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CUNY Retention Program

CUNY Retention Program
For Black Males Under Fire
New York group says initiative violates Civil Rights Act of 1964.
By Jamal Watson

Officials at New York’s Medgar Evers College (MEC) are challenging a complaint filed last month by a local civil rights group charging that a program created to help Black males stay in college is discriminatory.

The New York Civil Rights Coalition has asked the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights division to halt MEC’s “Black Male Initiative.” The complaint also asks that the City University of New York not implement the program at its 18 other colleges in the city.

In filing the complaint, Michael Meyers, executive director of the coalition, argues that MEC’s program violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial discrimination by colleges and universities that receive federal assistance.

“What they have been doing is just wrong,” says Meyers, adding that the coalition can demonstrate that MEC is illegally accepting federal funds to initiate programs that he says blatantly discriminate against women and others.

But Dr. Edison O. Jackson, MEC’s president, staunchly defends the program he started. Jackson scoffs at Meyers’ assertions that the program, which has been utilized by scores of Black men, is exclusionary.

“We are not doing anything inappropriate, and we have not done anything inappropriate,” says Jackson, who has served as president of the Brooklyn college for 17 years. Most of MEC’s students are first-generation college students. Ninety-four percent are Black and 76 percent are women. In recent years, the college, like many academic institutions across the nation, has had a difficult time retaining Black men. 

To counter the problem, the college created the Male Development and Empowerment Center four years ago to offer workshops and other programs aimed at helping its Black male students graduate. Services offered by the center include a monthly meeting to encourage male-to-male communication, financial seminars to help Black and Hispanic men learn money-management skills and career workshops that introduce students to various professional industries.

“We don’t discriminate on the basis of race. Any student who wants to participate in any activity on our campus is welcome,” says Jackson, adding that he came to MEC, located in a working-class section of the city, with a strong desire to save African-American men.

“I believe in our Black male students, and I believe that they can achieve,” he says. “I’m saddened and angry that these attacks have come at this time because they serve as a distraction from the work that we’re trying to do here at Medgar Evers College. We will, however, get through this.”

MEC officials say they have only anecdotal evidence to suggest that a new trend is forming among the Black men who enroll each year. Unlike a decade ago, these men are staying and graduating, a point they say suggests that the program is working. A report on the CUNY system suggests the program’s approach might work for city agencies, social service groups and the religious community as well.

Though CUNY officials have denied that their efforts are aimed at promoting race-exclusive programs, a college spokesman acknowledges that any new efforts in the future may focus more prominently on gender and class instead of race.

That is the direction that many public colleges and universities across the country are being forced to take, particularly in the wake of attacks on affirmative action and other race-conscious programs.

In the case of MEC, the complaint charges that the college’s Male Development and Empowerment Center promoted “putrid and nonsensical racial rhetoric and male chauvinism.”

But many students and alumni of the college see things quite differently.
“We cannot act like there is not a problem in our city and country with Black males,” says Tyisha Wright, an MEC student whose younger brother has attended a few of the center’s workshops. “It’s no secret that Black men face major challenges in our society, and, thankfully, someone is trying to help them deal with these issues.”

It is unclear whether the Education Department will shut the center down. A spokesman for the Office for Civil Rights refused to comment on the complaint.

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