On the Right Path
Millersville president’s personal commitment to minority student recruitment, retention brings her to historic post.
By Erv Dyer
At 150 years old, Millersville University is still making history. One of its defining moments came just one year ago when Dr. Francine McNairy was appointed as the first Black and first female president of the Pennsylvania college founded by six politically connected White businessmen and educators in 1855.
“Fran’s recognition continues to mature us as an institution,” said Dr. Dennis Downey, a Millersville professor and historian. “She now stands as a symbol of the social and cultural change on our campus.”
Cradled amid the green vistas of the state’s Amish country, Millersville is one of 14 schools within the state system of higher education. It has been rated as one of the top regional schools in the North by U.S. News and World Report.
McNairy, who was named president after serving for 10 years as provost, is now one of three Black presidents and one of three women presidents within the state university system. Across the nation, she is one of about 80 Black females to head a college or university.
The presidential appointment was a significant achievement for McNairy. She began her career in higher education when she read about an opening at Clarion University, a rural campus about 1 1/2 hours from Pittsburgh. Fresh off a two-year stint as a social worker with the Allegheny County Children and Youth office and with a community-action training program, she packed up, moved out and committed herself to giving the assistant professor post a two-year try. She had never heard of Clarion, but she stayed there for 15 years.
While at Clarion, McNairy deeply bonded with the students of color. If they made it to campus, she wanted them to stay — and graduate. McNairy instituted a program that successfully boosted minority retention rates. The program, designed for all students, consisted of a freshman seminar, mentoring, advising and increased social and cultural programs. Black students were grouped in the freshman seminar so that they were not the only students of color in a section. In small-town Clarion, it was important to foster relationships. There weren’t many social outlets for Blacks and McNairy took her students under her wing. Whenever she made trips home to Pittsburgh she carried at least one student to or from campus with her. She did this so frequently, she became known as the “McNairy Shuttle.”
McNairy’s personal efforts to increase minority retention took place in the late 1970s. Subsequent research showed she was on the right path. Studies from the American Association of University Professors reveal that faculty mentoring has a significant role in determining whether students, particularly those of less privileged backgrounds, stay on campus. McNairy learned her lessons and carried them with her. As she moved from Clarion, McNairy went east and served as associate provost at West Chester University. She stayed there for six years before accepting the position of provost at Millersville University.
Based on recommendations by diversity advocates, Millersville seems to be on a progressive path of minority recruitment, retention and graduation. The school has seen a steady increase in African American and Hispanic students.
“We’re the leader in the (Pennsylvania) system now,” said Dr. Rita Smith-Wade-El, a psychology professor and director of African American Studies.
Of the university’s 7,900 students, 5,800 are undergraduate, which includes approximately 600 African Americans and Latinos and 125 Asian or Asian Americans. Many of the minorities are recruited through ACT 101, a 33-year-old effort that’s mandated by Pennsylvania as a way to draw to campus mostly impoverished urban students who need remedial academics.
“Our numbers are good, but barriers remain,” McNairy said. Among the roadblocks: In Pennsylvania, some minorities don’t get the necessary course work in their high schools, explained McNairy, and come to state schools unprepared. “There’s a myth that state schools are not going to be challenging.”
Many Black students at Millersville are still first-generation college students, and preparing for college was not dinner-table conversation. Many come from single-parent homes and from environments where far too often they had to navigate teen pregnancy, drugs and safety issues, McNairy said. For them, campus can be a different world.
Crossing the Divide
Crossing the racial and cultural divide can be difficult. As it was 40 years go, when McNairy began work on her bachelor’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh, the same school where she earned her master’s in social work and her Ph.D. in speech rhetoric/communication. When she began at Pitt in 1964, she was one of 15 Black freshmen and one of 50 Black students out of thousands at the university. She discovered the college wasn’t too friendly to Blacks. Many White students refused to sit next to her in class, professors ignored her raised hand. She graduated in 1968. Persevering the hardships made her realize the value of mentors. She met hers in a graduate assistant and in the elders she met while doing community work at a local social service agency.
McNairy has brought that value to Millersville, where the university averages a 46 percent graduation rate for Black students, compared to 68 percent for White students. Both rates exceed the national average, which is 31 percent for Blacks and 47 percent for White students. Still, the school has a few strategies in place to improve those statistics. Millersville continues to build relationships with high schools of color. It connects with parents, and ventures into nearby urban communities or other areas.
“We tell students the good, the bad and ugly” about coming to Millersville, McNairy said. “If you come here, you have to be serious about your studies. This is a rural campus and there can be social and cultural challenges, but we help students with that.”
In June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of universities to consider race in admissions procedures to achieve a diverse student body. At Millersville, “race is one factor,” McNairy said. “So are high school performance, activities and references.”
Millersville wants to use all the factors in its push to recruit a larger pool of minority students who are “regular admits,” or students who don’t come in through ACT 101. Their academic scores tend to be higher and most are more prepared for the rigors of college studies. There’s already momentum. In 2003, 100 black students came to campus as “regular admits.” To help them stay on campus, the school is launching an Ethnic Studies Learning Community. The program assigns students certain culturally based classes, connects them to professors, requires mandatory study hall and houses them closely with peers in freshman dorms. The idea, McNairy said, is to help Black students avoid the social isolation of a rural campus, which can drive many of them away.
Someone to Brag About
Time constraints don’t allow McNairy to remain as personally involved with academics or recruiting. Before becoming president, she developed five new master’s degrees, and five new minors for the university. She also coordinated the effort that lead to the school’s online classes and helped found sister-school collaborations in London, Spain, Chile and Germany. As provost, she was able to interact more with faculty and students. Since becoming president, she’s had other commitments. Still, as a Black woman, her presence is a powerful reminder about the direction of Millersville’s diversity.
“I have to admit,” said senior Brianna Glenn, 21, a member of the campus’ Black Student Union, “when I’m out recruiting, I brag about Dr. McNairy.”
Still, Blacks and Whites on campus remain fairly segregated, said Matt Hathaway, a student leader and campus ambassador. Racial conflict is not a big issue, he said. “I just think people with lots in common hang out together. This is a very conservative area. The more we incorporate different groups, the more educated we’re going to be.”
“Relations have improved because of McNairy,” Glenn said. “Awareness has risen. We have more White students interested in Black studies.”
For McNairy, the journey to college president began in an all-Black middle-class community in 1950’s Pittsburgh. McNairy was an only child, raised by attentive parents and a maternal grandmother. Her dad was a steelworker, who quietly nurtured her. Her mom was a bigger influence. A business school graduate, the elder McNairy broke barriers in education. She became involved in her daughter’s education after an elementary teacher described the young girl as “average.” To keep her daughter, and other Black students, from being trapped by stereotypes, the elder McNairy started off leading the local PTA and ended up becoming the first Black woman on the school board and, in 1971, the first Black school board president.
Growing up, McNairy knew her mom “was at school every time I turned around” but never realized her social and political accomplishment until later in life. “I inherited my passion for education from my mother,” she said.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com