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Powerhouse speakers address issue of
>socio-economic diversity during July symposium
>By Franklin Crawford
>
>ITHACA, N.Y. -- In a country where those with
>empty pockets rarely make the grade, U.S.
>colleges and universities share an increasing
>responsibility to identify, recruit and support
>promising students from low-income backgrounds.
>Achieving genuine diversity -- both of race and
>class -- remains one of the major challenges in
>the field of higher education in the 21st
>century. That challenge was addressed from a
>variety of perspectives during a Cornell
>University symposium in July featuring five
>current and former university presidents and
>scholars.
>
>Robert Barker/University Photography
>Claude Steele, director of the Center for
>Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford
>University, addresses a reporter's questions
>during a media session on diversity in higher
>education, July 30. Also pictured are Eugene
>Tobin, left, liberal arts colleges program
>officer at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and
>Nancy Cantor, president and chancellor of
>Syracuse University.
>
>
>The symposium, "Diversity and Excellence in
>American Higher Education: The Road Ahead," was
>organized by the Future of Minority Studies
>Research Project at Cornell. The theme was based
>on findings in the book "Equity and Excellence in
>American Higher Education" (University of
>Virginia Press, 2005) by William Bowen, Martin
>Kurzweil and Eugene Tobin, which argues that
>genuine diversity will not be achieved at U.S.
>colleges and universities without diversity of
>socio-economic class. Among its many facets, the
>book provides data tracking the influence of
>socio-economic status (SES) on students at 19
>highly selective universities and public schools.
>
>The authors conclude that qualified students from
>disadvantaged backgrounds who make it into the
>admissions pool deserve the same "thumb on the
>scale" given to children of alumni, athletes and
>other special groups. However, "economic or
>class-based affirmative action cannot take the
>place of race-sensitive admissions," said Tobin,
>addressing an audience of about 100 people in the
>Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium. Tobin is the
>liberal arts colleges program officer at the
>Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. While minority
>students make up a disproportionate share of
>those represented in the low-income strata, the
>overwhelming majority of these students are
>white. Replacing one policy with another would
>only reverse positive trends in an area of
>diversity where progress is evident.
>
>This is not only a question of access and equity,
>Tobin said, "it's also an issue of maintaining
>global competitiveness."
>
>"The U.S. has fallen to seventh or eighth in the
>world in terms of high school graduates, and the
>number of Americans moving beyond high school has
>plateaued -- and that's an extraordinary concern
>for all of us," he said. For many disadvantaged
>young people today, to even imagine attending
>college is such a remote idea that "we really
>have to address not only the information gap and
>deficit gap in terms of financial aid, but just
>the gap in terms of ambition and aspiration," he
>said.
>
>Nancy Cantor, chancellor and president of
>Syracuse University, said achieving access is one
>thing, but specific programmatic efforts are
>needed to encourage and cultivate a democratic
>culture on campus once students arrive. In her
>presentation, "Societal Faultlines and Democratic
>Culture," Cantor addressed the gap between
>intention and effect in dialogues within and
>across different groups.
>
>Robert Barker/University Photography
>Johnella Butler, recently appointed provost of
>Spelman College, describes the need for "an eager
>patience" in making changes in socio-economic and
>curricular diversity in higher education because
>"many of these changes will not occur in our
>lifetime." Also pictured is Daniel Little,
>chancellor of the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
>
>
>"If universities are going to build democratic
>cultures that make the most of newly achieved
>access to opportunity for diverse students,
>faculty and staff, will we have to better
>understand how to embrace the principles of
>healthy group dynamics?" Cantor said, then added,
>"We are extraordinarily na´ve" in this area.
>
>Cantor also said universities in urban settings
>with large inner-city school systems also have a
>precollegiate responsibility "to get off the hill
>and into the school systems where these [low SES]
>students live -- and we also have to bring those
>students onto campus, beforehand, to demystify
>it. We have to create the expectation that
>students in inner cities have a right to own an
>institution and to have a sense of place in them."
>
>She described how Syracuse University is
>investing heavily in downtown properties and
>off-campus academic programs and also designing
>outreach programs that bring disadvantaged
>students onto campus.
>
>While achievement-oriented students of low SES
>rightly deserve attention, "the big problem is
>that so many young people come out of high school
>ill-prepared, often not ready to be qualified for
>higher education never mind selective
>universities," said Michael McPherson, former
>president of Macalester College and now president
>of the Spencer Foundation. He cited a study
>showing that, of students from the bottom third
>of a high school class, more than half who went
>onto postsecondary education "never earned a
>single credit."
>
>For the more qualified student, McPherson said
>the challenges include navigating a financial aid
>system that is "remarkably opaque and in many
>ways perversely designed," and he advocated a
>restructuring of the financial aid system.
>
>"Universities could do more to make it simpler to
>understand financial aid," he said. "There is
>actually quite a lot of money to help kids to get
>financial aid for good colleges."
>
>One experiment being conducted at the University
>of North Carolina-Chapel Hill replaced loans to
>low-SES students with grants. That approach has
>great potential. But as McPherson pointed out,
>UNC can afford to explore this option because
>they take on a smaller number of low-SES students
>than less-affluent schools.
>
>That irony was not lost on Daniel Little, who is
>chancellor at the University of
>Michigan-Dearborn, outside Detroit -- one of the
>most racially and economically divided cities in
>the United States. Little acknowledged the
>importance of expanding the admissions pools of
>low SES student at selective institutions while
>advocating for high-quality regional schools.
>
>"These institutions create a set of opportunities
>that mean that students from middle class to
>disadvantaged backgrounds can get a high-quality
>undergraduate education" at a fraction of the
>cost of an elite school, he said. However, state
>funding for regional schools is down across the
>country. Michigan-Dearborn alone has experienced
>a 13.6 percent decrease in state funding in four
>years, he said.
>
>"The democratic importance of good regional
>institutions is unmistakable and weighty, so the
>decline of funding is alarming," Little said. "We
>cannot preserve the parity of equity and
>excellence without adequate resources."
>
>Jeffrey Lehman, making one of his first public
>appearances since stepping down as Cornell
>president, spoke of the "paradox of living in a
>country of individuals who aspire to be fully
>integrated but that sits on a background that is
>segregated."
>
>During a morning media briefing, Lehman said,
>"The problem of transition is that there are no
>simple mechanisms, no color-blind systems that
>can get us from the background conditions to
>where we ought to be. We have to intervene in
>ways that are thoughtful and sensitive but that
>are aware of the role that race plays in society.
>We have to nudge people out of their comfort
>zones to where they can stretch themselves yet
>feel safe and that's a role the university can
>play."
>
>As a named defendant in Grutter v. University of
>Michigan , Lehman helped prepare the law school's
>successful defense of its affirmative action
>policy, shaping the legal argument for
>universities' freedom to consider race as a
>limited factor in the admissions process in order
>to achieve meaningful levels of racial
>integration.
>
>Claude Steele, director of the Center for
>Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford
>University, delivered a brief overview of his
>work in the area of stereotypes and how cues in
>the environment or from those in leadership
>positions can make or break a collegiate
>experience.
>
>Steele has developed the theory of the
>"stereotype threat" -- the threat of being
>perceived as a negative stereotype or the fear of
>poor performance confirming that stereotype -- is
>powerful enough to shape the intellectual
>performance and academic identities of entire
>groups of people, low-SES students included.
>Steele said everyone experiences "stereotype
>threat" because we are all members of some group
>about which negative stereotypes exist.
>
>He described some new research on the nature of
>group identity and its roots in the perception
>that one is under threat because of that
>identity. Steele said the tendency is to place
>the burden on students of color or low-SES as if
>there were something inherently wrong with them.
>Rather, he argued for simple efforts on the part
>of institutional leaders to create a more justly
>integrated environment for students who carry an
>unfair "psychic burden" whether because of race,
>class, gender or disability.
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