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Higher Education Leaders Urged To Recognize U.S. Disparities, Their Impact on the Academy

WASHINGTON – Barack Obama’s presidential election may have convinced some Americans that they’re living in a post-racial society, but societal disparities persist between racial groups and are accentuated in American higher education, said Dr. Ramon Gutierrez, a University of Chicago  historian and expert on race, during a keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges and Universities. 

 Gutierrez’s address, “Talking About Race and Ethnicity in a Post-Racial America,” emphasizing the turbulent history of race relations between the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 and the Kerner Commission Report of 1968, helped set the tone for the three-day meeting, which has attracted more than 1,800 attendees. With this year’s theme, “The Wit, the Will, and the Wallet,” a number of conference sessions delved into how U.S. higher education confronts social inequities. The Washington-based American Association of Colleges and Universities champions the cause of undergraduate liberal education.

 Other keynote speakers on Thursday included Dr. Martha Kanter, undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Education; Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation; and Dr. Ronald Crutcher, president of Wheaton College, who spoke about the Obama administration’s ambitious goals for college completion. The conference ends Saturday morning.

 A lively discussion unfolded during the session “What Works in Enrolling and Graduating Underrepresented Students.” Frank L. Matthews, the publisher of Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and, moderated the session, which touched upon a range of hot topics on underrepresented minority student recruitment and retention. Roughly 50 people attended the hour-long session that was sponsored by Diverse.

 Dr. Antonio R. Moreira, vice provost for academic affairs at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, said it remains critical for college presidents and senior leaders at institutions to demonstrate support for recruitment and enrollment initiatives that are effective in reaching underrepresented students. He noted that the school’s Meyerhoff Scholars program remains a popular initiative for attracting African-American and other minority students to major in science and math disciplines.

 “Twenty years ago, the program started out as an effort to attract African-American males to science. It has since expanded for all students and has 50 percent African-American participation,” Moreira said.

 Deborah Santiago, vice president for policy and research at the Washington-based Excelencia in Education organization, said she believes that effective recruitment and retention programs have to be “targeted and intentional” so that underrepresented students participate in them rather than passing them by.

 “Targeted efforts make a fundamental difference. Students do better when they know they’re welcome and provided for,” Santiago said.

 In response, audience member Dr. Lester Monts, senior vice provost at the University of Michigan, challenged panelists to consider the reality that many institutions have been stymied by state laws outlawing affirmative action. And, as a result, schools such as the University of Michigan are unable to specify that outreach and retention efforts are intended for any particular racial group.

 Santiago, however, cited an example from California, where affirmative action has been banned since the late 1990s, in which the Puente Project community college transfer program carries the name “Puente,” which means bridge in English. Open to all students, the “Puente” program has been successful in attracting Latino students because it sends the signal that they are welcome, according to Santiago.

 “There are ways of grounding programs in the experience of communities so that you can attract diverse students,” Santiago said.

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