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Let's Reduce Obstacles for African Americans Students
Victoria Davis, Education Chair, St. Paul NAACP

Victoria Davis

In 1968, I began my experience with the University of Minnesota. I was admitted to the Humphrey Institute as a Ford Fellow to earn a graduate degree in Public Administration. I was admitted second quarter to a federally funded program designed to produce a cadre of specialists in aging. In my seminars, I found myself surrounded by a new set of terms, ideologies, and classroom assignments that were unfamiliar to me. In fact, I discovered that the curriculum was foundational, and that the course work from each semester prepared one for the next semester.

After a few classes, I concluded that I had missed too much to make continuation reasonable at that time. I approached my advisor about the desire to withdraw and return the following fall. I was surprised at his response which was harsh, insensitive, and lacking in compassion. I was told in a harsh tone that I was lucky to be there and that if I left I might not get a chance to return. This response was shocking to me. It was clear that my success in the program was not the number-one consideration. Rather, it appeared to be meeting a diversity quota to ensure continued federal funding. I decided to take my chances. I reasoned that I had passed the test for graduate admission and I had a strong transcript from Spelman. Therefore, I reasoned that I should be given the opportunity to return in the fall and start with the beginning courses in order to increase my chance for a successful experience. I was readmitted the following fall and I graduated Magna Cum Laude.

During my matriculation at the University, there was growing unrest among African American students that resulted in the takeover of Morrill Hall. The list of concerns during that 1968-69 school year was very similar to those being articulated today. And, because I had experienced the sting of indifference as a graduate student, I could relate to their issues and joined them in the sit-in as it was deemed the only effective way to draw meaningful attention to our plight. Said issues included, but were not limited to the following.

  1. Restrictive admission requirements: There was a failure on the part of the University of Minnesota (U of M) to acknowledge the failure of local school districts to provide equal access to academic preparation to African American students. This was true throughout Minnesota and was recently validated as a result of the lawsuit brought by the Minneapolis NAACP against the State of Minnesota.
  2. Poor counseling: African Americans experienced a low rate of transfer from General College to the College of Liberal Arts (CLA). It was discovered that an alarmingly high percentage of African American students were counseled to take courses that would not earn them entry into CLA. This was costly to students and it was very discouraging.
  3. Low graduation rate: There was no infrastructure within the University that African American students could tap into to help them successfully matriculate. This was essential because the climate in the classrooms was not friendly or welcoming. All too often, African American students would experience isolation because, generally, they had little or no access to professors to discuss course related questions. And communication with majority students was not very good.

For these and other reasons, the prevailing thought among African American high school graduates did not include thoughts of going to the U of M. After graduation, I began a very active volunteer engagement with the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) with the goal of encouraging youth from this area to go to historically black colleges and universities. The UNCF effort resulted in dramatic increases in the number of African American students going to UNCF schools, a number that continues to increase year after year. On the other hand, the number of African American students attending the U of M increased from .5 percent (250) of 1968 student enrollment to under 3.5 percent (1,500 +) as of the fall of 2000. While this represents a growth pattern, we would urge greater efforts in the area of enrollment to keep up with the increased numbers of African Americans in the Twin Cities (122,000) as of the year 2000.

The experience that African American students experienced during the late sixties is relevant to this journalistic exercise because the issues are essentially unchanged. Today the obstacles to admission for African Americans loom ever larger under the guise of making the U of M more competitive. Our students, in all too many instances, are counseled into ill-advised course selection combinations that reduce the incidence of successful course completion. And great improvements are needed in the effort to establish appropriate academic support systems.

As a concerned member of the community, I have participated in several U of M focus groups that have reached similar conclusions. I have attended focus dinners at the university residence of previous presidents of the U of M that identified these same issues and offered corresponding recommendations. Therefore, I am convinced that the U of M has enough information to take the appropriate steps to resolve these long standing issues. In addition, I have served on advisory committees such as the one in the College of Biological Sciences. Said committee was established to facilitate the U of M's efforts to increase the number of students of color entering science majors. After several years on said committee, I became discouraged as I observed the staff not receiving the support needed to accomplish said goal. The most recent casualty was the loss of Ms. Verna L. Holoman from the program. In addition, I had a chance over several summers to talk with the African American student recruits, many of whom expressed to me their disappointment that they did not get more support from the U of M.

These and other experiences raise, for me, the question about the will of the U of M to commit to breaking down the barriers to admission and graduation for African American students. The U of M has established campuses throughout the state so that all Minnesotans can access a campus with no more than 35 miles of travel. However, the leadership has not placed equal emphasis on internalizing the fact that access is more than a matter of geography.

At a recent press conference called to discuss the governor's proposed budget for the U of M, a spokesperson for the U of M suggested with great emphasis, that the success of a community is linked to the education of its people. We support that belief and find it to be true for the African American community as well. However, the history of our experience with the U of M is that it does not act on this belief as it relates to the African American community. In many ways, the U of M behaves as if we were invisible. A wise man once said that the greatest inhumanity to man is to pretend that another does not exist. Therefore, I respectfully challenge the U of M to fulfill its responsibility to help create success in the African American community as well using education as the vehicle.

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