changed a little. One was they were concerned that their sons and daughters weren’t recruited by the university. That was one thing, the fact that they were good students. Then the other one was they felt they weren’t treated right when they came to the university. Those were the overwhelming kinds of things at that particular point in time. And a lot of that was based on their own experiences at the university in the ’60s and the ’70s.
I think overall there was concern about the climate on our campus. That was the overarching issues.
Today, it’s less about those individual issues because I think we are trying to do a much better job in terms of following up, and also keeping parents engaged. I just welcomed 300 students and parents who were newly admitted to the university two weeks ago, and that is an attempt to really keep the parents informed, so that when their son or daughter calls them, they’ll also know where to refer them. So it’s not just about recruiting students, it’s about what’s the outreach to the parents or the people who are in charge of these young people.
The conversations today still focus a little bit on environment. But some of the new concerns that are coming up… I just got this last Saturday but we’re seeing it more and more: ‘My daughter is biracial and has lived in a protective environment. How will she survive in this community, encountering racism?’ Those are very different kinds of questions.
Q: And what’s the answer?
A: I tell them that we’re not going to ask any student to check their identity at the door, that however that student chooses to identify, it’s our responsibility not only to develop the academic skills they bring with them, but we have a responsibility to develop all of their identities and help them … you know, how do you navigate the institution, not only for the good things but also some of the more challenging things that are going to happen. I think sometimes multiracial students feel they have to preference one parent over the other, and that isn’t what we’re about.
Now unfortunately we also have to figure out how do we educate the broader community about these students who have these biracial identities as well. So our goal is how do we get all of our units working together, because we also have students who are biracial, they may have a disability, they may be gay or whatever the case may be. So we need to make sure that all of the communities understand that it’s not clear that if you’re an African American you’re only going to be working on African American, they may be wanting to work in the Office of Disability or seek those offices so that our staff understands how to work with the multiple kinds of populations that we might have.
Q: When you look at issues of diversity, how do you explain a definition of diversity as opposed to assimilation? How do you maintain your cultural or racial identity — or whatever identity — and still be part of a whole?
A: That is one of my major themes of my speeches. For me it is the question. My concern is that diversity will be seen as a euphemism for assimilation. And what I tell groups and what I tell staff here is that the challenge is how do we maintain those individual group differences. Because what I know, who I am as a Chicana is critical to the work I do because I have a strong sense of self and so … we have a responsibility to ake sure that every student’s identity is developed to its fullest. Whether it’s a strong African American identity, a Native identity, how do we do that in a way that they don’t have to give up their identity.
But at the same time they’re going to embrace certain things in the institution that we want them to be part of the broader university community but it doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your individual group identity to do that. So we’re working with faculty and staff on that very issue.
I’m an administrator; it’s easier just to look at everything as one. But in fact I think what makes an institution is so incredibly rich and wonderful is all this diversity — the diversity of our thinkers, and that happens when you bring diverse populations together.
I still see the world through my Mexican eyes because that’s the way I was raised. But at the same time I feel very much a part of this broader community, so it’s about striking a blance, giving the students the confidence to say ‘it’s OK to be who you are’ and that’s not always easy. There are times when we tutor about math. We can argue that math is math but at the same time there’s different ways we all listen and different ways that we learn and I think we have to figure that out. Every staff member who is part of my staff, I want them to be a multiculturalist. I have a strong Chicana background, but it’s important that I understand the experiences of the Hmong to the extent that I can. But if I go into the Hmong community or I’m meeting with Hmong students, I make certain I have a Hmong staff member with me because there are going to be some things that I may not understand and I may just be talking about in the context of who I am.
It is a challenge to be sure, but the thing that I have found, I often find that the most assimilated students often times have the more difficult time at our institution because they’re not sure where they are or when they encounter some unkind act because of what they look like, they don’t know how to handle it.
I’m always reminded of a story I often tell when I give presentations of this, at another institution I was at, this student had come in with an ACT score of 33, valedictorian of his class, and he had pretty much been told that if he did all of these things, he would be treated like any other student at that university. He didn’t do very well academically and I was concerned so I called him in. I was asking him ‘what’s going on, you should be doing really well?’ The more he talked I realized he was having trouble saying something, so I asked him, ‘Are you trying to tell me you were discriminated against?’ He could not say the word and he broke down because he just could not believe it
We had a series of conversations and once he kind of had a better understanding he started to do well but he was pretty much .. he said ‘I thought I had assimilated.’ But he was visible, and he just didn’t think that would happen to him.