What Now for the Office of Minorities in Higher Education?
WASHINGTON — Last month, many in Washington’s higher education community turned out at One Dupont Circle to bid farewell to Dr. Deborah Carter Wilds, who is heading to Seattle to oversee the Gates Millennium Scholars program for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Some people cried. Most were happy for the woman who they say was a go-getter, a true mover and shaker in her three and a half years as deputy director of the American Council on Education’s Office of Minorities in Higher Education.But while many at the reception were congratulating Wilds on her departure, the question remains: What will become of the office she leaves behind?After all, Wilds’ departure follows that of Hector Garza, the vice president of the council’s Division of Access and Equity programs. Garza, who also previously served as director of the minority office, left to become president of a new nonprofit organization, the National Council for Community and Educational Partnerships. Who will follow in their footsteps? Who will take charge of the office, known in many higher education circles for being one of the biggest champions of minority issues?“I am concerned about who will be appointed to that position,” says Dr. Henry Ponder, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. Ponder says Wilds, Garza and their predecessors had made the case for diversity. “It’s of concern because it’s a key position.”Others agree. “The office has served as the voice of minority groups in higher education,” says Dr. Roland Smith, associate provost at Rice University and past chairman of the American Association for Higher Education’s Black Caucus. “They’ve made the case for the value and need for diversity in higher education.”For his part, Dr. Stanley O. Ikenberry, president of the council, says a search is under way to fill the positions of vice president and director, hopefully within the next few months.The Office of Minorities in Higher Education was launched in 1981 and quickly became an influential source of information on the status of minorities in education by publishing its report card, Status Report on Minorities in Higher Education. The office’s leaders — including Dr. Reginald Wilson, Dr. Sara Melendez, Wilds and Garza — became visible members of the higher education community and helped influence public policy.During the late ’80s and early ’90s, Wilson, Dr. Mary Dilworth and the Department of Education’s Jacqueline Woods helped form the Black Education Discussion Group, a lunch assembly that met regularly at the council’s downtown headquarters.“It was a closed-door meeting,” says Dilworth, senior director of research at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. “You could get a real sense of what other Blacks in the higher education community were thinking. The conversation allowed an information exchange that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.” But critics still contend that at times, the office has been too cautious on issues. For example, Smith says, last year the association changed the name of the minority office’s conference to “Educating All of One Nation” from “Educating One-Third of a Nation.” Smith concedes that the move was not unusual given that the “office is an association of universities that has a myriad of constituencies to address.” Others say the office is even more important now, during the current backlash against affirmative action programs on the nation’s campuses. “The office established a conscience and came out on the right side of policies and legal issues that affected disadvantaged and minority people,” Dilworth says. “It’s essential. It’s got to be there. Otherwise, people might forget.”
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