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Clemson Best Practices Conference

Clemson Best Practices Conference
Focuses on Black Student Achievement

By Kimberly Davis

Clemson, S.C.
In an academic climate where affirmative action continues to come under attack, creating a campus environment to help African-American students succeed was on the minds of educators and administrators at the fourth National Conference on Best Practices in Black Student Achievement at Clemson University.

Nearly 200 participants from every region of the country — all concerned and challenged with the preparation, recruitment, admission, retention and graduation of African-American students — spent three days on Clemson’s upstate South Carolina campus last month participating in workshops, listening to speakers and watching presentations designed to aid them in their task.

According to Clemson University President James F. Barker, the intention of the conference was to share tactics and strategies not only to boost Black student enrollment, but also to graduate those Black students who do enroll. Barker says Clemson, a land-grant institution with roughly a 7 percent Black student population, hosts the conference because their administrators are also looking for ideas. The university, which integrated in 1963, does not have all the answers, he says.
“Those of us who had the privilege to go to college now have a responsibility,” Barker said during the conference banquet. “Our work has never been more needed.”

Also discussed at the conference was the issue of creating a full and enriching experience for African-American students. Dr. Charlie Potts, vice president of student affairs at Indiana State University, says “student affairs is about going where they are when they’re not in class.”

And although the university, located in Terre Haute, Ind., has a Black student enrollment of more than 10 percent, Potts says there are still many challenges. 

“We know that we’ve got to create community, we’ve got to foster and be real about it,” Potts says, “or those [minority] students won’t feel at home.”

The conference also included presentations on scholarships, generating funding for diversity programs, recruitment and retention and a media panel on the coverage of affirmative action and diversity in higher education. But one of the more popular presentations during the conference was an admissions directors’ roundtable in which presenters shared their successes and challenges in recruiting and admitting African-American students.

Walter Robinson, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of California, Berkeley, spoke specifically about the difficulties that California’s prestigious public institution faces under Proposition 209, which prohibits preferential treatment to any individual or group in public employment, public education or public contracting because of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.

That means, Robinson said, that the university can’t use race in parceling out any resources. The passage of that statewide proposition resulted in a “very sharp dip” in the percentage of minority students at
UC-Berkeley, and created a “chilling effect for the Black community.” The minority enrollment at the university has stayed flat, according to statistics. Just 3.2 percent of those enrolled at Berkeley in the fall 2005 term were Black. But there is hope, Robinson said, in the number of minority applicants this year and in the inventive ways in which alumni and community groups are stepping up to help in the recruitment game.

The message that the office of admissions wants to send, he said, is that if you’ve done the work and made the grades, you should feel entitled to attend UC-Berkeley. You should compete for a slot at the university, regardless of public perception.

“Right now, the leadership at the university is trying to recapture its soul and its essence, one that says that all students are welcome here. We should say that from the highest mountain,” Robinson said. “This challenge is bigger than the office of admissions. It’s an institutional challenge. There is no silver bullet. There is no single effort that’s going to change that perception.”

Dr. James McCoy, associate vice president for enrollment management at Xavier University in Cincinnati, said that although roughly 12 percent of the university’s approximately 4,000 undergraduates are Black, there is room for improvement. One such area is electronic admissions, where they are losing many African-American candidates because they do not complete the admissions process.

“To me, this whole question of recruiting African-American students to college and, more important, graduating them, is essential to American success in higher education,” McCoy said. “It’s central to the mission of this institution, as a Catholic, Jesuit institution, that we serve the underserved.”

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