Published Online:

Campus Tensions Flare Up Amid Charges of Racism

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

A group of more than 50 black students at the University of Pennsylvania in February occupied the office of the university president to protest "racial harassment" by other students and what they said were racist remarks by a faculty member.

The tactic, an echo of an earlier era of black activism on campus, reflects a resurgence of black-white tension that is not unique to Penn, college officials and others say, and could lead to trouble at other institutions.

The Penn students demanded mandatory racism-awareness seminars for faculty and students and expressed concern about the small number of black faculty members on the campus. Only 30 of the institution's some 2,000 professors are black and only 16 of those have tenure, according to university officials.

On other campuses, admissions officers concur that black students are concerned about dwindling black enrollments, the small number of black faculty members, and what they perceive to be vestiges of racism within the campus community. Black student leaders at several elite institutions that a decade ago were vocal in their commitment to seeking out minority students and faculty have held meetings with campus administrators in recent months to ask whether that commitment has slipped.

What they are being told, some college officials acknowledge, is that times have changed.

"These college campuses are not what they were in the late 60's or early 70's," according to David L. Evans, senior admissions officer at Harvard University.

Harvard still makes an effort to recruit black students and develop support programs for them once they arrive on campus, Mr. Evans said. But "maybe 2 percent" of the arts and sciences faculty is now black, he said, while it was twice that 10 to 12 years ago.

"It's difficult to get colleges to do what they used to do, and some never did as much as they should have," said Nelson Armstrong, associate3director of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former co-chairman of the Association of Black Admissions and Financial Aid Officers at Ivy League and Sister Schools. "More than anything else, you have a group that is feeling more disenfranchised than 10 years ago."

Differing Views on Climate

John S. Epps, executive director of Omega Psi Phi, one of the largest of the predominantly black college fraternities, says that although more work needs to be done to increase the involvement of black students in activities outside the classroom, they have been largely integrated into the mainstream of academic life.

But Barry Beckham, professor of English at Brown University and the editor of The Black Students' Guide to Colleges, argues that only about 150 of the 3,300 institutions of higher learning nationwide are successful in providing a supportive environment for minority students.

These institutions include traditionally black colleges (which enroll about 20 percent of all blacks who attend colleges and universities), some well-known predominantly white institutions--such as Oberlin College, Wesleyan University, and Stanford University--and other schools not so much in the national spotlight--such as Agnes Scott College, Mount Holyoke College, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

"There is a tone and attitude on these campuses that says, 'We un-derstand we are involved in the process of education and that that process goes beyond books. ... To learn, you cannot just be around people who think, look, and act like you,"' Mr. Beckham said.

"These schools take into account a student's background," he added. "They realize that some are more prepared than others and take on the responsibility to be cognizant of unpreparedness and do something about it."

The support the institutions provide, Mr. Beckham said, "is not only academic but psychological."

Yet today, when money is tight and costs are rising, colleges have "a tendency to balance off priorities" at the expense of affirmative-action and minority programs, according to Mr. Beckham.

Racial Tensions Reported

Officials and students at several institutions confirmed in recent interviews that race relations have become a campus issue again..

At Brown University, black students have met with administrators to discuss a wide range of problems, including security issues and raising the number of minority faculty members, according to Kris Douglas, a junior who has been involved in the meetings. She said incidents on campus--bottle throwings and scuffles between students--have caused blacks to be concerned about their safety.

University officials acknowledge that there are fewer black faculty members on campus than thereel5lwere a decade ago when black students occupied the main administration building to protest what they described as the university's failure to live up to previous commitments to increase the number of black faculty and students.

At Bowdoin College, race relations is the "theme of the year" this year, according to Sammie T. Robinson, assistant director of admissions. Last year, race relations soured when students started a conservative newspaper, The Bowdoin Patriot, that attacked affirmative action.

The paper prompted black students to wonder "whether they should be here, whether they were wanted here," Mr. Robinson said. The students, he said, felt they "should have gotten more support from other students and the administration."

Bowdoin has only two black faculty members out of 106, a major reason the school has problems "attracting large numbers of blacks," he added.

Last quarter, black groups on the Ohio State University campus, offended by what they called "racial slurs" appearing in the student daily newspaper, demanded and got a meeting with the director of the university's minority-affairs office, the university provost, the heads of the journalism school and the publications department, and editors of the student newspaper.

In addition to airing their views on the newspaper's alleged racism, they asked for expanded coverage of minority activities, an increase in the number of blacks on the paper's editorial staff, the university's publication board, and in university administration generally, and more scholarships for black journalism students.

At Franklin and Marshall College, minority students held an open forum with the president after the number of black freshmen fell from 29 last year to 13 this year. The students wanted to know "where the institution stood" as far as hiring minority faculty members and recruiting more minority students, according to Donald K. Marsh, associate director of admissions and coordinator of minority recruitment.

"I don't believe we have the full complement of minority services we could have," he said. "I think more could be done. Probably more minority faculty and administrators, and more courses in the subjects minorities are interested in."

Of the school's 134 faculty members, only two are black, he said, noting that at one time there were five or six.

At Williams College, black students are "satisfied, if not altogether happy with, the efforts the college has been making in recruiting and retaining" minorities and minority faculty, according to officials there.

"One of their major concerns" is the number of black faculty members--about nine out of more than 175, according to Michael Reed, assistant director of admissions and alumni relations.

The students are also concerned about financial aid, he said. Despite the school's policy of meeting 100 percent of demonstrated need, "the average student can graduate with a $10,000 debt, and that's a real problem."

That is an "unacceptable level of debt" for most black students, he said, and "they don't think they'll have the resources to repay it.''

Cuts in Programs

Leonard Haynes 3rd, vice president of Louisiana's predominantly black Southern University system, said he is concerned that important support mechanisms--such as tutorial, remedial, and counseling programs, and courses in learning strategies, study habits, and critical thinking--that have a direct impact on minority students' academic achievement are dwindling at some institutions.

In state legislatures and state boards, there is less commitment to fund remedial programs among those who contend that "academe is not in the business of developmental education, which is the responsibility of grades K-12," according to Mr. Haynes, the former director of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges' office for the advancement of public black colleges.

When outside funding for previously established programs dries up, universities are not following through and picking up the slack, according to Mr. Haynes and others.

Williams College, for example, dropped a premedical-studies program when an outside grant had been spent and private donations could not be found to cover the costs, according to college officials.

The program was a five-week summer institute for minority and first-generation college students interested in premedical studies. Courses included calculus, chemistry, and writing.

Faculty Shortage Ahead

But the problems of undergraduate training for blacks are part of a ''pipeline" problem that will only exacerbate the shortage of black faculty in the years ahead, those concerned about the situation note.

Data suggest that although black college graduates have continued to enroll in professional schools, few are seeking advanced degrees in the arts, sciences, and engineering.

"If there are few blacks in the pipeline for the Ph.D. in these areas, how can we possibly recruit more black faculty members in the future?" the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame University, asked during a meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools last December.

"I would wager that most graduate schools have fewer black students than during the first fervor some 10 years ago when many blacks began to graduate from college," he said. "Professional schools do somewhat better, since they offer a quicker road to upper-middle classdom through law, business, and medical practice, the same route that other minorities have taken."

"In virtually every field, what you find are 2, 4, or 6 percent of enrollments are black. Blacks are not only finishing high school at low rates, but at the other end of the pipeline the number of blacks in the professional ranks is down dramatically and slipping," according to Mr.3Haynes of the Southern University system.

He said the country may be witnessing "the last wave of blacks finishing graduate and professional schools."

Few Advanced Degrees

"In 1981, just four years ago," he said, "there was only one black American who received a Ph.D. in computer science. At the same time, there were only six who earned degrees in math and 28 in the physical sciences."

"We're moving from a society resting on a motorcar to a society resting on the computer, and the number of blacks who have Ph.D.'s in that field is negligible," Mr. Haynes added. "Today, rather than one, there may be more than 10, but the number is still small and frightening."

Hiring Practices

Mr. Haynes also cited institutional hiring practices as a key reason for the paucity of black faculty members on college campuses.

"Even when minorities and women are well qualified and recommended, they are not appointed for the job," he said.

A study conducted last year by Southeastern Missouri State University researchers indicated, he said, that among 10,000 applicants for positions in college and university administration, search committees recommended women 40 percent of time and minorities 27.8 percent of the time. But such applicants were only chosen 17 percent and 10.6 percent of the time, respectively.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login |  Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Commented