Aiming for More Than Tolerance at a Private Pennsylvania College - Higher Education
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Aiming for More Than Tolerance at a Private Pennsylvania College

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by R.F. Levine

Allegheny College is the 32nd oldest college in the nation. In 2015 it will celebrate its bicentennial. The college has rigorous standards and is dedicated to the ideal of providing a transformative education to ambitious, talented students regardless of their social or financial means. Set in rural northwestern Pennsylvania, this predominantly White residential college (student population 2,100) has pledged to diversify its faculty and student body. It’s an impressive story of determination that has resulted in the creation of a chief diversity officer position.

In 2010, educator and administrator Dr. Lawrence T. Potter was hired as chief diversity officer, associate dean of the college and tenured professor of English. He also is a member of the college’s Administrative Executive Committee, the institution’s highest governing body.

As chief diversity officer and associate dean of the college, he will have broad influence over many aspects of campus and community life, especially with regards to faculty as well as the curriculum and co-curriculum in efforts to advance and sustain diversity initiatives at the college.

“His scholarly work and his experience in the area of diversity makes him uniquely suited for the position,” says Eddie Taylor, class of ’87, chairman of the Board of Trustees, and the first African-American to lead the board.

Potter’s appointment carries a number of firsts. He is Allegheny’s first chief diversity officer. He is Allegheny’s first African-American to sit on the president’s Cabinet, and he also is the first administrator/educator hired with tenure.

“Lawrence Potter is a first-rank scholar with an impressive curriculum vitae who has earned tenure at multiple institutions as well as a prestigious American Council on Education fellowship. In every conversation, he understood the challenges of building community in an increasingly diverse environment. He’s absolutely committed to students and to building the structure to achieve our goals,” says Dr. James Mullen, the president of Allegheny College since 2008.

Why, in the midst of a recession, does a small liberal arts college create a new administrative post?

Dr. Linda DeMeritt, dean of the college, responds without hesitation. “The world is becoming more diverse. In order for our students to succeed they have to understand diversity. Research shows that students have a richer intellectual experience in diverse classrooms. It’s logical. If you’re sitting next to someone from a different background, they might have other ways of thinking about something and that pushes students to question their beliefs and cultures.”

For 150 years, only the rare student of color attended Allegheny. William Jason graduated in 1888 and continued to break records by becoming the first African-American president of a college

  An HBCU Transformed

Don Speed Smith Goodloe, a 1906 graduate, founded and presided over Bowie State College in Maryland. In 1915, Edith Mae Gillespie became the first African-American woman to graduate, and David Johnson graduated in 1947. He later became the first African-American to join Allegheny’s Board of Trustees.

Allegheny College is set in the town of Meadville (population 14,000), 90 miles north of Pittsburgh. The college draws a predominance of its students from the tri-state area of Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York. These students tend to share similar backgrounds: White, middle class, often the first in their family to attend college. Some meet students from different backgrounds for the first time when they arrive on campus.

Their inexperience casts a parochial shadow over the college campus that is often echoed by the college staff members who are generally Meadville residents. There is a palpable town-gown divide.

Whereas African-Americans represent about 13 percent of the nation’s population, they represent only 2 percent of Crawford County’s 28,000 residents.

“Bring all the students of color that you want. They come here, but they don’t stay. Numbers are easy; it’s the work after that, that’s hard,” says Cherjanet Lenzy, director of diversity affairs.

Ballroom teaching assistant Carlos Lopez, class of ’11, has found that to be true. Every day he hears students say to him, “Oh I’m too White to move my hips,” or “I’m sorry I’m too White to do your dance.” He has to stop and ask himself: What does that mean? “Like I can only move that way because I’m Black? Are you characterizing my whole culture by this one artistic expression?”

Furthermore, some faculty members have been known to confuse their students of color, more than once returning papers to the wrong student. And Lenzy, the director of diversity affairs, has been frustrated by being continually confused with faculty member Dr. Aisha Lockridge, who also is African-American.

In the sciences there are few faculty or students of color. Being the only student of color in a chemistry class can be daunting.

“I wish sometimes that I wouldn’t have been a minority, that I’d gone somewhere with more support. It’s kind of bittersweet. But my friends and family say the real world is like this. Better to learn to deal with this now than later,” says Brittany Johnson, class of ’12.

Underrepresented students are not left stranded; there are support systems in place. The Association for the Advancement of Black Culture started a chapter on campus in 1969. Other clubs followed such as the Association for Asian and Asian American Awareness, Union Latina, and the International Club. These groups are supported by the Learning Commons and the Office of Diversity Affairs, which includes Q & A (Queers and Allies).

  Lessons in Inclusion

“We’ll get along, be more tolerant, but it’s not as simple as basic inclusion. There are structural inequities. You’ve included people, but the structure in place is not set up to help them thrive. It helps straight White men thrive. That has to change if you want to bring in other people,” says Courtney Bailey, associate professor of communication arts.

Some faculty have referred to Allegheny’s culture as conflict-aversewhere challenging incidents were dealt with behind closed doors.

To combat these underlying issues, the college’s 2002 strategic plan, Traditions and Transitions, positioned diversity as one of its pillars. Dr. Richard Cook, who preceded Mullen as president and held the office for a dozen years, was instrumental in including diversity as a core institutional goal.

A pluralistic definition of diversity includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered (LGBT) students, as well as international and underrepresented domestic students. The goal is to foster an environment that welcomes a wide range of opinions, ideas, abilities and cultures.

Before Potter’s arrival, attempts were made to diversify the campus community. The appointment of DeMeritt as dean of faculty in 2003 was one such move to diversify the institution. She is the first female dean of the college.

Diversity experts such as Dr. JoAnn Moody, Dr. Susan Rankin and Jane Elliott were brought in. Study groups formed, changes in the faculty hiring process were made and soft money supported efforts to draw more students of color to the campus. The college also budgeted a significant sum for scholarships that support students.

A three-year Mellon grant permitted Terrence Mitchell, then special assistant to the president, to form partnerships with schools in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo, N.Y., that acted as pipelines to bring underrepresented students to Allegheny.

He also spearheaded the development of summer conferences to give students a taste of campus life before matriculating.

In a further step toward diversifying the faculty, a program was developed where diversity fellows were invited to campus. Offered a stipend as they completed their dissertation, they were asked to teach a class, give public presentations and in some way mentor students of color during their year on campus. Four of these fellows were subsequently hired as tenure-track faculty.

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The faculty spawned the idea of annually inviting a diversity scholar to spend a week on campus. During the residency, the scholars lecture and teach.

Through such efforts, the complexion of the campus altered appreciably. In 2006, students of color and international students made up 6 percent of the student population. In 2010 that percentage rose to 15 percent. Minority faculty representation also has risen from 8 percent in 2006 to 13 percent in 2010. In a further sign of diversification, in 2004, Pride Alliance, an organization for LGBT faculty and staff, had only three members and today boasts 18.

Initially a diversity fellow, T.J. Eatmon, Ph.D., a tenure-track professor in the Department of Environmental Science, says, “Four years ago I didn’t know everyone’s name, but I recognized everyone’s face, had seen them before. Now every day I see someone of color that I’ve never seen before. The numbers have skyrocketed over the years.”

These steps enhanced inclusiveness, but the board of trustees recognized that it had to make a more concerted effort at fulfilling the goal outlined in Traditions and Transitions. In 2006, the board empowered a task force that studied the numbers and trends and factors that play into the student experience.

“Many of the things we talked about diversity [-wise] had been put in place. But we needed to bring all these things together under one aegis, before different aspects were parceled out to various offices and departments.

We needed … a coordinator to ensure that all these diversity components were working and in sync,” said board of trustees member Dr. John Herbert Niles Jr., Class of ’59.

After discussions, reflections and self-examination, the faculty also saw the need for a chief diversity officer. In the summer of 2009, 30 administrators, faculty and staff spent three weeks hashing out ideas. The diversity and social justice group advocated hiring a chief diversity officer though some members of the group wanted a more communal model.

Part of Potter’s mandate is to consolidate campus efforts and help the campus become more welcoming and inclusive. His expertise is unquestioned yet there is some concern about putting so many aspirations on the back of one person.

“Having someone centralize the effort will help, but I can’t stress enough that it has to be a community effort, not the work of just a couple of people with the word diversity in their job title,” says Lenzy.

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