Public Urban Universities Face Unique Challenges

Updated Dec 13, 2011
William Hynes, President of Holy Names University in Oakland, Calif.William Hynes, President of Holy Names University in Oakland, Calif.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — To play a more meaningful role on the higher education landscape, public urban universities must adopt missions of civic engagement, produce graduates needed by local businesses and reach out to students in high school to let them know that college is within reach.

Those were among the bits of advice from three college presidents who spoke Friday at the University of the District of Columbia for a conference called “Washington, Race and Public Higher Education.”

The three college presidents offered their advice during a session titled “The Possibilities and Limits of the University over the Coming Decades.”

While the lessons shared were in some ways general, often times the three college presidents tailored their remarks specifically to the session moderator — UDC Chancellor Dr. Allen Sessoms — who convened the conference as part of his ongoing mission to reposition UDC amid lingering questions about its propriety and effectiveness as an institution.

The college presidents focused largely on issues of institutional identity.

“What defines a university is not that it is in a city, but of the city … the degree to which it embraces the city in which it exists,” said William Hynes, president of Holy Names University in Oakland, Calif.

Hynes shared experiences that Holy Names has had in doing outreach to prospective students in Oakland and the surrounding area.

“The biggest challenges are the young people,” Hynes said. “Particularly in high school, they have a perception, too many of them, that they cannot go to college, and if they could, they could not pay for it, not knowing that we discount 50 percent at the undergraduate level.”

To that end, Hynes said, “What we’ve done is re-visioned how we relate to high schools.”

Specifically, Holy Names developed an Early Admit program where ninth graders are advised that if they take certain pre-collegiate courses, maintain a 2.7 or better and graduate, they will be admitted to Holy Names with scholarships that range from $9,000 to $18,000 toward the $30,000 tuition Hynes remarked “that nobody pays.”

Hynes said Holy Names also has decided to downplay college entrance exam scores in the admissions process “because we all know it’s the GPA that’s the predictor.” He dismissed ACT and SAT scores are part of the college-rankings “game” spurred largely by U.S. News & World Report, which uses the college entrance exam scores as part of its college rankings.

Steven Diner, Chancellor at Rutgers University-Newark, N.J., stressed the need for urban public universities to produce graduates who possess skills needed by local businesses.

UDC is in a unique position in this regard, Diner said, because it is situated in the nation’s capital, which has national and international importance.

Noting that several colleges throughout the country run D.C. programs, Diner said, “You’re right here. Your students could have all those opportunities with the federal government.”

Diner also said despite being in D.C., where there are no “in-state” suburbs from which to draw students, the shifting demographics of Washington, driven in large part by immigration, provide “marvelous opportunities” for research.

“There’s still a lot of opportunity for UDC to serve the changing population of D.C. and to continue to serve first-generation college students and students of modest means, but also to engage students in the community, undertake research that is important to Washington, play a role in strengthening the role of technology in D.C., and develop university facilities in areas that could spur redevelopment in the poorest areas of the city,” Diner said.

Speaking of the role that universities play as anchors for revitalization, Diner suggested that UDC set up facilities in Southeast, the poorest region of the city, because there’ not much of a need for revitalization in the area that surrounds its main campus in the Northwest section of the city.

Clara Lovett, president emerita, Northern Arizona State University, said public universities must forge identities that are “sharply different from what private universities in the district do. Not that there is anything wrong with being a private university.”

Sessoms lamented that there are a lot of undertones and a “residue of resentment” that affects UDC as an institution in the midst of private institutions.

“If this university really does ascend to the highest levels and starts looking like Rutgers, some folks are going to wonder why they’re charging $50,000 a year to be in the District of Columbia,” Sessoms said.

The two-day “Washington, Race and Public Higher Education” concluded Saturday. Friday’s sessions drew fewer than 100 people, many of them affiliated with UDC.

Other panel discussions will look at issues of institutional access and success, the historical role of race in Washington public higher education, and the shifting socioeconomic landscape in D.C.