Illustration: Ryan Williams

By Bill Estep and Mary Alice Casey

A former music school dean, Ohio University President Robert Glidden likes to talk about diversity in terms of looking for a balance among the different instruments needed for an orchestra. Music schools set admission standards, conduct auditions and select students based on what instruments they play.

"The rationale is that it provides a better education for everybody if you have the appropriate balance," Glidden says. "The analogy with the university is a very clear one: If you want to provide a good and valid education for young people today and for the world of our future, you need to incorporate th e ideas, the attitudes, the aspirations, the background of people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

"And you can't do that in a lily white environment. We need to protect diversity and we need to enhance diversity on a college campus because an education is better if it is enlivened by more perspectives."

The alma mater of one of America's first black college graduates, John Newton Templeton in 1828, Ohio University's Athens campus has experienced a disturbing trend in recent y ears: a declining enrollment of African-American students. African Americans made up 6.2 percent of the Athens freshman class in 1986 but only 3.5 percent in the fall of 1997. While 194 black freshmen were enrolled in '86, only 116 were on campus in '97. The percentage of African-American students who enrolled at OU after having been admitted fell from 50.9 percent in 1985-86 to 17.4 percent in 1997-98.

At the start of the 1997-98 academic year, African-American students made up only 2.2 perce nt of Ohio University's overall undergraduate population, or 359 of the 16,185-student total.

Four years ago, university trustees began asking tough questions about OU's steadily decreasing enrollment of African-American students. Now, more than a year after Provost Sharon Brehm created the Advisory Council on Minority Recruitment and Retention on campus, many believe the university has a renewed commitment to cultural diversity.

William Y. Smith
"Minority student enrollment was the high-profile issue and provided the catalyst for raising not only the level of interest but concern on the part of the Board of Trustees as well as the administration. And that's the first time I've seen those things come together," says William Y. Smith, director of the Office of Institutional Equity (formerly the Office of Affirmative Action) since 1978. "We're much more receptiv e today at actually achieving diversity through action."

A long-term commitment

Just as the decline in African-American student enrollment was part of a long-term pattern, Brehm believes reversing the trend will not happen overnight. Early signs in the recruitment effort are promising: Director of Admissions Kip Howard says as of early June, 142 African-American students had confirmed their intention to enroll as freshmen at OU fall quarter by paying a $100 housin g deposit. That number would translate into a 23.5 percent increase over 1997's actual enrollment of 115 students. Among Hispanic/Latino students, 53 indicated they would enroll as freshmen in the fall; 44 enrolled last fall. Final enrollment figures will not be available until fall quarter.

Brehm's advisory council formed three subcommittees to study recruitment, retention and outreach, and spent much of its first year focusing on student recruitment.

"I think we have a good strategy and plan for implementation, but it's got to be long-term," Brehm says. "This is a not a quick fix. There is no Band-Aid approach. We have to sustain it through time, and we will.

"This is a very tough situation. It's a very competitive market for these students. But I think what has happened that has been very important is that the level of coordination across the whole university is unparalleled in working on this issue.

"The advisory council has spearheaded that, but coordination has oc curred at different levels. The Financial Aid and Admissions offices have worked extremely closely together and this is a major focus for them. And the colleges have become much more proactive (in recruitment of multicultural students) than they have been in the past. I would say that all of the colleges are making serious efforts, and you need that in order to be successful in this effort."

In January, Brehm requested a report from all 10 college deans on steps taken fall quarter to enhance minorit y recruitment. A report Brehm filed with Glidden and other administrators in April indicated a variety of approaches. Additional scholarship money was allocated in some colleges; positions and special programs were created in others to coordinate multicultural student recruitment and retention; and contacts with minority high school students were stepped up.

Administrators and faculty alike have high hopes that new financial aid approaches will have a significant impact on changing the face of camp us. One example is the new Advantage Awards scholarship program aimed at underrepresented students -- African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics/Latinos and Appalachian white students who are the first in their families to attend college or live in areas with low college attendance rates.

The university committed $200,000 for the program's first year, and the initial recipients will be freshmen this fall. Advantage Awards are renewable each year provided students continue to meet academic and other criteria, meaning there is a potential commitment of up to $800,000 annually to the program once it is fully implemented, Brehm says.

Angela Griffin, coordinator of multicultural recruitment in the Office of Admissions and chair of the advisory council's recruitment subcommittee, says the Advantage Awards already have made a difference.

"Last year, we were not competitive in the least bit, even in Ohio," Griffin says of scholarship dollars available to underrepresented students. "Now, we 're very competitive."

The Advantage Awards are among several financial incentives aimed specifically at underrepresented groups. Others add up to almost $1.1 million, and underrepresented students also are eligible for all other scholarships and grants the university offers.

Only a handful of Ohio University scholarships are designated for specific minority groups, and those are endowed scholarships for recipients specified by donors, according to Carolyn Sabatino, director of student fin ancial aid.

The university's decision in 1996 to increase its financial aid packages beyond what would amount to tuition and fees could have a positive effect on recruiting underrepresented students, says Philosophy Professor Albert Mosley, chair of the Ohio University Ad missions and Recruitment Committee.

"Students also need books and living expenses," Mosley says. "Our capping of financial aid at tuition and fees not only disqualified a lot of minority students from coming here, but any s tudent from a low-income family. . . . Students were getting better offers from Miami and Ohio State."

Ohio University's Admissions Office has been working to personalize contacts with multicultural students and their parents, considered an important factor when it comes time for them to make their college choice. In 1997-98, Admissions hosted more than 350 prospective minority students through its visitation programs.

Eighty high school students admitted to OU for this fall came to campus t o take part in the two-day Cultural Connections program in March. A video, "Faces of Success," showcased the accomplishments of OU minority alumni and also listed visiting high school students.

Enhancing the cultural environment

Ohio University administrators have long pointed with pride to the cultural diversity that a vibrant international student population brings to campus and to the retention rate of African-American freshmen who return for classes t heir sophomore year.

Ohio University ranked third among Ohio public universities in the percentage of international students enrolled for the 1996-97 academic year, the most recent statistics available, at 5.8 percent. This year, 1,155 international students were enrolled on the Athens campus, up from 1,147 the year before.

OU had the top retention rate among 12 state-assisted universities surveyed for African-American freshmen returning for their sophomore year in fall 1996, the most re cent year for which statistics are available. Ohio University's 85 percent rate compared to 84 percent for Miami, 80 percent for Shawnee State and 76 percent for Ohio State.

But others point to a lower graduation rate for black students and a less-than-desirable cultural climate on the Athens campus for minorities. Statistics from the Office of Institutional Research show the percentage of African-American students who graduated within five years of arriving on campus as freshmen in the fall of 19 92 was 51 percent, while the rate for Hispanic/Latino students was 64 percent. The graduation rate for the entire student body was 66 percent.

The Advisory Council on Minority Recruitment and Retention has been examining quality of life issues and obstacles that impact retention. The committee has held focus groups and hopes to conduct surveys to gauge the attitudes of both underrepresented and majority students.

"At some levels, (the quality of life for minorities) is very, very good. At oth ers, there's a feeling of isolation, of exclusion" on the Athens campus, says Melissa Exum, associate vice president for intercultural affairs and chair of the advisory council's retention subcommittee.

Evalena Matlock, 18, a sophomore-to-be communication systems management major from East Cleveland, believes minority students have to work harder than others to achieve a rewarding experience at OU. Matlock is a student employee in the Office of Intercultural Affairs, where she helps address multic ultural student issues.

"Blatant racism isn't common," Matlock says of the Athens campus. "It's more little things that make you feel that people don't understand you."

Although there are many opportunities and organizations for minority students, Matlock says she doesn't believe they are adequately funded. She realizes that funding is often based on participation, "but there's a lot of catching up to be done" for minority organizations.

She is among those on campus who are optimistic that a remodeled cultural center in Lindley Hall will enhance minority students' sense of belonging. University officials announced plans spring quarter to renovate and increase programming at the Lindley Cultural Center and to shift oversight for the center to Exum in the Student Affairs Division. The African American Studies Department coordinated activities in the center since it opened in 1975.

Several African-American students attending a campus forum on diversity in January voiced their displeasure with the current cultural center and asked that the university consider creating a new facility. Instead, the administration elected to remodel the current center. Exum says timing, space and money were factors in the decision to remodel the center rather than ope n a new freestanding cultural center. University officials wanted to respond to students' concerns in quick fashion, she says.

Exum expects the Lindley center to appeal to a broad cross section of the university students a nd staff, focusing on programming, exhibits and outreach efforts. The first phase of the remodeling is expected to be completed in time for fall quarter.

Both Glidden and Brehm also say they are committed to strengthening the African American Studies Department and increasing its faculty. The three tenured faculty in the department have asked for additional tenure-track faculty support. College of Arts and Sciences Dean Leslie Flemming and department members were discussing the future direction and emphasis of the academic unit during spring quarter.

Mosley, who is African American, believes Ohio University has done a poor job of recruiting black faculty over the years. Last fall, 41 African Americans made up 5.3 percent of the total tenure-track faculty on the Athens campus. Minority faculty -- including Asians (43), Hispanics/Latinos (13) and Native Americans (5) -- totaled 102 or 13.3 percent of tenure-track positions. Minorities make up 9.8 percent of the total administrative wor k force in Athens.

Mosley was among the first faculty members recruited as part of the university's Black Faculty-Staff Recruitment Program, which began in 1987. The Provost's Office offered funding incentives to academic and administrative units that participated in the program.

A precursor to that effort -- a visiting scholars program for minorities -- was developed after no black faculty members were hired in tenure-track positions in 1983-84. At the time, OU employed only about 15 Af rican-American faculty, Smith says. Brehm now coordinates the Underrepresented Faculty Recruitment Program, intended to provide financial assistance to departments for hiring efforts.

Mosley says there is resistance among many departments on campus to recruit African-American faculty an d staff because some perceive them to be "less qualified than other candidates."

"It's clear if it wasn't for the efforts of the administration, top down -- President Glidden, Sharon Brehm and the deans -- that things would really be dragging in efforts to increase minority faculty and students," Mosley says.

Mosley says he was impressed that the university hired an African American, Ralph Amos, as its new executive director of alumni relations in April. "To put an African American in that position, on the front line with mostly white alumni, I believe was rather daring," Mosley says.

The affirmative action debate

Glidden says the commitment of Ohio Un iversity's senior administration to the ideals of affirmative action and diversity has never wavered despite numerous court battles elsewhere in the past couple of years.

"And I think you'll find that is true of most college and university administrators," Glidden says. "I think you would hear from my counterparts what I believe: that diversity is really critically important to the quality of education on campus."

Eighty high school students admitted to Ohio University visited the campus as part of the two-day Cultural Connections program in March. Here, student volunteer Sherina Davis (pointing) leads a campus tour.

Photos: Rick Fatica

Ohio University's hiring and student recruitment policies follow federal affirmative action guidelines set forth in the Supreme Court's 1978 Bakke decision, Smith says. The Bakke ruling allowed for the use of race as a factor in college admissions decisions, though not the only one. It also banned the use of racial or ethnic quotas in admissions procedures, but said colleges' use of racial-preference policies to enroll students from diverse cultures and backgrounds was covered by the First Amendment. The decision has been used since as the legal principle for college affirmative action programs.

But two recent court rulings have proven particularly bothersome for affirmative a ction supporters. Proposition 209, passed by California voters in 1996 and upheld by a federal court of appeals, bans public colleges and other state agencies in California from granting preferences based on race or gender. The University of California Board of Regents then banned race as a factor in admitting the 1998 freshman class.

The 1996 Hopwood decision by a federal appeals court in Texas ruled that the University of Texas Law School could no longer use race as a factor in admitting students. The Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the case. The early returns are in and minority enrollments at the University of California at Berekely and the University of Texas at Austin plummeted this spring.

In admitting students, OU considers the special talents and diversity of applicants, Howard says, making slight exceptions for underrepresented groups -- racial minorities, first-generation college students from Appalachia and international students.

Sabatino says the uni versity keeps a close eye on affirmative action challenges as they relate to the distribution of grants and scholarships, but generally has taken a "steady-as-we-go" approach. The ramifications of the recent affirmative action court cases have been limited to regions in which the challenges were made, she says. And while Sabatino meets with Smith and Director of Legal Affairs John Burns to discuss such court cases and their possible impact on OU, so far they have seen no need to change the university's methods of offering financial aid.

"I think we have very sound policies with the approach that we take to awarding financial aid," Sabatino says. "Most of our scholarships (aimed at enhancing diversity) cover multicultural students rather than specific minority groups."

It may be difficult to predict how affirmative action challenges, public sentiment and politics will affect efforts to increase diversity on college campuses, but the future appears clouded.

"The damage to the concep t of affirmative action nationally by Hopwood and Proposition 209 have been minimal, except for the four states affected by the decisions -- California, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi," Smith says. "What those decisions have shown is how poorly those involved in affirmative action have communicated to the general public what af firmative action really is about.

"It's more than the sound bites and jargon about quotas, underqualified applicants and reverse discrimination that some politic ians and people opposed to equality talk about. In truth, affirmative action helps to eliminate all of those things."

Bill Estep is editor of Ohio University Today. Mary Alice Casey is assistant editor of the publication.


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