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Criminal Justice Think Tank Exits Medgar Evers Campus

With its lawsuit against the City University of New York’s Medgar Evers College still pending, a criminal justice think tank run by the formerly incarcerated has departed that Brooklyn campus, settling into temporary quarters as it waits for permanent digs at the State University of New York at Old Westbury.

Directors of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions said the SUNY campus on Long Island is one of three institutions aiming to partner with the center whose dispute with Medgar Evers’ president of almost two years is one of several conflicts that continue to stir a headline-grabbing debate  over the college’s future focus and direction. The Rev. Calvin Butts, a prominent Harlem pastor and Old Westbury president, extended the invitation to NuLeadership.

“Anybody who’s engaged in this type of legal battle is distracted from their work. Clearly the administration does not want us there. It makes sense for us to be somewhere where we are not only wanted but supported,” said Dr. Divine Pryor, executive director of 6-year-old NuLeadership, which won a recent court order that Dr. William Pollard, Medgar Evers president since 2009, return computers that his office had illegally seized from NuLeadership. It also had to return files it retrieved from those computers, which were purchased by NuLeadership, not the college. New York Theological Seminary is one of the other two prospective NuLeadership partners, said Pryor, adding that a third was a major labor union whose name he was not given the go-ahead to disclose.

In NuLeadership’s stead at Medgar Evers, the Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes office will now partner with Medgar Evers on a Community Justice Program for formerly incarcerated students that will, among other facets, involve professors and students from the college’s departments of social work and education and include student internships in the DA’s office said Dr. Howard Johnson, provost and president of academic affairs. “It’s just a better fit for us,” Johnson said of the new arrangement.

NuLeadership’s Pryor is dubious about that collaboration, given that Pollard has openly questioned the wisdom of having ex-prisoners on campus. “I’m proud of the DA’s work [in ex-prisoner re-entry] but I’ve cautioned the DA. The [Community Justice Program] is all public relations; it’s a farce. Nobody who’s at Medgar Evers now has the skills to properly do this work.”

Johnson, who held similar administrative posts at Syracuse University and the University of North Texas before arriving at Medgar Evers in 2009, began overseeing an academic overhaul that has sparked a series of community rallies and charges from local leaders and others that Medgar Evers’ current administration is doing too much too quickly and veering from the college’s original mission of serving a predominantly Black community long at-risk academically and on other fronts.

“You have a president making public statements that he was not brought here to lead a Black institution,” said Dr. Brenda Greene, English professor, executive director of Medgar Evers’ nationally recognized Center for Black Literature, and member of a group of Medgar Evers faculty who’ve issued a vote of no confidence in Pollard. They cited what they termed irregularities in protocols resulting in several longtime professors not being re-appointed, the attempted eviction of NuLeadership and cutbacks in student services they deem vital. “Medgar Evers,” Greene added, “was founded as a result of community residents’ leaders and elected officials coming together to ensure that there was a [public] institution that met the educational and social needs of the residents of Central Brooklyn, most of whom are Black. The president is going against that mission. He is really out of touch.”

Said Sherrie Moody, a Brooklyn College graduate student and 2009 Medgar Evers graduate who also was a campus activist: “Many of the city’s high schools have not met the standard of having enough students who really pass and excel. Many of them end up in CUNY. Medgar would assist you; you could start college while working to pull up your scores. [Pollard’s] cut out some of that remediation. Some changes had to be made, but [Pollard’s] made changes in places that are hurting the community. People are feeling that he’s not necessarily helping the situation.”

Some also have wondered aloud if the steady influx of more moneyed White residents into Central Brooklyn is driving the remake of Medgar Evers, though the administration has dismissed that notion. The racial composition of Medgar Evers’ student body has fluctuated over the years, with the rate of Black enrollment for first-time freshmen, as examples, at 86 percent in fall 1998; 91.5 percent in fall 1999 and fall 2008; and 87.2 percent in fall 2009, the latest year of available data from the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment at City University of New York. White enrollment was .7 percent in fall 1998; .9 percent in fall 1999; .7 percent in fall 2008; and .9 percent in fall 2009. (Fall enrollment for first-time freshmen of Hispanic descent ranged from 6.2 percent in 1999 to 9.7 percent in 2009; from 1.3 percent to 1.8 percent for those of Asian/Pacific Island descent; and .1 percent to .4 percent for Native American. Those numbers also fluctuated, showing no steady increase or decrease.) Three-quarters of incoming freshmen require remediation, which Provost Johnson said will remain a necessary offering by Medgar Evers, whose governance requires that anyone with a high school diploma or GED be admitted. Academic standing is not a factor. That open admissions policy governs two other of CUNY’s six undergraduate campuses.

Improving academic performance is the key aim, said Johnson, whom CUNY’s public relations staff tapped to be interviewed for this Diverse article regarding the debate over the revamping of Medgar Evers.

“It’s a slow process,” Johnson said. “I’m acutely aware that there are those who understand and think along the same lines as [the administration] and that there are those who don’t. When it’s all said and done, it’s student success that we care about and that success is [defined] by the data.”

As for NuLeadership’s multi-count lawsuit alleging civil rights violations, theft of intellectual property and an illegal eviction effort by President Pollard’s office, the next court hearing is April 8.

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