NCORE Event Addresses Race, Social Justice, and Higher Education Access

NEW YORK – Among the vast range of topics expert panelists dissected at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity, a group of Tennessee higher education officials tackled what has become the signature issue in the Obama era: college completion.

Dr. Sidney McPhee, president of Middle Tennessee State University, highlighted how his campus has tied its retention efforts to an academic master plan that has promoted academic quality, individual student success and public service. The plan has incorporated principles around targeting underrepresented minority students and those students with great financial need. Such students receive mentoring help from one or more faculty members, which is one of several MTSU population-specific support programs for underrepresented students.

McPhee said such support programs with successful results cannot be achieved without state support even while MTSU has experienced budget cuts. He noted that states are great at saying what should be done and terrible at supporting it. “We are expected to perform miracles,” he said.

“States must invest in resources,” McPhee noted.

With the highest attendance in five years, the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education tackled such familiar topics as retention and access as well as emerging issues such as how to continue to push for affirmative action despite significant challenges.

Originally launched by the University of Oklahoma in 1988, the annual National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) brings together college administrators, professors, directors of staff, student leaders, representatives of government and community-based organizations and others engaged in higher education to discuss issues of policy, planning and practicality. It traditionally provides a forum for discussion as well as giving attendees effective strategies that they can take back to their campuses.

“What happens here doesn’t stay here,” said Dr. Belinda P. Biscoe Boni, associate vice president of community outreach in the College of Continuing Education at the University of Oklahoma. “People present models of change and new ways to do things on campuses. Many people over the years have gone back and done things on their campuses that have been transformative.”

This year’s conference, which concluded on Saturday, was held in New York City. It attracted approximately 2,300 participants, an increase of about 500 from last year’s conference in San Francisco. NCORE staff member Justin Lincks said attendees are drawn to cities that are exciting and culturally diverse.

The conference had 242 sessions with topics including social justice training, navigating predominantly White institutions and race and class in elite college admission and campus life. There were 476 scheduled presenters.

Joining McPhee in the college completion discussion, “A New Lens for Student Diversity,” were panelists Dr. John Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, and Dr. Roger Brown, chancellor at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, who spoke about effective ways to achieve degree attainment.

Morgan discussed the Complete College Tennessee Act 2010, which mandated a new master plan for public higher education with strong linkage to the state’s economic development needs. Morgan said what took the discussion from philosophical to practical was clearly showing that increased college completion was vital for workforce development.

An important thing was establishing a system for transfer pathways from two-year to four-year institutions. The act mandated it be done by fall 2011, and so the parties “came together and worked out guaranteed transfer pathways,” said Morgan. The outcome-based formula has brought about key behavioral changes in those able to bring about policy changes.

Brown said diversity has been written into the University of Tennessee Chattanooga’s strategic plan, adding that the school recruits diverse populations and does its best to provide students the support systems needed. Using targeted communications means students don’t get overwhelmed with choices. Administrators must impress on faculty that student success impacts them. Information sharing is critical, Brown noted.

In the Friday afternoon session “What Will Replace Affirmative Action,” Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, spoke about the legal and political attacks on affirmative action and how to try and counteract them.

Colleges and universities have remained committed to diversity even when race-based affirmative action has been challenged, most recently in the University of Texas v. Fisher case being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court. Economic-based affirmative action seems to be “legally bullet proof” and “politically popular and seen as meritocratic,” Kahlenberg said.

While the impact of economic-based affirmative action cannot quite equal race-based diversity efforts, it does address class issues and provide positive outcomes, he contended.

Following each conference, NCORE receives feedback from participants and the executive committee reviews all materials. One emerging topic has been immigration issues and how campuses are dealing with access for undocumented students as well as first-generation Americans who are the first in their families to attend college. Also, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues and how they intersect with racial and ethnic issues are becoming of increased interest.

The University of Oklahoma’s Biscoe Boni said a huge issue being repeatedly discussed is how to get more minority involvement in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

“We have both formal and informal processes for gathering information,” she said. “All those complexities and sources of information feed into the decisionmaking.”