University Represents at HBCU Retention Summit
Delaware State University had a strong presence at the recent Regional HBCU Summit on Retention held March 14-16 in Ocean City, Md., which featured presentations and panel participation from a number of University members, including a keynote address by the institution’s provost.
The three-day conference was held under the theme of “Civility vs. Activism: Confronting Implicit Bias in Higher Education.
A trio from the University’s William C. Jason Library – Tracey Hunter Hayes, director, and two librarians, Tameca Beckett and Ondrea Murphy – led a session on “Library Engagement Ensures Student Retention.”
Kevin Noriega, director of the University’s Opportunity Scholars Program, gave a presentation on “Supporting Dreamers (Undocumented Students).” Ahira Smith, University athletic academic advisor, also moderated a plenary session.
University Provost Tony Allen was the keynote speaker during the second day of the conference. Introduced by Dr. Lisa Dunning, associate vice president of the University’s Office of Student Success, Dr. Allen gave a thought provoking address that contrasted the application of civility and activism against the backdrop of implicit bias and societal injustices.
The keynote address by Dr. Allen is below in its entirety:
Good morning. I’m thrilled to see so many colleagues here today.
As an HBCU community, we often talk about the history and significance of our institutions, but the truth is higher education could not function in any way that was fair, reasonable or accessible to the vast numbers of underserved Americans if there were not Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
We are still the largest producers of graduates of color in America. HBCUs can still claim to produce more pilots, teachers, doctors, lawyers and accountants than anyone else. HBCUs have had more to do with the intellectual discourse of race, class and economic mobility in this country and are far away the low-cost provider of quality educational options for all.
In short, we are the great bastion of what is usually and too often hidden talent in America.
And while I am excited that this year’s theme tackles the dynamics between civility and activism when trying to address the issue of implicit bias in higher education, I am also completely confident that such implicit bias is the inhibiting factor for too many Predominantly White Institutions and their consistent inability to educate a more diverse and competitive workforce.
In short, despite our limited access to resources, the disproportionate support we receive from traditional government entities, and the clear failure of K-12 systems that a significant proportion of our student populations come from – my friends, we have got the edge.
And we also have the obligation.
U.S. Department of Labor statistics noted in 2018 that a college education is still critically important to closing gaps of race and social class in America. One person in a house having at least a bachelor’s degree correlates with:
- Better child mortality and longer life spans
- Longer, more stable relationships
- Higher income and greater property ownership
How does that play out in reality? By ethnic group, the percentage of households with at least one college-educated member are 70% for Asians, 44% for African-Americans, and 23% for Hispanics.
Ladies and gentlemen, what we do matters – not just for our students, but for society at large.
And as everybody here knows, the mere existence of HBCUs is a direct response to institutional bias. We are the very institutions created to challenge that old assumption that some people can’t learn because of how they look, where they come from, or who they are.
We are the institutions created to refute the idea that just because the public schools may have underserved or locked certain entire categories of students, that doesn’t have to be a lifetime sentence to poverty or second-class citizenship.
Yet I’d also remind you that we can’t just assume that our own operations are exempt from implicit bias – and to illustrate that fact, I will tell you two quick stories:
Many of you have probably heard the name of Charlotte Ray, a Howard University alumna, the first woman of color in American history to pass the bar, and certainly the first to be accredited to practice in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
What you may not realize is that Charlotte’s first hurdle to be overcome in order to get her law degree was the implicit bias of an HBCU. In 1869, Ms. Ray was teaching in Howard University’s prep school, and she applied to its enroll in its School of Law.
But she had to apply as “C.E. Ray,” not “Charlotte Ray,” because at that time Howard University did not accept women into its law program.
Today we look back at that and shake our heads, then praise ourselves for how far we have come.
A couple years ago at Delaware State University, our chief data scientist ran an analysis of where our students came from by ZIP code, and then cross-analyzed that against retention and gradation rates.
He discovered that two urban ZIP codes had between them the lowest retention and graduation rates of any place in the country from which we draw students.
When the conversation went around the table, there were at least one or two folks who took the position that if we wanted to improve our retention rates, we could simply take fewer students from those ZIP codes. The comment wasn’t presented as a bias against anyone, but as a bias for increasing our retention and graduation rates.
Fortunately, there were people at the table who pointed out the opposite case quite forcefully. They noted that these two ZIP codes were also notorious for failing public school systems, so it was not an issue of the applicants being less intelligent, but of them having been less well-prepared by their schools.
Then somebody pointed out that the conversation we should be having is not how to exclude those kids, but what supports could we provide to help them succeed.
And that’s the direction we took. Today I’m happy to say that we continue to pull significant numbers of students from those ZIP codes, and our retention rates remain strong. We didn’t let that bias prevent us from looking at those aspiring students as individuals.
But the incident reminds me that it’s way too easy NOT to examine your own actions for bias, while you are pointing it out in others.
It’s that necessity for pointing out and confronting implicit bias, as well as how we can do that more effectively, that bring us together today. Our students and their families need champions in their colleges and universities – but what kind of champions will we be?
For me, as provost, I am constantly aware of that dynamic between civility and activism. How polite should we continue to be in the face of institutional intransigence. How aggressive should we be about confronting behaviors that may stem from ignorance rather than malfeasance.
I find myself smiling at this, because as provost for the past 18 months, I have been emphasizing a need for civility with our own faculty, staff and student body on pretty much a daily basis. I’ve done trainings on civility. I am negotiating our civility policy with our faculty union. I’ve sat down and talked about its importance with students.
I believe in civil discourse. I believe in the power of ideas.
But I am also a black man in America, and therefore a realist with the understanding that some forms of prejudice and bias are so deeply rooted in our society that rooting them out is both a prolonged and sometimes ugly business.
People whose own sense of privilege has been based on implicit bias – a bias accepted by the majority within a society – will not yield it up easily.
We have to push them. Constantly. Consistently.
But we also need to be sure about our definitions. Here I do not mean the definition of ‘implicit bias,” or even “structural or institutional racism.”
I mean the definition of “civility” and “activism.”
Too often, I think, we construe civility as acting so as never to put forward ideas that might anger, challenge, or even offend. Too many managers want to equate civility with a non-confrontational politeness that masks over legitimate differences of opinion and outlook.
I think of civility as a tool for disagreeing without becoming inherently disagreeable. It is a concept that makes all ideas and policy proposals fair game for the sharpest forms of criticism, but requires that you retain respect for the person you’re arguing with.
I am civil when I say, “That’s a proposal that just seems to intensify the power of institutional racism.”
I am uncivil when I say, “That’s exactly the kind of racist proposal I’d expect from somebody in your political party.”
Civility, at its best, creates a field of play where you can attack ideas without savaging people. It’s particularly useful when you know that you and they are going to have to work together for a long, long time.
Civility does not mean that you excuse, ignore, or put up with implicit bias, or other inappropriate behaviors. It means that you deal with them without getting yourself in that gutter.
But there are times when civility is not the order of the day, and activism is.
Activism is sharper and more fiercely directed; it works best in public, and the kinds of activism we tend to see on the evening news or on social media is the In Your Face variety that employs shame or ridicule to motivate at least awareness if not changes in behavior. That often comes across as political theater instead of conversation.
That misleads a lot of people into believing that activism is not an inherently thoughtful enterprise.
I think that’s unfortunate, because no matter where you look in the last 60 years, you can’t avoid concluding that political activism has led to major positive changes in environmental protections, educational access, marriage equality, and many other public policy issues.
Yet make no mistake about it – activism is about struggle. As Frederick Douglass said, “Those who profess to favor freedoms and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.”
Activism can also make you a target. Remember what Ijeoma Oluo says about Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “For all of the pedestals MLK is now put on, far above the reach of ordinary Black Americans, Martin was in his life viewed as the most dangerous man in America.”
We support both civility and activism at Delaware State University.
Some of you probably know that our University is the number one choice for Dreamers – children of undocumented workers who were brought to America when there were very young. You’ll get the chance later today to learn more about our Dreamers when you attend the session presented by my colleague Kevin Noriega, who manages our Dreamers Program.
For now, it’s enough know that these are kids who have never known any other country than the United States, even when the U.S. isn’t sure it wants to know them.
They live life on a knife edge most days. It is a rare semester when we are not having our congressional delegation in to conference with them, when our attorneys are not advising them, or when I am not writing a letter of support for parents facing arrest and deportation.
These students know that their very best chance to get a college education is to stay under the radar, and attract as little attention as possible.
But, for the most part, they choose activism. They believe so strongly in fighting the injustices they see working against their friends and their families, that they do not take the safe path.
They have formed organizations that march in parades and walk fearlessly into congressional offices to demand consideration. They have made the personal decision to accept the risk in order to confront the implicit bias that keeps tens of thousands of capable young people out of higher education.
And yet, proudly, I can say they remain civil activists.
Their passion for condemning policies is unmistakable – even sometimes “in your face” – but when they walk into a congressperson’s or senator’s office, they are professional, courteous, and yet unrelenting.
That’s a fine line. As the official representatives of our respective organizations, we have to remain constantly aware of that line.
We have to acknowledge that our position of trust and authority are sometimes incompatible with certain forms of activism. At the same time, we cannot afford to see civility as a chain that holds us back from pointing out the elephants squatting squarely in the middle of the room.
And if I were to share my most important personal insight about what links civility and activism, no matter their outward differences, it is that they are both a rejection of the idea that life is a random series of events inflicted upon me by God, by other people, or by random chance.
Civility means that I choose – every day – how I will treat other people. Nothing random there. I make the choice every time I open my mouth whether I will be civil or whether I will be poisonous.
Activism says that I choose not to accept injustice as inherent to society, and that I choose not to accept the idea that, as an individual, I can’t make a difference.
The common element is individual choice – personal responsibility – in everything, from how you do business in your office, to how you treat the pizza delivery person, to how you express your faith. James 1:12 reminds us that: “Great blessings belong to those who are tempted and remain faithful. And remaining faithful is a constant test.”
We need to be the rational, yet passionate adults who choose the best tactic to achieve justice for those who’ve directly been placed into our care, or merely because they are our brothers and sisters.
The playwright James Baldwin said it best: “If we know…” about the injustices happening to you, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own – which it is…”
So, as we prepare to contemplate how the dynamics between civility and activism plays out in higher education, let’s remember that civility can be radical. Think of Jesus and the Samaritan.
And that activism can be incredibly thoughtful – remember those quietly determined men and women marching across the bridge at Selma.
And, perhaps most important, we also have to be willing to listen and to consider that nobody – even us enlightened educators – are ever completely free of some form of implicit bias.