In his departing address as president of the Council of Opportunity in Education at the organization’s annual conference last month, Dr. Arnold Mitchem mixed tough talk and inspirational oratory. His tough talk defined the brutal political realities confronting the federally supported TRIO college access and academic support programs for low-income students aspiring college success.
“And as I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it one last time,” Mitchem told hundreds of TRIO program administrators who were in Chicago for the conference, “you are the proxies for the poor. You identify with the poor. You care and have concern about the aspirations, the welfare and the tears of the poor.”
With federal programs, including TRIO, having been hit hard by budget sequester cuts at the time of his speech, Mitchem urged his audience to not “lose faith or hope” in their efforts to seek congressional support for their programs.
“We’ll get through this storm. There’s no question about that. TRIO is going to exist,” he said.
“TRIO is going to be here for a long, long, long time because it’s grounded in a need and an imperative that is social, moral and economic. And I don’t see anything out there on the landscape that has changed that makes TRIO less relevant today than it was when I walked onto the stage with TRIO in 1970,” Mitchem proclaimed.
On October 1, Mitchem, COE’s founding president, stepped down after 32 years at the helm of the Washington-based organization that has educated and lobbied members of Congress and Executive Branch officials to ensure TRIO program continuity and expansion. He has handed COE leadership to Maureen Hoyler, a longtime senior COE executive who worked with Mitchem at Marquette University dating back to the school’s first TRIO programs. Mitchem continues to work at COE as its president emeritus.
Representing 2,800 TRIO programs that are largely based at U.S. colleges and universities, COE has more than 1,000 member agencies and higher education institutions. A total of eight TRIO programs serve an estimated 790,000 individuals who range from first-generation, low-income college students to low-income high school students poised to be the first in their families to attend college. TRIO programs also serve students who are veterans, are working adults or struggle with disabilities. Since 1981, TRIO programs, which include Upward Bound, Student Support Services and Talent Search, have experienced federal spending growth from $157 million to a high of $904 million in 2010.
The original TRIO programs, Upward Bound and Talent Search, launched in 1964 and 1965, respectively, through congressional legislation and have been subsequently renewed with reauthorizations of the Higher Education Act.
“TRIO programs serve a wide variety of individuals across this country, and Dr. Mitchem has been passionate about seeing that these programs not only remain but strengthened with more financial support over the years. I just think he’s a legend in this regard,” said Dr. Antoine Garibaldi, the president of the University of Detroit and a former Upward Bound instructor at Macalester College in the mid-1970s.
Among the influential allies COE has recruited to the TRIO cause, the organization has cultivated congressional TRIO champions in both parties, including former TRIO students such as U.S. Representative Gwen Moore, D-Wis. and former U.S. Representative Henry Bonilla, R-Texas. Over the years with bipartisan backing on which to fall back, Mitchem has led a number of efforts to beat back legislative and executive branch attempts to reduce or eliminate TRIO programs.
“A. Philip Randolph said, ‘There are no free seats at the table of life. You have to take it; you have to hold it. And you sure can’t take it, and you sure can’t hold it unless you’re organized,’” Mitchem told COE conference attendees last month.
The path to advocacy
Known to his friends as ‘Mitch,’ the former Marquette University history department faculty member ascribes his lifelong commitment to helping the disadvantaged and the poor as a natural course for him. Born in 1938 in a working class Chicago family, Mitchem lived in housing projects until the age of 12. As a child, he was stricken with polio, and it left him with a disabled right arm and hand.
“I was the only kid in the projects who contracted polio back in the 1940s,” he said.
At age 12, Mitchem’s family moved to Pueblo, Colo., which, at the time, had thrived as a racially-integrated steel mill community since the early 1900s. Although the young Mitchem left Pueblo in 1956 to attend college in the Midwest, he eventually gravitated back and earned a bachelor’s degree in history and education in 1965 from what is now Colorado State University-Pueblo.
As a graduate student in history at the University of Wisconsin on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, Mitchem organized student protests as a Black Student Union leader and met prominent African-American leaders and scholars as they traveled to Madison to give speeches at the university.
“I’m very much a 1960s guy. … Social justice meant something to me. They weren’t just abstractions or words. I care about the people,” he said.
Although he had not completed his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, Mitchem joined the Marquette history department faculty in 1968 and began teaching history courses there. While it was his ambition to become a tenured history professor, Mitchem was offered the position of Educational Opportunity Program director. He accepted the job and later stuck with it after seeing that the outreach and student support programs that Marquette had largely funded were making a real difference for the students with whom he worked.
As Mitchem worked more and more with federal officials who administered TRIO program grants to colleges and other organizations, he recognized the need for program administrators to organize regionally and nationally. It had also angered him that the federal officials had treated his colleagues and other TRIO program administrators with disrespect while they were deferential to grantees for other federally-supported higher education programs, according to Mitchem.
“I knew enough about history and political science that the way you deal with mistreatment is that you organize,” said Mitchem, who eventually earned a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of education from Marquette in 1981.
Other TRIO program administrators had similar ideas as to what their programs would need in the way gaining political and policy support. “The idea that those of us who worked in the programs might become more involved in the advocacy of them rather than leaving it to the U.S. Office of Education to advocate for TRIO was something that I was very much committed to,” said Dr. Hal Payne, a former Oberlin College dean who, in 1973, met Mitchem at a Midwest regional meeting of TRIO program administrators.
“It was easy for me to buy into what Arnold Mitchem was advocating at the time,” Payne added.
Organizing for TRIO
Garibaldi of the University of Detroit Mercy says it was clear to him as a University of Minnesota graduate student working in the Macalester College Upward Bound program in the 1970s that Mitchem understood that a national organization needed to be developed to successfully advocate for TRIO programs.
“When I met Arnold in 1974, he was at Marquette, and … you could see very clearly that he was trying to take the [regional] organization to a national level so that everybody around the country would recognize the importance of all of the TRIO programs,” he said.
Mitchem has long taken the pragmatic view that TRIO programs, which originated as Great Society initiatives, would survive only if the practitioners, meaning program staffers and administrators, were organized well enough to meet directly with and inform members of Congress how the programs should be structured and operated.
“Politicians and bureaucrats will not protect programs, … only practitioners [will]. Bureaucrats look at programs from their point-of-view, their circumstances [and] their priorities, and politicians look at programs from their point-of-view,” said Mitchem, recalling the advice given to him many years ago by a Johnson administration official about how to protect federal programs that benefited the poor.
Payne, who is vice president for student affairs at Buffalo State-SUNY, said the push for COE ultimately worked because it recognized the wide diversity of TRIO program participants and program needs across states and regions.
“The effort to organize nationally starting at the top really didn’t work, and the genius of Dr. Mitchem’s approach was to begin organizing at the state and regional level,” he said.