Changing Complexions, New Complications
Cal state university’s james lyons and james rosser face unprecedented leadership challenges and opportunities as their institutions experience demographic changes
By Cheryl D. Fields
n many ways, the Los Angeles basin is ground zero for the shifting demographic status of African Americans and Chicano/Latinos. Cities like Inglewood, Compton, Carson, Long Beach and even the Watts section of Los Angeles — where, only a few decades ago, Blacks were either the majority or held status as the dominant minority group — are areas where Blacks are now a minority among people of color. Chicanos and Latinos in these communities, meanwhile, are discovering new political and economic vitality in their status as the largest racial segment of the population. Not surprisingly, this rapid shift presents new opportunities and dilemmas for educators.
Two campuses where the new demographic order is in full effect are California State University-Dominguez Hills and California State University-Los Angeles. Situated roughly 18 miles from each other in the heart of the Los Angeles basin, both institutions are commuter schools that attract students from throughout Los Angeles County, and to a lesser extent, other parts of the state. The federal government recognizes both institutions as Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), and both have African American presidents. Dr. James E. Lyons Sr., president of CSU-Dominguez Hills, and Dr. James M. Rosser, president of CSU-Los Angeles, are among a handful of African American college presidents who are experiencing firsthand the growing Chicano/Latino student population amid the frustrations and challenges that accompany leadership during African American’s nascent, but perhaps inevitable, transition from the nation’s largest minority group to the second largest.
Navigating Diversity in East LA
The CSU-Los Angeles campus is situated about five miles east of downtown Los Angeles in a region of the county that has had a predominant Chicano presence for several generations. Founded in 1947, today the six-college university boasts 50 academic units and enrolls roughly 19,000 students — nearly 14,000 are full-time equivalent. Rosser, the university’s first African American and longest-sitting president, has been at the helm for 21 years. As one of the 23-campus state university’s older institutions, CSULA has been a pioneer among its peers in managing and celebrating its rich and complex diversity.
Dr. Anthony Ross, the university’s vice president of student affairs, came to campus a year ago from Wichita State University. Having been recommended for his current job by his former president, Ross was at Northern Arizona University for 13 years before going to Wichita, and he says there are two main reasons he moved to Southern California: “The opportunity to work with Jim Rosser and the opportunity to work at Cal State LA,” he says. “I had the feeling that this is where the action is and where I wanted to be.”
Certainly, navigating the campus’ rich diversity is not always seamless. Over the past 10 years, the Chicano/Latino population has blossomed to 52.6 percent from 32.2 percent and the Black population has declined to 8.9 percent from 11.4 percent. However, Ross says the campus’ success is the result of institution-wide commitment that hinges on support from students, faculty and staff, and a leader who is unwavering in his belief that pluralism and equity can coexist.
“The leadership (Rosser) provides is outstanding,” Ross says, noting that Rosser is an outspoken champion for issues of diversity, equity and equality and whose message is consistent no matter what the audience. Rosser was on vacation at the time interviews for this article were being conducted, but Ross says the president doesn’t hesitate to let people know that CSULA’s diversity is a window into America’s future.
“People come to understand that you don’t need to run from (pluralism),” Ross says. “We not only acknowledge and embrace it, but provide ways to shape opportunities for our students and education that will benefit the country.”
Several of the university’s programs exemplify this commitment. The CSULA’s charter college of education routinely graduates large numbers of teachers of color, most of whom go on to become public school educators; and the university’s gang violence bridge project admits former gang members as students each year.
Interracial relations on the campus are generally harmonious, according to Ross and public affairs official Carol Selkin. Black and Brown relations are no exception. The student body president, Natoya Ross, for example, is African American, but she was elected by a multicultural coalition that included a substantial Chicano/Latino constituency.
Unlike in other parts of the country where African Americans have historically been the largest minority group, Chicano/Latino population dominance in East Los Angeles is nothing new. Not only is it not new for the campus, it is not new for the students, most of whom come to campus from the surrounding region and, therefore, are accustomed to operating in what outsiders might consider a new demographic order. Of course, the campus’ status as a commuter school also may be a factor that minimizes interracial rifts. However, Ross and Selkin say they believe the harmony exists because people share a common vision.
“We have the resources, and we have the history of providing services to students who have been underserved,” Ross says. “It is not new to us, and it is not an add-on. Still, our challenge is to guard against complacency.”
Like most institutions, one area where CSULA is still struggling to recruit more Blacks and Chicanos/Latinos is at the faculty level.
For existing Chicano/Latino faculty, CSULA offers a rare opportunity to serve a student population where students of this same background are in the majority. For African American faculty, who sometimes come from other parts of the country, the university’s demographics may represent a change. But, Ross says the Black faculty and staff caucus makes an effort to help newcomers “find that little taste of home” by connecting them to the Black community on campus and in their home neighborhoods. The same is true for other faculty of color.
Though CSULA has a larger pool of faculty of color than most other institutions its size in the state, at faculty caucus meetings, it is not uncommon for folks to discuss the need to recruit more.
“Obviously the issue (today) is not having enough people of color in the pipeline,” Ross says. Even though CSULA is not a doctoral-granting institution, Ross says he and his colleagues recognize they can and must play a role in ameliorating the problem by steering as many of their undergraduates as possible toward careers in higher education.
“I love this university, and I’ve (only) been here a year,” Ross says. “This is the kind of university that is not only on the front lines, but doing cutting-edge things. Most people want to come to Cal State LA so they can make a difference. This is where we get to put our money and efforts of all the things we’ve been espousing for so long into practice.”
Black Fear and Latino Pride
CSU-Dominguez Hills, located southwest of Los Angeles in the South Bay city of Carson, was founded in 1960 and today has an enrollment of roughly 13,000 students — 8,000 are full-time equivalent.
Chicanos/Latinos constitute the largest segment of the student population at 32.8 percent, while African Americans constitute 29.8 percent.
Though clashes between Black and Brown students are rare on this campus, and overt expressions of racism are not tolerated, sometimes the interracial tensions are perceptible, says Dr. James E. Lyons Sr., president of CSU-Dominguez Hills. Unlike in East LA, where the large Chicano/Latino presence has existed for decades, the dominance of Hispanics is more recent in the South Bay. Though not citing any specific incidents on his campus, Lyons says he is always dismayed by the rancor that can accompany Black/Brown animosity. Of particular amazement to him is the intolerant attitude of some African Americans.
“When I walked the picket lines (in the ’60s), I really believed that we, as a people, marched to the beat of a different drummer,” Lyons says. “The most frustrating thing to me is to hear us say things that were so typical of the things that were said to us and about us.”
Despite his disillusionment, Lyons makes use of such unsavory occurrences to enlighten others. The former Peace Corps volunteer who once worked as a track and field coach in Ecuador is moderately fluent in Spanish, has served as president at two HBCUs (Tennessee State and Jackson State) and, in an earlier period of his career, helped the University of Connecticut learn to balance the interests of its African American and Puerto Rican student populations. These experiences appear to have prepared him well for his current role. A recent campus forum put Lyons’ skills at navigating racial minefields to the test.
The Sept. 4 gathering attracted a small group of students who had come to ask questions and share their thoughts with senior administrators and student government leaders. Racial tensions emerged, however, when an African American student questioned how Lyons could be so supportive of a new sports training complex that the board of trustees approved earlier this year. The centerpiece of the proposed project is a 20,000 seat soccer stadium, but the National Training Center/Sports Complex also will include a new tennis stadium, basketball facilities and volleyball courts, as well as the upgrade and relocation of the campus’ cycling velodrome, which was originally built to host the 1984 Olympics. The sports complex is expected to be a highly sought-after training facility for amateur and professional athletes and the new home of the LA Galaxy soccer team.
“This student literally said, ‘Blacks don’t play soccer,’ ” says José Solache, CSUDH student body president. “He said Black people excel in basketball and football. I couldn’t even believe what he was saying.”
Like Solache, Lyons was surprised by the stereotypes invoked by the student’s remarks, but he understood what was behind them.
“The expectation was that, as a Black man, I am expected to advocate for issues for Black people,” Lyons says.
Even though he views the sports complex as an asset that will serve all students, since soccer is a popular sport among Latinos, he knew the student’s anger was a reflection of sentiments shared by other African Americans who worry that their interests and needs are becoming subordinate to those of other minority groups, mainly Latinos.
“African Americans have struggled so long and hard for our piece of the pie, I don’t think that we’ve spent much time at all thinking about demographic shifts and the fact that we might not be the largest minority group at the table,” he says.
Solache agrees that a challenge for people of color in leadership roles is not yielding to pressure from people in their own community to favor their interests over those of other groups. “I represent all 13,000 students,” he says. “Being open-minded means you’re working with everybody.” He and others say Lyons has done a good job of managing the delicate racial issues that can emerge on this multi-racial campus.
Patricia Hammond, director of public affairs and publications for the university, has been on the campus for 18 years. She says Lyons’ vision for the campus and skills as a persuasive orator, good listener and team-oriented manager are what make him such an effective leader. “I think that really works in his favor because he does come across as a visionary,” she says.
While the president is dedicated to maintaining peace, however, people on campus also know he is not content with the status quo. One area in which Lyons is urging change is that of faculty diversity.
“One of the challenges for me on our campuses, is the small number of Latino faculty,” he says.
Having lost nearly a third of its faculty to retirement in recent years and with more retirements expected, Lyons has urged the faculty senate to make diversity a priority among its new hires. It is a bold directive in a state that is still grappling with the ramifications of Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action in admissions and hiring at public institutions. Still, Lyons is convinced that CSUDH can achieve greater faculty diversity without violating Proposition 209.
“I think there is a tendency on the part of some people to hide behind the Prop. 209 and not deal with some of the tougher issues,” he says.
Lyons recognizes that CSUDH is in a position to set a precedent for how other campuses will navigate the nation’s changing demographic landscape. He believes the manner in which Blacks and Latinos work out their differences is critical to the future of his and other campuses.
“I say to Black and Latino students, 75 percent of our issues are the same: transportation, housing, health, employment, HIV, teen pregnancy and so forth. We need to be together on those issues. The Latino and Black caucus must begin working together. Not tear each other apart because of the 25 percent of issues where we disagree.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com