Recession, Realities, and Resurgence: Challenges and Opportunities for Higher Education

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 20–21, 2009

Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College
Atlanta, Georgia

The Obama Administration and the Future of Education

U.S. Under Secretary of Education

We really are putting out a call to the country to help us re-define the role of the federal government in education, because we really have not clarified that role. We have NCLB for K-12, we have a whole slew of programs that the Department of Education provides – about $2.5 billion a year in Challenge Grants. In fact, the Network is supported by the Department of Education, and you have grant funding and Challenge Grants to do all kinds of things. But where can we have the greatest impact in terms of using the bully pulpit, shining the spotlight on what works? And really for me – I told my mother this – hopefully I will be leaving the Obama administration in seven and a half more years, but for now I just feel like we have two years to build an infrastructure that’s going to work for us over the next seven and a half years. And when I leave in seven and a half years I want to say that we have significantly improved quality, that we have accelerated achievement in America at all levels, especially in higher education, because we now have in six years half of the students graduating and half not, in the two-year colleges it’s worse – it’s about 25 percent. It’s taking too long; we can do so much more.

But you know, a generation ago it was good enough for 40 percent of Americans to have baccalaureate degrees. It’s not good enough now. We’re behind, Canada’s at 51 percent; we’re at 40 percent. So Canada’s our short-term target. And it’s not good enough anymore because as the President has said, if you look at the 30 fastest growing fields, more than two-thirds are going to require a minimum of a baccalaureate degree and advanced degrees, master’s degrees, and doctorates. We don’t have diversity in enough master’s and doctoral programs, we need to really increase the voice which is why our historically black colleges and so many institutions are critical for the diversity of America to have the leadership we’re going to need for this global society.

But I think we are in a perfect storm for reform. I think we have a president that’s highly educated – that is thrilling to me. It is thrilling to turn on the TV and see someone who has been highly educated, thinking about problems. That really is the result of the education that President Obama had. You know, growing up, 5 a.m. stories of being tutored by his mother and his wife Michelle thinking, was she going to be good enough to graduate from Princeton? And she was certainly better than good enough to graduate from Princeton. But they both grew up in working class families and they really benefited from the value of higher education tremendously and they are tremendous leaders for our country. So that’s thrilling.

I was just in Morocco a couple of weeks ago for two days and when you look at the situation in that country and you look at the literacy challenges… Well, we have 93 million Americans here that have similar kinds of challenges; they have low levels of literacy. I went with the President to Warren, Michigan and talked to the auto workers who had been laid off and it is very difficult to re-train a 55-year-old auto worker for a new career when they don’t have the reading and writing levels and ability to perform in mathematics that you would require for new fields in energy or other fields, like health care. Teaching is a good example; we need a million more teachers. So we have a big part of our country that desperately needs not only higher education but adult education… We’ve got a tremendous amount to do. We can share knowledge that you have with other countries; we can get more students educated.

So there are so many things we need to do for so many different kinds of students and I think we’re all here talking about higher education because we believe that students should have choice in where they want to go. We’ve got a President and a First Lady that get it, that are totally and completely committed to education and funding—you’ll see this in not only the $4.3 billion that has been put out now in the Race to the Top, but also a $650 million competition called Investing in Innovation that you should look at which will help K-12 really look at the best ideas to improve student achievement so we can fix the problems going forward, and you’ll also see the Graduation Initiative, a bold proposal that the President has had to put $12 billion back into American higher education, and yes, it’s not enough, but it sure is a whole lot better than the last eight years have been.

The Graduation Initiative has proposed that we implement direct lending. That means that instead of taking loans from banks, students will get Pell grants and take loans from the treasury. And that will save the government $87 billion. I mean that’s a big number. Savings would be saved over 10 years. And a significant amount will be re-invested so 3.7 million more students from economically disadvantaged families in this country can come into American higher education of the five to 10 million more coming in in general. So that we will hopefully deliver on that top 100% commitment for all students to have the opportunity to come into higher education, even students from low-income families in America.

And hopefully as the economy gets better we can find other revenues to really look at the kind of quality that we need in American higher education and look at the areas that really need a lot more attention, so we can have the best teachers in the country—that we

can hopefully elevate the teaching profession to be as highly regarded as the law profession and the profession of medicine. I mean, when you go to some of these other countries and you see undergraduates and grad students clamoring to become a teacher and you look at this country—we really have such disparities in how we have framed the importance of education. I really hope to represent you in that regard and pull you into these podiums and other opportunities to really speak out and talk about the value of what we do, not only in the short term but in the long term.

Expectations versus Resources

President, Spelman College

I think that it is important to acknowledge the fact that expectations make a huge difference. You know, I think about the work that’s being done in K-12 and what we see is that even in underfunded schools where children come to school without all the resources they need, they can be successful when the expectations and the leadership of those institutions are strong. In the same way, you know that not every student may arrive with the writing or the quantitative skills that you wish they had—it doesn’t mean they can’t leave with them. So it’s a question of, are we willing to invest and do we have expectations? Certainly, when you look at the history of historically black colleges and universities that’s our claim to fame, in the sense that we have historically taken students who did not always have access to resources and yet produced young people who graduated ready to go to professional schools and become the black middle class and the leadership of the African American community.

So I think that it’s not to romanticize that, but I do think that it is important to acknowledge that we have to work with what we have. And I say that not speaking specifically of Spelman or Mount Holyoke College where I was before. In every institution that I ever worked at, the faculty, and I was part of that faculty, said the students aren’t what they used to be. But everyone says that, but at the same time, we have the demands of our society and I think it is incumbent upon us to create engaging learning environments that help them grow to where they need to be.

Professor, New York University

How do you do that with underfunding? Even at the higher education level, how do the economic realities of university budgets play into that mission?


I’m going to come back to expectations. I’m going to use as an example, when I was teaching at Mount Holyoke College quite a while ago. When I was a faculty member, I had an African American female student who had come from an urban high school—very bright but a really poor writer. She had not been asked to write much in high school and came with weak writing skills. And so she was in my class and she wrote this paper, I

gave her a C on it, I gave her feedback; she was very upset with me. What was upsetting to her was she had been getting As on her papers in other classes. And so I found that hard to believe, based on what I had seen, and so I talked to one of her professors, who was a friend of mine, in one of those classes where she’d been getting As, and I said to him, “This is what I’ve got, what are you seeing?” And he was seeing the same thing I was seeing. But what he said to me was, “You know, she works really hard.” And it was essentially a reward for her effort, not necessarily what she was producing. And I use that as an example to say that that doesn’t have anything to do with resources, you know, that has to do with expectations and holding students to a high standard.

The Role of Professors

President, Clark Atlanta University

Every college president that interacts with faculty has had the conversation and the meeting about how students aren’t what they used to be. And we’ve certainly had them at Clark Atlanta and after one of those meetings, one of my professors came to me and I thought it was a continuation of the conversation. He opened by saying, “Dr. Brown, students are not the way they used to be.” And he said, “And neither are we.” And the point that he was making is sometimes our idyllic picture of what professors used to do is in fact not what many of us do now. And we have found ways in some cases to excuse ourselves out of the whole job that certainly was done for me. I make the point over and over again, had it not been for the magnanimity and the deep patience of a lot of people I certainly wouldn’t have had any of the successes I have today.

So part of the problem is we’re probably not doing many of the things that we used to do either. But the best of what we do, and every campus has them, are those professors that literally do the whole job. Now we hear all the conversation about “Do you want me to teach, or do research, etc.,” the best of us do it all really well. So we have people on campuses who teach fairly full loads of classes, who write and manage the grants, who mentor the students and make sure that they spend tremendous time working with them and who are further engaged with them in other kinds of social activities which are about their growth and development.

And part of what has to happen I think is that we need to understand that as the world changes and shifts our thinking and action about how we do our work will also have to change and shift accordingly. When I think about the number of professors and administrators who have been reluctant to engage in social media but then later discover its tremendous educational value, its tremendous engagement value, I think we got to take that discussion a bit further and start talking about the fundamental structures that we’ve set for ourselves to do the work in higher education.

We have locked ourselves into some structures that really are very old structures, and every time we try to do something new we keep trying to fit it inside those old structures and they keep not working for us which is why almost every innovation has a short life and then things devolve back to where they were before. And I think that at some point

institutions within themselves and in clusters and in types really need to begin to talk about what are the alternative structures for accomplishing the work that we have? We’ve locked ourselves into these structures and I don’t think we can get to everything we’re talking about and stay inside those structures.


I think the President’s very conscious focus on transparency would tremendously benefit a lot of what we’re talking about here. Explaining things in a very transparent and open process that would be hopefully non-threatening to institutions, I think would be so helpful so that if you have examples of writing and expectations, people could understand when they come into the professoriate. I hate “Rate My Professor” for a lot of reasons because I think it is mostly students who have a gripe. But it’s not the kind of considered work that we could be doing to explain our expectations more clearly to the public, to students in higher education and to the communities, so we could address the problems that we’re talking about.

So I do think that using social networks and asking, how do you document the kinds of expectations you have that result in high learning outcomes for students, and what do the research papers look like, what kinds of things are we giving to students—it’s not just a syllabus, it’s what they end their educational course with and can they take that to the next level and improve upon that and deepen their knowledge and skills? So it’s very exciting work but I think we have been really closed, and many professors, when you bring them together in a social network, say it’s such a relief to be with other faculty worrying about the same kinds of things they’re worrying about. So I think that breaking down the silos to help us think about these kinds of ideas would be so beneficial to students.

President, New York University

I think this notion that you just articulated connects back to the theme we were hitting earlier. The Jesuits had a set of words for this… They said if you’re given the blessing of running a school or a classroom you have to be able to state what your goal is and then you work from that goal. And if our goal is to educate to the best of our ability, then each of us that’s inside the system should be able to do that and each person in the classroom should be able to do that with regard to every element of the classroom.

It also means that as we try to create an integrated education system we should go to the children on the ground that are going through the system and be able to link with the needs of each of the sets of children on the ground. This is the great strength of America, we’re not the European system, which is top-down—what’s killed the European system is a move to uniformity. But the numbers I’ve heard from Martha in other contexts are stark. But it’s a noble goal to try by 2020 to get 60 percent graduated and be back to number one but if we sacrifice to that goal doing things in a homogeneous way, we will have made a terrible mistake. So I think this principle of using social networks is very, very important.

We are a society, to pick up on Martha’s phrase, that have taught ourselves to think about ourselves first. And we’ve also, to the extent that we talked to each other about the directions in which we should go, taught ourselves as a civil society to talk in terms of slogans—we have an allergy to complexity and nuance. And it seems to me that this all ties together in the following way: We as individuals, we as institutions, we as the professoriate—we’ve got to start embracing the vocation that we have, we’ve got to take ownership of the issue and the first thing we have to model is a resistance to simple solutions.

Political Will and Class


There’s another point that I think is not in this conversation that needs to be, when you talk about the quality of the student that comes to us. We have known and proven four times in the last century that we know absolutely what to do to create high quality K-12 outcomes for all children. We’ve demonstrated that to ourselves, demonstrated it in schools all over the country and we promptly create social policy that blocks continuation of the effort.

In Georgia for example, having been President of Savannah State for many years, one of the things that you come to realize in rural Georgia is that it is not in the best interest of the leaders of the small towns to increase the quality of outcomes from their students as they define it. Because if you do, the price of chicken plucking just went up. The price of peanut harvesting just went up. If those same kids can go to college then it changes the local economy. If the kid who could run all over the football field can actually get to UGA, we got a problem. Because that’s not what we want them to do after high school, we’ve got a good spot for him in the chicken plant and he’s going be a good boy in that chicken plant. So the point that I try to make over and over again, is we also have to talk about political will.

And the difficulty of supporting long term efforts is what stops us every time. Beverly Hall, for example, has been the Superintendent of Atlanta City Public Schools for about 10 years and the change is just meteoric, I mean it’s incredible, almost ridiculous, to think about. And she’s done it in a particular style, some people still disagree with the method, but the outcome is unassailable. But there’s going to come a point when Beverly Hall leaves Atlanta, that’s going to happen one day and the question is, what happens immediately after that? The erosion of position is what normally ensues. And I think that that is true of some colleges and universities, I think it is true of whole school systems, I think it is true of individual schools, public and private. So I think a big piece of our agenda has to be garnering the political will to actually do the things we already know how to do and to maintain those things.


I couldn’t agree with you more. We know so much, there is so much we can apply to fix the problems, and we’ve done it before. And we do have to have the political will to be

able to face these issues. I was in a similar conversation with a gentleman that had spent the last decade building a great university in rural Oklahoma. And he could not get these local kids to go. Because of the farming culture and expectation, that ties back to your point about expectations. And so I said you know, what can we do? We have to put a spotlight on this and use the bully pulpit to some degree to talk very openly and honestly about how every child, every young adult should have the opportunity to go on in higher education. And because two-thirds of the students are working while they go to college, not separate out work and education as either/or, and I think that would help communities, just thinking about this as an integrated system.

I didn’t mention this but we decided at the Department of Education for Higher Education that we should have a much more formal agreement with several other large federal agencies—as an example the Department of Labor is the first one we decided and at the first meeting we had all the executives there from both departments, it was very obvious that people had not thought about ways to cross boundaries.

So for example, when the Department of Labor issues revenues every year to local communities to give poor students summer jobs, there is no expectation that the kids who are behind should also be required to finish English and Math. And so if we can connect them across the boundaries in a more sophisticated way and talk openly and honestly about the kinds of expectations we have… If you haven’t followed this, is the website, we’ve had scholars from around the country weighing in on ways to increase academic standards for college and workforce readiness. We’re calling it College and Career Readiness, because we again want to have language that integrates the fact that your career and college can go hand-in-hand. We’re not doing this over here, and then go off to a career here, when frankly in the world we’re going to have to prepare students for five or 10 different careers in their lifetime and there’s going to be more and more knowledge needed to actually be successful in those careers that will be advancing in the pipeline.

So, getting the Department of Labor, the Department of Education to think about the ladders going up as an integrated system so students can have the choices and we can increase, as you said, access to higher education for everyone… and bring new opportunities for young people and people that have been displaced. We have 93 million, as I’ve said, who are out there that didn’t get a heck of a whole lot for whatever reason. We’ve got to bring them in higher education in more sophisticated ways.

Learning Differences


With colleges and universities, where are we on the issue of students with learning differences? In terms of understanding learning differences, and appreciating what was once considered learning disabilities as a learning difference to begin with, and actually creating an environment where students can succeed. And I ask that question in the context of broadening access to students with learning differences and accommodating their needs when budget issues are at the forefront.


In terms of sustainability, I can say the Civil Rights Act was a very good thing, because we have laws now, and our colleges and universities have been tremendously supportive of welcoming all kinds of students from all kinds of backgrounds, including students with learning disabilities. If you look at the student population in our colleges and universities, it’s tremendously diverse.

I got to meet a MacArthur genius, Jim Fruchterman, a well-educated, really brilliant guy; he started this company called Bookshare, and it’s a non-profit corporation. What Bookshare does is it takes textbooks and provides digital formats so anyone can listen to them. He started to really expand access for blind people to be able to not only complete high school but go on to college. And he said since he got the MacArthur grant and had more money he went from 3,000 people using Bookshare to 70,000 in the last two years.

He focused on the blind, and what he’s finding is English language learners are going to this because they’re hearing the books read to them as well as reading so it’s helping reading instruction, it’s focusing on diverse learning styles. And I think there’s tremendous sophisticated research coming out about trying to individualize the academic experience for every student. So when you talked about high expectations, great teachers individualize that experience, the curriculum doesn’t change, you’ve got high standards, you’ve got high quality curriculum, but you can modulate the curriculum so the students can best learn it, and that’s why I’ve been a big proponent of open education.

And I’ll just end with one last point. You talked about the economics—with struggling costs and so on, if we can improve the preparation of students who are not prepared for college? There’s a huge amount of funding for research and we send faculty to figure out how we can get more throughput so students can complete Algebra 2 and be ready to do well in Calculus or Statistics. If we can solve that and really use a lot of these Innovation funds to get more throughput there, we will not be having to spend so much money on remediation, on helping students catch up.

Increasing Study Abroad Opportunities


You know one of the things we haven’t really talked about that is actually a very important part of both NYU and Spelman right now, is global education, is study abroad programs, and one of the problems is that again the economy comes back to play. A study abroad semester is something that’s extremely enriching to any college career of course, and how do we help more students have that opportunity? I know Spelman was looking at trying to get as many juniors as possible I believe, to study abroad. When you look at the fact that 91 percent of the students are having trouble paying for the education, how do we provide that enriching opportunity to more students?


Well this is a very important question that is at the core of our strategic plan at Spelman. We have a new strategic plan that was approved in April, and one of the items in it, is global engagement for all of our students. We want every student to have a meaningful international experience by 2015. That does not necessarily mean, however, that every student is going to study abroad. But it does mean that we want to create opportunities for meaningful international experiences which might mean, for example, an alternative spring break trip doing a service project in Senegal, as some of our students did last year and the year before. Or it might mean a summer experience; not everyone is going to spend a semester or a year, but they can still have a meaningful experience.

We have a first-year seminar called ADW, it stands for Africans in the Diaspora in the World. And you might think of it as world history or world literature, focused on the experiences of Africans in the diaspora. And students who have taken that course have the opportunity in May to go with a set of faculty members to explore what’s called black Liverpool and black London. And that experience is going to be linked to the ADW course experience. Now the question is how is the student who couldn’t pay for her education going to get on that trip. The good news is, is that we have received a significant gift, which gets us started, it won’t be enough for everybody, but we have received an anonymous gift of $17 million to endow the Gordon-Zeto Endowment for International Initiatives. And that will certainly provide some additional scholarship support for students who want to study abroad or have meaningful international experiences. And you know, we will continue to identify other resources. But I think we have to be creative in terms of what we mean by that. Not every student’s going to do it in the traditional way.


It’s interesting as I thought about your question my mind went back to something Carlton said earlier which has deep ramifications here as well as to the overall conversation. I think the most dramatic thing that’s happened in higher education in my lifetime is a transformation of thinking of higher education as being a public good to one of it being a private good. And that happened as Ronald Reagan, the first George Bush the Second, effected the first dramatic transformation in this area when he privatized everything.

Everything that Beverly said is exactly on point, and I’ll say a bit about it at NYU. If you accept as we do at NYU that our value proposition is we’re going to be the first incarnation of this new kind of university, we’re going to be ecumenical, then it becomes part of being an NYU student or faculty member to move among the idea capitals.

Well then if you’re not making it available to every student you’ve got a really serious problem. But if we saw higher education in this world as a public good and getting each student as far down that pathway, the students that got to Beverly or got to NYU would have available to them funding to do that. The way the GIs did when they came home from World War 2 which is the crest that we’ve been riding in this country for 50 years. I would not be here today were it not for the New York State Regent Scholarship. Which a lot of us won, this was not like a merit scholarship. If you were a bright kid and you were in New York and you were willing to go to college in New York, and you took this

competitive exam, and you got an A, it paid whether you went to a private or a public school – it paid for everything and you could find the place that was best for you. For me it was a Jesuit university, for somebody else it might have been the state university. We’re not anywhere near that. I compliment the administration because they’re increasing Pell grants but that doesn’t create a realistic choice for a poor kid to go to private school, if we can’t supplement it with institutional aid and most of us can’t by the way.

The national conversation is driven by the endowment dependant schools who are going through a little bit of a ruffle now. Those 24 or 36 schools or whatever they are, NYU not among them I want to emphasize, will be fine as soon as they do their rebooting. But the tax dependent schools like the University of California, or the tuition dependent schools, we got a problem where if the administration doesn’t get through its proposals to increase Pell grants funding substantially, and most importantly for the middle class kids and the remainder for the poor kids, has loan repayment assistance which is tied to their lifetime income, then we will be flattening American higher education. Now, you get that kind of view that it’s a public good and then you can begin to do the financial aid that gets those kids abroad.

I want to emphasize though, we’ve been lucky in getting financial aid for it. We find the bigger impediment is not just the tuition financial aid but the fact that half of our undergraduates, as you know David, work two jobs while they’re going to school. So they’re not just paying the tuition if they go away. So we’ve developed a program where we’re trying to find jobs for them when they go away to study, which by the way is a great cultural experience for them, too. So we’re trying to work on both ends of the coin. But then I’ll tell you something, 25 percent of NYU’s student body, because of what New York City is—they’ve already had their study away experience before they come to us. They come to us speaking four languages and their families have just moved to Brooklyn, from Eastern Europe or whatever, and the last thing they need is for me to be saying to them that it’s going to be a requirement for graduation to go back to Prague.

Race and Education


I’d like to put a twist on this conversation in a way because I want to come back to Carlton’s point about the chicken pluckers and the peanut farmers, and the need for a certain kind of manual or lower-skilled labor and who’s going to do that labor. And I’m thinking about just issues of race and class. And I’m thinking about this in the context of my experience as the co-chair of the Early Education Commission of the United Way here in Atlanta. So the United Way is focused on expanding opportunities for early childhood learning. We have this commission and we spend a lot of time educating ourselves and other people about the importance of brain development and language-rich environments from zero to three for school readiness. And the information is pretty clear, the evidence is there, and yet at the same time, when you talk to some people, they are hesitant to express support for really investing in early childhood learning. And maybe

it’s just because I spend a lot of my time writing about the psychology of racism, but I think that sometimes it’s not always articulated but there’s an assumption that it’s not going to work on everyone. That the ideology of intellectual inferiority or superiority or capacity is so deeply ingrained in our society that sometimes I think that we don’t do what we know we could do because we think some people are not worth investing in. And you see decisions being made about access to resources very early on. And so I’m wondering how you think about that in your role as Under Secretary of Education, about how you address the sort of inherent racism and classism that’s woven through the decision-making about allocation of resources for children.


Secretary Duncan hired Ruslyn Ali from the Education Trust to be the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights. And so we are actually working on an early learning through higher ed master plan that’s an integrated plan and the discussions we’ve had in the last few weeks have been around how do you infuse the equity agenda in every single piece of this to avoid what we’ve created in the past: the haves and the have-nots, some resources here and others here. And you know, do we have an opportunity. For example, I didn’t mention all these reauthorizations that are going on, but we’re going to be pushing very strongly hopefully to get the Elementary and Secondary Act reauthorization done as soon as possible in addition to the Workforce Act reauthorization in addition to Perkins.

I think the President has been criticized for doing too much too fast; I think all of the people in the administration say we’re making up for lost time and we should do everything as quickly as we can, but as thoughtfully as we can. Because I think these problems are very complex and we’re going to have different integrations and plans going forward so we have to build a kind of review process going forward.

But getting back to the question, the equity issue, to infuse that in the early learning agenda. We have a tremendous opportunity when we’re writing policy… and we’re representing all children and all adults and all of our 6,000 colleges and universities, and how do you map an early learning agenda that is going to focus on equity for all children and provide resources, and federal resources, even the $8 billion, is a drop in the bucket to what states are spending.


Can I build on that question? Because I think it’s a fascinating question. As you raised it I also thought about the student you mentioned at Mount Holyoke, who one professor was willing to give As to, who was doing C work in your view. How does that system of expectations and that idea of inferiority actually pollute our own higher ed? And how do we address that?


I think you have to engage in dialogue about it, for one thing. Put it on the table for discussion. Lots of colleges do workshops in professional development looking at ways in which we might increase awareness, particularly around some of the Claude Steele

work around stereotype threat and what that means in the classroom. So thinking about, for example, predominantly white institutions and the high attrition rate of students of color, particularly black and Latino students in the sciences, for example. If you are one of a handful of black students in an intro biology class or an intro chemistry class, and you have a question, are you going to ask your question? Or is stereotype threat going to keep you from raising your hand because you don’t want to confirm people’s stereotypes that perhaps you’re not up to the task. If you don’t ask the question you don’t get your confusion cleared up. If you do ask the question then you get your own anxieties about that. So how do you address that?

So here’s a simple structural approach that an instructor sensitive to issues of stereotype threat might think about. If I know that there are some students who are not going to come for help because they are worried about conforming to low expectations perhaps, or assumptions about capabilities, and I give my first exam and a certain number of all my students are going to do let’s say below B work, maybe I make it mandatory that every student who got below a B comes to see me; now you can come without stigma. But you have to be thinking about that. If you have partner assignments in the lab and some students can just match up and the kids of color are being left without partners, that’s a horrible experience for the person who’s isolated, but you could also just assign people. There are structural solutions if you’re thinking about it.


I have two questions for both of you that might be I guess a little unpleasant on some level. I’m going to ask Martha to weigh in on this. This is coming from my own experience in both the worlds. I’m a graduate of Morehouse, the brother institution of Spelman and I’m on the faculty of NYU. And we’re living in what the President has said is a post-racial society. And I have to say this John, and then I’m going to actually address this to you too, Beverly. At NYU I teach in two departments, Journalism and Social and Cultural Analysis. In the Journalism classes, my students are almost always white and Asian. In my Social and Cultural Analysis classes, which include the Africana Studies Department, it’s a multi racial group of students. So in this post-racial society I’m seeing amongst students of this generation so much separation and so much segregation right at NYU in terms of the classes that students take.

Beverly, as we look at the role of historically black colleges as creating and expanding the black middle class and as we look at where poverty is going right now in this country—there is still disproportionately more African Americans who are poor as compared to whites, but in terms of the growth of poverty, it’s among the white population. So is it time for historically black colleges to start thinking about integration in a much more aggressive way, similar to the aggressive way that non-historically black colleges have recruited African Americans over the past, since the Civil Rights Movement? And John, I want you to also address why is it that at a school like NYU in Greenwich Village this kind of separation and segregation exists and what do we do about it?


Well, I’m going to speak to that question and then I’ll come to mine. But I want to say, this generation of college students is the most diverse in U.S. history. However it is still a generation that’s grown up in segregated communities. Schools are more segregated today. Public institutions in particular are more segregated today than they were 20, 30, 40 years ago, ironically. So the young people grow up with the idea of diversity but not the experience of it. So when they come to college they don’t know how to navigate it and we do have to think about how colleges, particularly predominantly white institutions, help them figure that out because we should not assume that they know how to do it when they get there.

The second thing though, in terms of your particular question as it relates to HBCUs, I think we can’t speak about HBCUs generically, because there’s a wide range of them. So for example at Spelman, we had this year close to 6,000 applications for 550 spaces. Almost all of those applications are from African American women or women of African descent. So there are some HBCUs who’ve seen a real drop-off in enrollment and are actively thinking about how to include non-African Americans or white applicants because they need to maintain their enrollment, but that has not been our experience at Spelman.

But at the same time, you didn’t ask this question, but you might ask the question in terms of being a woman’s college. We live in a co-ed world, why have a woman’s college? But the reality is that the four or five years which students are in college is at a time when they’re really exploring questions of identity. And the idea that a young woman of African descent can come to a campus where she can say, this place was built for me, where I’m going to be at the center of the educational experience, not on the margin of it in any way—where, if I’m going to be a Physics major, I’m going to be with other black women who are Physics majors. I’m not going to be the odd black woman in the Physics department. That’s a very powerful experience and to do it for four or five years of your life at a critical moment is not necessarily a bad thing.


I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing; I want to make sure that that’s not the implication of my question. But when you said the idea of diversity and not the experience of it, how then does that four-year period run counter to enhancing someone to have the experience of diversity?


I mean I think its not an either/or, it’s a both/and. We have 2,100 students, a lot of young people are not choosing this institution, but a lot of them are. And the ones who are, interestingly, a lot of the young women who choose to come to Spelman, and I believe this might also be true of Morehouse but I can’t speak definitively about that, are coming out of schools where they have been in the minority, kind of like the student you know, who has been to Prague and you’re saying, go back to Prague. That student who has had the experience of being one of few, even if there are racially mixed schools because of the way tracking operates in our high schools, they may have been one of a handful of young, black women in the Calculus class or in the AP English class. So to have the

opportunity where you can be with other people who share your goals, who look like you, who reinforce a sense of high expectations, all of that is very powerful. Not everybody feels they need that, not everybody necessarily wants it.

But the analogy I like to use is when you talk about orchestras. You know the clarinets, horn section, violins, they all have to play together but they don’t necessarily all rehearse together. The violin section rehearses so they can hear themselves better when they’re doing it and then they mix with the other parts of the orchestra. And I think for the four or five years that students make the choice to be at a historically black college like at Spelman, I think they’re rehearsing so they play better when they leave. [Applause]. But the reality is, however, and I think this is important to say, there is a great deal of diversity within the community, so then just because everyone’s skin is some shade of brown necessarily, the faculty’s diverse to begin with, and that’s historically been true from the founding of these institutions. But the other piece is, I grew up in a small town outside of Boston—Bridgewater, Massachusetts. My experience as a young black woman in Bridgewater, Massachusetts is different than somebody who grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, which is different than somebody who grew up in inner city St. Louis, which is different than someone who’s coming here from Toronto. It’s a diverse group of women, ethnically, racially, socio-economically, and in terms of gender or sexual orientation. You know, it’s a single gender institution, but of course there’s diversity within that category. At a school whose motto is “Our whole school for Christ,” religious diversity is a conversation alive and well.

I think that part of what I’d like to say, no matter what kinds of institutions we lead, there are three things that we have to pay attention to. And they’re easily remembered by what I call the ABCs. ‘A’: affirming identity, ‘B’: building Community; ‘C’: cultivating leadership. The ‘A,’ ‘affirming identity’ is going to vary depending on the makeup of your population, but everybody wants to see themselves reflected positively in their environment. For whoever is the marginalized group in your community, you have to be intentional about thinking about how you affirm those identities. In my “Our whole school for Christ” institution, maybe those are the Muslim students. Do they see themselves reflected in our environment and what are we doing to make sure they do?

The ‘B,’ ‘building community’, is about how you make everyone feel included as part of the environment. And the ‘A’ and the ‘B’ have to go together; sometimes people want to do the ‘B’ without the ‘A’ and it doesn’t work. You know, if I could just use an example for our audience, if there’s somebody up here taking a picture of all of those folks in the audience and everybody gets a picture as a souvenir when they leave, what is the first thing you’re going to do when you get your copy of that photo? Looking for yourself. You’re not looking for me. Unless you are me, right? So, you look for yourself and if we think about the educational environments we’re creating, it’s like a big photograph, you want to see yourself in it. If you don’t, you wonder either, ‘What’s wrong with me? How come I didn’t show up in this picture?’ Or, ‘What’s wrong with the photograph?’ We’ve all been in the situation where they say gather together, but if you feel as though you’re not going to fit in the picture, you step away from it.


So John then, is that why in some classes at NYU there’s diversity and other classes…


Listen I think there’s a way in which Beverly answered for both of us, there’s a lot of wisdom, I really enjoyed listening. That was a profound answer. As I thought of your orchestra, I also thought occasionally there are string quartets, right? This may be the analogy for Spelman. It’s the string quartet. It’s not just when you’re practicing. Some great music has been written for string quartets.

The thing that jumps out at me is: beware of single solutions. What we specialize in, in higher education is complexity and nuance. The problems that Arnie Duncan and his team are facing on K-12 education first of all are different in different populations, you can splay them out across dozens of varieties. There is a danger here of seeing part of what is a kaleidoscopic picture. And I would say the same thing with regard to a question like the one that you asked David, frankly, first of all it comes from a particular experience.

The challenge of the 21st century is taking what Beverly said and saying: We know how wrong the melting pot analogy was, the one on which I was raised – we’re not all the same, and we’re not all going to be the same, and that shouldn’t be our goal – so we’re going to be a community of communities—can we do that? I say New York is the first ecumenical city. It’s the only city I think in the world which can say that in its public school system it has kids that were born in every country of the world. New York is a city where you can taste the bread of every country; hear the prayers of every country. So it’s the first open experiment in whether we can create a community of communities. That’s the way I view NYU.

Ok, so the first thing I would say is that the diversity you use, you’re mapping out on one axis, you’ve chosen to map that on an axis in two classes or two departments that you teach. Listen to the diversity that we just heard from Beverly. Are Clarence Thomas or Thurgood Marshall the same person? Okay? Because this gets into very strange loops about the burdens that you put on people with certain identities, if we have certain expectations about their identities or their role in representing their identities. What I’m aiming for is what I was taught in the 60s under the religious doctrine of ecumenism. I want to build a community of communities.

So the way we’ll do it, is we’ll create 80, as you know, exploration floors in the dorms. And we would never use a differentiation of gender or race—none of the traditional dividing. We would never have a Muslim floor, or a Catholic floor, or a Jewish floor. But we’ll have a scrabble floor or a jazz floor or a trivial pursuit floor or whatever. And then shame on you if you’re a scrabble player and you don’t connect to the jazz people and praise to you if you do, and that creates the theory of our university being in and of New York, and then that extrapolates out into putting yourself outside your comfort zone with a study away experience.

This is the theme that I have, this is very complex stuff, and I say to the parents as they come through on the tours, you may have heard me say, because the ambassadors call me into tours, I will say to them, NYU is not right for most of your kids. Your kids if they’re looking at NYU are smart enough to get into great schools, don’t worry as parents you’ll have a happy ending, and students, don’t come here unless you’re ready for cacophony and complexity; this is what we do. And we’re not right for most of you. And that’s what we have to do in this whole enterprise; it’s what I beg Martha and the President to keep their focus on. Is empower the students, and give them information and access and the capacity then to choose. And then let them go as far down the road as they can. Because they’ll know what’s best.


I would completely agree with what you said in terms of the complexity but I also know that a lot of different institutions are represented in the room and I do think we have to ask the question and do the analysis. So when you observe that you’ve got a lot of white male kids in this class and not very many over here; if you see that pattern, it’s worth investigating. I want to use as an example, before I became President of Spelman, I spent 13 years at Mount Holyoke College and part of that time I was Dean of the College and when I was the Dean I had a grant from the Mellon Foundation to do an analysis of the impact of diversity in terms of academic achievement. So we did an analysis of student performance and majors and we could see it was a diverse community but that the distribution of students across majors was not even, so that there were largely white and Asian students in the sciences and the black and Latino students were mostly in the social sciences—a lot of them in ethnic studies. So the question was, were they being pushed out of certain areas, or being drawn to some places? It was not perhaps a surprise that you found more kids of color in those departments that had more faculty of color, that they were connecting in that way. On the other hand, particularly in terms of concern about retention in the sciences, is there something structural that we needed to look at that would foster greater persistence for kids of color? So I think it’s important to ask the question though the answers you find may not necessarily be what you anticipated.


We have time for one more comment so I was going to ask the Under Secretary if she wanted to actually close, looking at that issue we were just discussing.


I think my take-away from the opportunity to serve with my colleagues on this panel, is that we are very fortunate in this country to have 6,000 colleges and universities with different missions, with a wide diversity of students—and we’re not doing enough. We are not doing enough to help those students not only on the front end, get into the range of choices they have and make informed choices, and I think we talked a lot about that, but I think we can do a lot more for students that we are fortunate enough to have in our classes, have in our institutions, and give them the best possible education we can and figure out better ways for them to be retained and really explore, especially in the first year.

I look at the next decade to say, where are those seventh graders in high school going to be? What can we do in K-12 to get the seventh graders to be our graduates in 2020? Does it really have to take six years to get half of them through? Can we get two-thirds of them, three-quarters of them through, and what would it take to do that? And figuring out if there aren’t any students of color in some of your classes, why not? As a professor, why not go to the diversity recruiter and say, what happened here? Is it that these students from high school coming in aren’t exposed, or that they wouldn’t even want to go into journalism because they’re so disgusted with what they see—with the quality of journalism in America? You know how the newspapers just really have to reinvent themselves and the real writing is on the blogs now, and a lot of people are making choices about different fields from what they’ve seen in the last decade or two, especially younger people. And a lot of the work is going on in networks that most of us don’t even know are out there.

So I just think that we have to be open to a future that’s going to look very different. It’s a very exciting time, I think we’ve got an administration that wants to reach out and learn from the academic community, I think that’s a very different situation than what we’ve had. When they brought me before the Senate Republican Committee one of the chiefs of staff said, ‘Are you going to go off and make policy in a corner and then come over to the Senate and shove it down our throat?” And I said, “Well I don’t know much about making policy in a federal context but, frankly, we’re going to do inquiry-based approaches and ask a lot of hard questions and get the best thinking in the country like our President is trying to do on Afghanistan,” to make a tough decision about, as you said, a complex issue.

So I think we have a lot to do. I just am very glad to have the opportunity to be on the panel. Tell us what we need to be doing more of and what maybe we could stop doing. We have a lot of information; we ought to use it much better than we have. So thank you.


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Spring 2010: Challenge as Opportunity: The Academy in the Best and Worst of Times