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October 24, 2004

Low minority population plagues diversity effort

Editor's Note: This is the first in a multi-part series on the future of the University, in which members of the community discuss aspects of Chicago and the directions toward which they hope to build it.

Two years after The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (JBHE) published a study that ranked the University of Chicago last for minority recruitment in a list of the country's most selective schools, it still lags behind peer institutions in its ability to attract and retain black students and faculty, despite intensive recruiting efforts by the University.

The U.S. Department of Education reports that only 4.2 percent of students at the University are black. The University Registrar data reports that out of the 4,111 students in the College, only 174 are black. The JBHE says these dismal statistics are indicative of the University's "ambivalent if not negative position on the policies of race-sensitive admissions."

Michael Behnke, Vice President for University Relations and Dean of College Enrollment, said that this ranking is unfair. "The JBHE persists in confusing action with results," he said. "Their portrayal of us is one of the things that hurts us in attracting African-American students."

Behnke pointed to the University's success in attracting Hispanic students as evidence of the University's minority recruiting efforts.

Behnke said that the University goes to great lengths to court potential minority students.

"In an effort to attract minorities, the University buys the names of every African-American and Hispanic student in the nation whose scores and grades suggest that they have a chance of succeeding at the University."

More than 20,000 high school sophomores will receive three mailings from the University this year. The University will send an additional four mailings, two of which are designed specifically for students of color, to more than 35,000 high school juniors.

The University also visits Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and non-U.S. territories in the Caribbean such as Jamaica to recruit students, and participates in several national recruitment activities sponsored by minority organizations, including National Scholarship Service and Fund for Negro Students (NSS FNS), A Better Chance, and the National Hispanic Institute. Admissions and financial aid staff contact all students of color who begin the application process to encourage them to complete their applications. The University offers to pay for minority students' expenses to visit the school and stay with a current student of color.

Olu Rosanwo, a second-year in the College, says he can count the number of black students in his dorm on one hand. Rosanwo expected to have few black peers when he first came here. "It's been the same my whole life," he said. "I just feel like it's normal, now."

Jacqueline Stewart, associate professor of English Language and Literature, and on the Committees on Cinema and Media Studies and African-American Studies, is optimistic that this lagging minority enrollment will change in reaction to a recent increase in black faculty.

According to the JBHE, the University has increased its percentage of black faculty from 1.9 percent in 1997 to 2.7 percent in 2002.

Stewart attributed the increase in faculty of color to new recruiting initiatives by the University administration. "The University offers incentives for departments who look for faculty of color—the provost has communicated to departments that recruiting faculty of color is a priority. I've never seen this kind of enthusiasm and accountability this high up in the University."

Stewart also pointed to the reorganization of the University's Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture as a driving force in the faculty recruitment effort. The center, which brings faculty from a variety of disciplines together to study race, "shows that something vibrant is happening in this University," Stewart said. "This attracts faculty."

Stewart's depiction of the University reveals an enormous change in the University's attitude toward faculty of color. The Race Center's founder, Michael Dawson, left the University in 2001 after being drawn to the African-American Studies department at Harvard University.

The November 2002 edition of the Harvard University Gazette featured an interview with Dawson, in which Dawson praised the University of Chicago's political science department but mourned the fact that Chicago "had nothing like Harvard's Afro-American Studies Department or the DuBois Institute." Dawson was drawn to Harvard's African-American Studies luminaries, including Lawrence Bobo.

Stewart said that the University's strategy has never been to attract big names. "Our faculty have high stature in their fields, but the University is not dedicated to building or recruiting stars. The University seeks younger faculty who do groundbreaking work."

Stewart also rejects the approach of spending disproportionate resources to recruit academic stars. "That's what happens with faculty of color," Steward said. "There is this perception that faculty of color—of this caliber—are very rare."

Stewart says this mentality creates a star phenomenon, so that Universities compete for the same minority faculty. Stewart, who grew up in Hyde Park before attending the University's Ph.D. program in English, said that the University must also strengthen the precarious relationship with its South Side community. While she was growing up, Stewart felt the community's distrust of the University.

"I never stepped foot on Chicago's campus until I took my college entrance exams," she said. "The University seemed like a separate world, unto itself. It seemed like the University didn't want to be on the South Side."

Behnke said that some considered the University's urban renewal program to actually be one of "black removal."

He said the University is taking steps to remedy the tension between the University and its neighbors. "The University recently started two new programs designed to attract more students from the predominantly minority Chicago public schools." One of these programs is the Collegiate Scholars Program for students in grades 10 to 12, and the other offers 20 fulltuition scholarships for Chicago Public School Graduates.

Behnke said that the University also has to overcome its conservative reputation in black communities nationwide. He said that Chicago's liberal arts focus is a deterrent for many students of color, "who tend to be the first in their family to go to college and tend to come from lower income families. They are more attracted to schools with more pre-professional options," such as engineering and undergraduate business degree programs.

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