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When “Done” is not enough

The administration and faculty at the University of California San Diego began the year as they always do, looking inwards. This year, plans were begun to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the campus. Those plans have been diminished - if not scuttled - by this very public airing of what is its unfinished business.

The spontaneous protests led by African-American students this week demonstrates the presence of racial and class tensions present at all levels on the La Jolla campus that have been left unaddressed ever since the university’s founding.

The protests and subsequent demands were in response to two racially-charged incidents propagated by fellow students: one on campus and one off campus. A UCSD-authorized fraternity held what they were calling “Compton Cookout” in order to grotesquely stereotype African-Americans, especially women. This was followed by an equally distasteful program on student-run television.

A noose was then discovered hanging in the library, and soon afterward a statue in front of the library was found with a Ku Klux Klan hood affixed to it.

The sponsors and attendees at the recent “Compton Cookout” stirred a pot much deeper than the massive reservoir of ignorance and insensitivity they displayed by hosting such a despicable event. Their boorish behavior highlights the longstanding criticism leveled at college fraternity organizations as closed, myopic societies with a long history of exclusion and anti-social behavior.

The off-campus party sponsored by a fraternity at UCSD has been roundly and rightly criticized as hate speech that creates an unhealthy environment on a campus with the worst record for diversity in the entire UC system.

Given that record, it was not surprising that the media reported that Chancellor Marye Anne Fox replied to the non-negotiable student demands with the repeated verbal statement, “Done! Done! Done!”

There was no evaluation of their complaints, no community discussion, no decision of what to do with the chief instigators of the “Compton Cookout,” and no faculty or staff evaluation of the feasibility of complying with such a wide-ranging set of demands.

No, the strategy was short-termed – get the embarrassing matter off the table as quickly as possible.

Regrettably, this has been the history of UCSD leadership when stumbling upon the non-academic concerns of its citizens.

Past lessons

There have been lessons in the past, however, that should have informed leaders that the exclusivity and isolation of the campus is both a blessing and a curse.

In 1960, Roger Revelle was beginning to hire the first faculty for the new campus and confronted restrictive home association covenants that forbade Jews from buying homes across the street from the campus. With equal portions of political astuteness and financial resources, the campus engaged civic and government leaders to overturn those restrictions and permit the university to grow without regard to discriminatory practices in the surrounding community.

Then, as now, campus leaders could not envision a modern public research university successfully growing, if it accepted the world and its neighborhood as it existed.

Unfortunately, there haven’t been many other instances in UCSD’s social history when the campus refused to accept the world as it presented itself.

The hostile climate the African-American student protesters pointed out this week is the direct result of the fact that they represent less than 1.3 percent of the overall student population. They are and have been a diminishing presence on the La Jolla campus.

Dozens of chancellors, vice chancellors and provosts in succession, have observed this phenomenon, wrung their hands, but have made feeble and half-hearted efforts to correct this sliding trend.

The students correctly point out that every campus report and committee addressing the subject over the past decades, warned of this circumstance. Unlike the threat to campus health and growth faced 50 years ago, UCSD has chosen not to spend its considerable political and financial capital to address the underlying causes of this hostile climate.

Students, therefore, see this inaction as not only exacerbating a hostile environment, but also view the absence of positive action over the years as hostile.

Exclaiming, “Done” over and over doesn’t undo a half-century of neglect.

We have all been witnesses to the mounting racial and class tensions on the UCSD campus. Indeed, it is safe to say that the organizers of the “Compton Cookout” and the racist student-run television program took their cue from a long line of campus leaders.

They felt that Black History Month and their fellow African-American students were fair game and easy prey; a dwindling minority ensconced on a highly exclusive and isolated campus far away from the urban core.

Despite their justified anger, the student protesters got one thing wrong, however. They demanded that the campus amp-up funding to various student-based recruitment and yield activities directed at African-American high school graduates.

We agree that more campus resources and attention are needed to recruit and enroll diverse populations. But the larger and decidedly more systemic challenge for UCSD is to directly engage with public education to improve the academic preparation and outcome for more African-American youngsters.

Comparing UCSD to UCLA and Berkeley

In its telling report “Do UC Us?” the Black Student Union at UCSD states:

“For the 2009-2010 academic year, 1,639 African-American students applied to the University of California, San Diego. Of the 1,639 applicants, only 333 African-American students were accepted, which is 20% of the applicant pool. Of that 333, 50 freshmen applicants submitted their student intent to register (SIR)…

“Of the 333 admitted students, 172 students from the applicant pool were also accepted by the University of California, Los Angeles and/or the University of California, Berkeley. The other 161 applicants were not admitted by either the University of California, Los Angeles and/or University of California, Berkeley.

“Of the 172 applicants who were admitted to the University of California, San Diego as well as the University of California, Los Angeles and/or the University of California, Berkeley, only 10 applicants submitted their SIR for the University of California, San Diego. Furthermore, of the 161 applicants only 40 enrolled at UC San Diego.”

This clearly shows that high-performing African-American high school graduates behave just like every other UC applicant: If they are admitted to UCSD, UCLA, and/or UCB, they prefer to enroll at one of the latter two more celebrated and more urban, UC campuses.

These youngsters also have many other national options for higher education. Few of the remaining graduates have academic records that would make them competitively eligible for any of the three most selective UC campuses. Consequently, these three campuses and others compete for a dwindling pool of African-American high school students that has been pared down by a near 50-percent dropout rate.

Each campus maintains outreach efforts that focus primarily on attracting the remaining few eligible African-American applicants. None of these campuses do an effective job of interceding, in order to enlarge the pool of competitively eligible African-American high school graduates they fight over each spring.

If asked about this annual warfare, the reply one gets to the need for deeper and earlier intervention is, “Oh, that’s too hard” or “that’s none of our business.” In this instance, the premiere public universities of California are engaged in a silent conspiracy to accept the world as it is without asking why.

But deep and early intervention is precisely what the framers of public higher education had in mind when the Land Grant universities were founded 150 years ago. The Morrill Acts passed by Congress established public Land Grant universities for the purposes of furthering the economic prosperity and social tranquility of the states.

In the 1850s, the concern was to develop the mineral and industrial resources of a growing country. Hence, scores of agricultural and mining colleges as well as teachers’ colleges were founded.

Lost human potential

As we enter the 21st century, intelligent leadership recognizes the need to develop the lost potential of the state’s human capital. That potential is now lost, long before the first UC recruitment brochure goes out in the mail.

Had the University of California made K-12 enhancement a priority 50 years ago, we may have forestalled the calamity of statewide dropout rates nearing 50 percent among African-American students.

UCSD’s establishment of Preuss School on campus – and its community partner school, Gompers Charter School – is a belated down-payment on the mining of students who are too often not found in our freshman class, but too frequently found among California’s prison population. They were the first such UC interventions in K-12 education that parallel other UC interventions directed at improving life for all Californians.

Indeed, the California wine industry and agriculture are the direct result of UC’s applied research with farmers and business that have helped to make the state the seventh largest economy in the world.

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. What if leaders at UCSD and around the state stopped kicking the problems of class and racial inequities down the road, stopped exclaiming “Done” to every short-term demand, and stopped faking it in matters of equity, campus climate and quality education?

What if the UC campuses stopped the disgraceful springtime bidding war for the survivors of California’s faltering public schools? What if the present leadership at UCSD took this opportunity to direct its resources and entrepreneurial talent at the root causes behind the low 1.3 percent black student enrollment?

What if UCSD took the opportunity of its 50th anniversary – whose motto is “Achieving the Extraordinary” – to look beyond the ivory tower to expand on the success of Preuss School and its partnership schools at Gompers and Lincoln High School?

What if UCSD chose to lead other state institutions of higher education in a long term and long overdue revolution to reframe the university’s involvement with K-12 and intervene on behalf of the most vulnerable students?

Accomplishing these “what ifs” will take talent, courage and vision not always in supply at the top. We can only hope that “Done” marks the start of a vision, not merely the end to a rough week.

Cecil Lytle is Professor Emeritus and Provost Emeritus at UCSD’s Thurgood Marshall College. Bud Mehan is Professor and Director of the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment and Teaching Excellence (CREATE) at UCSD and can be reached at bmehan@ucsd.edu.