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Clemson Conference Addresses Best Practices for Black Student Achievement

by Joan Morgan

CLEMSON, S.C.

There are no easy solutions to the challenges of creating a diverse student body in this anti- and post-affirmative action era. That was the general consensus at the sixth annual conference “Best Practices in Black Student Achievement,” which brought more than 200 academicians from all regions of the United States to Clemson University late week. But the value diversity brings enriches the college experience, they agreed.

College admissions and how to diversify an institution’s student body in a way that is just and fair to all is perhaps one of the most controversial and challenging aspects of the diversity issue. With more and more state legislatures saying that race can no longer be considered as a factor in college admissions, solutions from many of the panelists stressed a holistic approach.

“There is no silver bullet or immediate fixes,” said Dr. Douglas L. Christiansen, associate provost for enrollment and dean of admissions at Vanderbilt University. “Long-term, dedicated work is needed. It should be incumbent to all of us to increase the pipeline.

“It means using creative, new approaches and finding better ways to use old methods, starting in the early grades helping minority students to be qualified and prepared for college, and the use of purposeful and targeted marketing,” he added.

Presenters frequently echoed that it takes a commitment to diversity and valuing diversity from the top down in an institution for any graduation improvement efforts to be successful. During the opening keynote address, Carl Mack, executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers, also emphasized the need for support from the top. “It should be about involvement for institution presidents,” he said. Citing James Barker, president of Clemson University, as a model of such involvement, he rhetorically asked: “How many college presidents do you know who still teach? He still teaches a class.”

Participants noted that institutions of higher education are increasingly being run like corporations, so that getting support from the top means convincing administrators of the necessity of committing human and financial resources. To do this, there needs to be a paradigm shift in which the students are viewed as the customer and the institution should be focused on addressing the needs of the customer. Also, putting in place such innovative programs that include merit-based teacher stipends is a way to motivate and quantify a program’s success.

In the session, “A Business Approach to Increasing Minority Participation in STEM,” panelists explained that under this new paradigm colleges first need to identify and understand their customers (students).

“It doesn’t mean you accept everybody, not every student is a qualified student,” said Vernard Henley Jr., director of educational outreach and diversity at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock.

The needs of the student (customer) also may include the need for support services such as having a mentor, helping first-generation college students understand how to navigate the college environment, improving study skills and even offering support with some nonacademic but effective means.

–Joan Morgan

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