MY ASSERTION ON RETENTION
Many people view my work with R.A.P. as geared toward students of color, but it is more so to raise awareness among white students.
On June 11, 1998, I attended a meeting in Bascom Hall, convened by Paul W. Barrows, Associate Vice Chancellor in charge of diversity matters at UW-Madison. Some 30 professors from other disciplines were also present at this meeting, which focused upon discussing why we at this university have not had more success in keeping and graduating our students of color.
To inform us about UW-Madison’s so-called retention and graduation rates, several statistics were cited. A few days following the meeting, Dr. Barrows’ office sent out copies of the standard retention rates report generated by the institutional research staff. According to the data, among the new freshmen who enrolled in 1996-97, 92.2 percent of the Asian Americans and 91 percent of the Whites re-enrolled in 1997-98, but only 87.6 percent of the Hispanics, 77.8 percent of the African Americans and 66.7 percent of the American Indians returned.
Although the reports serve their analytical purpose, I am not a statistician and these data, as stated, hold little meaning other than to show that proportionately more students of color than white students tend to drop out of this university. I feel that for a better grasp of the problem we need to take a closer look at other more personalized sources.
Having worked at this university for over 30 years as a Black man on the faculty, I have a grasp of the difficulties that our students of color experience, and the barriers they must face. In addition, I know the weight that such difficulties can bring down on their shoulders, and the toll that those barriers can exact from them. Therefore, I am especially saddened and disturbed by the information that each fall semester, large numbers of these aspiring students who came to this campus the previous fall as new freshmen do not return. To illustrate, in the fall of 1997-98, 63 students of color who came to this campus as new freshmen in the fall of 1996 did not re-enroll: 20 were African American, 21 Asian Americans, 9 American Indian and 13 Hispanic Americans.
These are the numbers that give flesh and bone to the retention statistics. And confronted with these flesh and bone students of color, we need to ask hard questions. What are their experiences on this campus? Which ones make them leave? How can we change or improve their experience to help them to stay on and succeed here with us? And just as important, we need to look at the environment in which these students of color live and work, and the faculty, fellow students and staff with whom they interact. Some of us work hard to bring students of color to this campus, we should certainly work harder to keep and help them succeed here.
To give a clearer picture of what our young people of color have to deal with, click here to see some of their comments.
Recalling what my faculty colleagues and I said during the June 11 meeting, I list these four main points:
One: that the retention effort should be a faculty-run initiative and the faculty should lead an institutional self-critique on the issue of diversity;
Two: that the faculty should take the lead in clearly signaling to the students of color that each one should affirm: “I belong here.”
Three: the faculty role and commitment is critical for developing and teaching cross-cultural competency to all students, and in including an awareness of race and ethnicity issues in all classes;
Four: that faculty needs to reach out beyond the confines of the university and campus, and help in connecting students of color to the community.
My Line of Action:
I am taking these points to heart. As a professor and a Black American, I have made a determination to improve the retention of students of color on this campus. It is my hope that this university, where I have taught for 33 years, can become number one in the nation as an attractive home away from home for our students of color. It is only through the combined efforts of the students, administrative and custodial staff, faculty and the general public that we can achieve this dream, and I am prepared to do what I can to help make it real.
I see these efforts as a refreshing fountain of youth. We can all become students again, learning from our successes and failures, and taking a position of humility as we reassess how far we have come, how much farther we have to go, in growing toward the strengths, wisdom and maturity necessary for true diversity.
I came to teaching with the thought that I wanted to help my students through their “thinking processes,” and then see them exceed anything that I have done through their own initiative. In this, my teaching involves a personal quest, which I can best explain by bringing in a personal note. My daughter Persia Lee Davis might well have been one of the new freshmen entering this campus in the year 2000. As her parent, I am determined to do what I can to ensure that this campus is a better place for her if she so chooses. In just the same way, these students of color are our sons and daughters, our next generations, for whom we want to make this a better campus and a more excellent university.
The Retention Action Group:I am happy to report that I have now spoken with some 58 faculty, staff and people from the Madison community and media, who are committed to working with me in this effort. In addition, I am meeting regularly with a group of students, and look forward to meeting with others once the Fall Semester is underway. A core group is working with me to plan and organize activities for this coming year. The enthusiasm and goodwill with which people respond to my approach on retention have been energizing, and make me realize that this is a move that has been long overdue.