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Educators strategize about campus diversity

6/25/2003 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) - As the U.S. Supreme Court was deciding on the future of affirmative action, officials of United Methodist-related colleges and universities were wrapping their heads around increasing the presence of minorities on campus.

The court's June 24 decision upheld the use of racial preference to promote diversity in university admissions. In their 5-4 decision, the justices ruled that the University of Michigan Laws School's preferential treatment of disadvantaged minorities is legal, but in a 6-3 vote, they struck down the use of a point system to ensure diversity in the university's undergraduate admissions.

College presidents, admissions officers, counselors and other education leaders attending the United Methodist Institute of Higher Education, June 22-24, applauded the decision and said it affirmed the United Methodist Church's commitment to college diversity. Before the ruling came down, many said that regardless of the decision, the church would continue to support affirmative action.

"Now that the Supreme Court has affirmed that affirmative action can play a role in higher education, our action has been reaffirmed," said David Beckley, president of Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss.

The United Methodist Church has 124 colleges and universities, including Duke, Emory and Southern Methodist University, as well as 13 seminaries. It also operates Africa University in Zimbabwe.

As the educators celebrated, they cautioned that work in expanding the diversity on their campuses must continue. There is a difference between legal and moral responsibility, said the Rev. James Noseworthy, president of Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tenn. The schools related to the denomination were founded on the premise of joining knowledge and piety, and United Methodist and other faith-based colleges have the responsibility of transforming the culture in the spirit of the gospel, he said.

Noseworthy said United Methodist colleges would continue the denomination's commitment to be intentionally diverse.

The Rev. Joreatha M. Capers, director of the Black College Fund of the United Methodist Church, said the Supreme Court's support of affirmative action ensures access and equal opportunity for all Americans in their pursuit of quality education and the American dream.

"The United Methodist Church, since its inception in the United States, has been committed to access in education, especially for the poor and disenfranchised members of society," she said.

Historically black colleges and universities make up nearly 35 percent of the institutions in the United States but are responsible for 30 percent of African Americans obtaining bachelor degrees, she said. The United Methodist Church has 11 historically black colleges and universities. "This is a good indicator of our church's investment (in) access."

The Supreme Court's split decision was fair but also indicative of the need for "more work to be done to promote equality throughout the nation," said Camilyah Johnson, director of multicultural student services at Adrian (Mich.) College.

Also delighted at the decision was Wanda Bigham, incoming staff executive of the office of schools, colleges and universities at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. "It will benefit society as a whole," she said.

Before the Supreme Court's decision, Walter Broadnax, president of Clark Atlanta University, lamented the assault on diversity and the campaign across the United States to reverse the racial advances made in the '60s, '70s and '80s. "Diversity, once above reproach, now finds itself in the cross hairs - a targeted and endangered species with fewer places of refuge and fewer in government or the judiciary willing to defend it," he said.

He urged those present to "stand strong in your resolve to keep classrooms open to students with the desire and the qualifications to be there."

"It is my hope that United Methodist colleges and universities as well as small independent colleges continue doing the important work of providing quality education to minority students," said Kenneth Hoyt, president of Centenary College in Hackettstown, N.J. The decision comes as a relief for many people who had been concerned about which way the ruling would go, he said.

Small schools typically have a 64 percent retention rate for minority students, while the national average is 15 percent to 20 percent, Hoyt said. "So we are three times more successful."

The message of the decision is that "the work of fairness, equity and justice is not done," said Ronald Swain, senior adviser to the president at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. "We as church-related institutions can take the continued leadership role in ensuring that our institutions are models for the larger society."

The Institute of Higher Education's discussion of diversity is significant, he said. "We must not necessarily wait for legal and political systems to act, but we must do what we know to be right."

Tony Booker, director of admissions at Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, Tenn., also said that the decision is an indicator of work to be done for people on both sides of the affirmative action debates. The court has temporarily ensured that minorities will get help in entering some of the more elite U.S. schools, he said.

"For schools like Martin Methodist, the ruling has very little effect. We are already one of the most diverse colleges in the country, and the initiatives we take will ensure that for years to come."

For 30 years, the institute has brought representatives from United Methodist-related academic institutions together to address common concerns. The United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the National Association of Schools, Colleges and Universities, and the United Methodist Higher Education Foundation sponsor the annual event.

Throughout the gathering, the leaders and executives of the church-related colleges and universities examined trends impacting higher education among ethnic groups, and among African-Americans in particular.

In a keynote address, Broadnax discussed the growing gender disparity among African Americans, coupled with the declining number of black youth attending college in general. Recent statistics illustrate that among adults 25 or older, 34 percent have completed at least four years of college, while the figure for adults in the black community is 17 percent.

In 1999, he said, 60 percent of all students enrolled in historically black colleges were women, he said. In 2000, 791,000 black men were in prisons and county jails, compared to a little more than 600,000 pursuing baccalaureate degrees. "We have much work to do."

Leaders in higher education must develop strategies to address the growing imbalance, he said. Efforts also must be developed to get more black men into the classroom instead of into prison.

Speaker after speaker talked about the pursuit of a diverse campus, and those in attendance re-examined their schools' recruitment strategies with an eye toward achieving inclusive campuses.
Other topics discussed in conversations and addresses included the lack of diversity among faculty and administrators.

"It is clear that there is a crisis in higher education across the board," said the Rev. Hal Hartley, director of student ministries at the Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Racial and ethnic students are disproportionately represented on campuses and United Methodist institutions need to do a better job of recruiting them, he said. "It is not that we are not reaching out. It is a (question) of how do we improve our outreach."

Vicka Bell-Robinson, area hall director at North Central College in Naperville, Ill., said that if United Methodist colleges and universities remain true to their Wesleyan values, they will have more success in obtaining and recruiting a diverse student body. "Focusing on United Methodist goals and values would bring direction to the staff, faculty and students on campus."

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