An open letter to the University of Akron’s next Chief Diversity Officer

words by Chris Horne; photos by Shane Wynn

Dear future Chief Diversity Officer,

You may not know this but your job could be the most important one at The University of Akron. While plenty of folks on and off campus might disagree, I struggle to think of another position that has the potential to positively, directly and almost immediately impact the future and long-term health of both the university and our community as a whole. As I hope you are already aware, the graduation rate for UA’s black students is so abysmally low that two weeks ago a group of community leaders called it “educational genocide” which may seem extreme but stick with me here.

As the former president and trustees repeatedly noted, most of the students who enroll at the University of Akron are from the area. While the current six-year graduation rate for all students is already troublingly low at 40.6 percent, it’s much worse for Akron’s black students — an appalling 12.3 percent. That means almost 2,070 of the black students currently enrolled this fall at the University of Akron will leave with debt but no degree to help them pay that off. About 60 percent of all UA students receive federal loans and the US Department of Education says students who leave early take with them a little more than $10,000 in federal loan debt.

That’s a $12 million financial problem for just the students currently enrolled. This, however, stretches back to the Luis Proenza administration, so compound it by more than a decade. Yeah, that’s a lot of back-of-the-napkin math, but the point is that the impact of all this inaction has been enormous and is spread out all throughout the community at-large. This is why your job means so much.

buchtel-protest-fistHad you been on campus last May, you might have witnessed a protest on the steps of Buchtel Hall. There, two dozen students, staff and faculty held signs and occasionally issued meek demands in a call-and-response fashion: “What do we want? (A conversation!) When do we want it? (Now!)” But most of the time, they were silent unless you were up close enough to hear the chatter. They had put their trust in the university to help improve their futures, to help them have a better life. Their protest was an expression of that trust betrayed.

angel-poole-reads-demandsAngel Poole, who helped organize the protest, stepped up holding a sheet that rattled in her hands, either from the light breeze or her nerves. Even if she wasn’t anxious, she’d have rather been somewhere else. Perhaps reading the Brontë sisters. Or resting. Later that afternoon, the English major clocked in at work and by the time classes started again on Monday, she’d put in 30 hours. Sometimes, she works more, but she still had four term papers to write so there was only so much time left for the job.

angel-pooleWhen she gets her degree, Angel will be an outlier and she knows it. At UA, students like her are three times less likely to graduate within six years than the rest of the student body. That’s why these students — representing Black Students United, Black Excellence Commission, Student African American Brotherhood and others — were protesting. For reasons they base both in morality and scientific research, they don’t think their success should have to be so rare.

But since that day little, if anything, has changed, which is why more students protested during the homecoming football game. It’s why a community group, including local religious leaders and Akron NAACP chapter president Judi Hill, sent a letter to the Board of Trustees challenging them to finally act.

The opportunity at the university is enormous. Even marginal gains would have a meaningful impact on hundreds of students. In reality, it affects thousands and thousands because, as Dr. John Queener, a licensed psychologist who teaches counseling psychology at UA, says, “Diversity is not just for the black students. Diversity affects the entire campus.”

we-fed-up-stepsThe research suggests that’s true, that it improves learning outcomes as well as retention for all students. Former president Scott Scarborough told me he was familiar with those findings, but he had cut programs in the Office of Multicultural Development instead of investing in them the way he had by starting the faux-military Corps of Cadets, pumping another $700,000 into the athletics program for football stipends or the nearly $1 million spent on TrustNavigator’s student success coaches. Why?

“Just thought we’d have a greater impact on all of our student populations, the numbers overall and within the various categories, through the success coaching,” Scarborough said.

His rationale is fundamentally no different than the “All Lives Matter” counter-argument to someone suggesting black people matter too. But that president is gone, so it may seem pointless to rehash that stuff. In reality, this falls on the Board of Trustees because they decide how money at UA is spent and they’ve decided it won’t be spent on helping black students stay in or graduate from the university.

What I fear, what others on campus suspect will happen, is you’ll be hired, UA will get some good pub and you’ll go to work without much of a budget.

While the Board of Trustees office spent $300,000 in FY 2015-16 for its personnel alone, the trustees only gave Multicultural Development $244,000 total. When former interim CDO Rev. Carl Wallace requested three graduate assistants for the Office of Inclusive Excellence to offset the budget cuts and lost personnel, he was flatly turned down by the current administration. Why? Because there is no money, President Matthew Wilson wrote. That was the same response Wallace received to his other requests, including that OIE get a permanent home on campus to reflect “the importance of diversity as a core value to the university”.

When Wallace asked that the current assistant director of Multicultural Development be elevated to director and given a raise of $10,000, Wilson wrote, “I really struggle with this idea when we are looking at a 10 percent decrease in enrollment and corresponding drop in revenue.”

Wallace responded to Wilson’s repeated concerns that the university can’t spare funds for diversity by writing, “Know that we are all acutely aware of our financial situation but I am also aware monies are being allocated. …I see firsthand monies from the university paying for community luncheons and monies for temporary moves.”

These are all legitimate problems, and it isn’t Wilson’s fault that the trustees approved poorly conceived and executed programs that hastened the university’s poor financial situation and contributed to the significant drops in enrollment. It isn’t Wilson’s fault that Proenza, Scarborough and the trustees approved cuts that weakened or eliminated programs being run by Multicultural Development, which were not just proven effective but had an estimated return on investment of $1 million a year in tuition from retained students. Even the programs they’re boasting about aren’t being supported.

we-fed-up-buchtel-statueThis past February, during Black History Month, the Akron Beacon Journal ran a front page story about the university’s African American Male Learning Community, describing it as “part of UA’s strategy to address racial disparities when it comes to student success.” Data gathered by the Office of Multicultural Development shows that AAMLC participants had a grade point average almost a full point higher than non-participating African-American males at UA. It had also contributed to much higher retention and persistence rates. Again, a major success. But what the ABJ failed to mention is that participation in the learning community had fallen off a cliff, dropping from 44 students in the 2014-15 academic year to just 14 students last year. That’s because the university “didn’t have the staff to provide the level of needed support,” according to an email from UA spokesman Wayne Hill.

So, while it may not be the current administration’s doing, this is the situation you’re stepping into now. These are the challenges you face. But it’s not all about money, really. It’s about will. The will to do the right thing. As difficult as UA has made it, the answers are not complex.  

Queener, who is also president of the United Forum of Black Faculty, Staff and Administrators, puts it this way: “We don’t have a radical agenda where we want to burn down the university. We’re just saying, ‘Why not use the best research we have and the best data we have to really make this a more inclusive university?’”

Instead, the trustees have ignored the incredible opportunity to move into a higher echelon of universities. In 2003, the gap between six-year graduation rates for whites and underrepresented minorities at the University of Akron was about 22 percent, which was virtually the same as it was at Ohio State back then.

Ten years later, the gap at Ohio State has been slashed in half but at UA, it grew to 28 percent, which The Education Trust reported was the 9th largest gap out of 450 four-year public institutions it measured. As of 2014, the gap at UA is 34.2 percent.

You know the bad news now. The good news is that, if you care deeply about this, you aren’t alone. The University of Akron is loaded with sincere, gracious and giving students, faculty and staff. While there are a few small-minded, petty jerks at UA — I can think of at least eight by name — the truth is that they are outnumbered by those who will help you make a meaningful difference. At the very least, working together, you should be able to make some noise.

//BIO: Chris Horne is the publisher of The Devil Strip and a straight, white male who was raised in the buckle of the Bible Belt at a conservative Christian church. Even he’s shocked by the galling indifference the trustees have shown to this aptly described “educational genocide”.

(Featured photo of Diamond Alexander, a Cleveland native attending the University of Akron, taken by Shane Wynn/The Devil Strip)