STORRS — A University of Connecticut official says a lack of success in expanding diversity within the university’s honors program has played a role in a recent decision to offer a controversial new residential learning community aimed at promoting academic success for African-American men.
The community, called the Scholastic House of Leaders who are African-American Researchers and Scholars (or ScHOLA2RS House, for short), is intended to be the home of as many as 43 freshman and sophomores on the Storrs campus, according to David Ouimette, director of first-year programs and learning communities.
Officials said one of the community’s two major goals is to put African-American men on a path to success in undergraduate and graduate school by connecting them with campus scholars and community leaders as well as providing them with access to opportunities for research and study abroad.
“One of the main goals of ScHOLA2RS House is to produce the next generation of judges, doctors, lawyers, professors and leaders,” said Erik Hines, a UConn educational psychology professor and the future director of ScHOLA2RS House.
UConn describes the program as “designed to support the scholastic efforts of male students who identify as African American/Black through academic and social/emotional support, access to research opportunities, and professional development.” Hines said the program would entertain applications from non-blacks “who identify with the African-American experience.”
UConn already has a living and learning community with similar stated goals – the honors program. However, Ouimette said the program is not diverse enough to provide resources to all African-American males who may benefit from those opportunities.
“The numbers are not there for the honors program,” Ouimette said. “It’s complicated. … If (ScHOLA2RS House students) are really coming in here and knocking it out like some of your honors students, then let’s make sure they’re getting undergraduate research opportunities – all the things honors does. They make sure you get a research opportunity. They make sure you’re applying for grants, you’re applying for all the things that can help you.”
While the overall undergraduate student population is 5 percent African-American, the honors program is 2 percent African-American – 47 out of 2,112 honors students, according to the most recent statistics from the university.
In 2015, the undergraduate student population was 27 percent minority at the university – a number the honors program was able to match. However, the honors program had a disproportionately higher number of Asian students counterbalancing the lower percentages of African-American and Hispanic or Latino students.
That has Willena Price, director of UConn’s African American Cultural Center, asking whether honors is doing enough to identify and reach out to students in minority communities, especially African-American and Latino students.
“A lot of my students that I see in my classes, particularly majority students … have come up through the years in academically gifted programs,” Price said. “They were the ones who were identified (in their K-12 years), the teachers singled them out. They’re brought into the program. And our students of color traditionally have not been identified by the teachers, by the schools.”
When asked whether the problem extends to the university level, Price’s response was concise: “Without a doubt.”
University spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz defended the honors program’s efforts to increase diversity, saying its demographics have “tracked closely with those of the university as a whole.” She also said the honors program has made concerted efforts to reach minority students in their sophomore and junior years.
“We proactively reach out to encourage these students to consider joining the honors program,” Reitz said. “Some of these efforts include meeting with students in the cultural centers and the McNair Scholars program, and contacting others who are brought to our attention by faculty, peers and others.”
Hines said he plans to work closely with the honors program, adding that he hopes freshmen who are admitted to honors but want to live in ScHOLA2RS House will have that opportunity.
Sophomores and juniors who were not admitted to honors as freshmen are still allowed to apply if they are interested. The honors program requires applicants already enrolled at the university to have a 3.4 GPA or higher. While the bar for first-year admission changes with every class accepted, the honors website says most students invited to join will have graduated in the top 5 percent of their high school classes and have a 1400 or higher combined SAT math and reading score or a 32 ACT score.
While providing students with the resources necessary to excel is integral to ScHOLA2RS House, Hines said, the second major purpose of the new community is to help improve the graduation rate of African-American males.
At the forefront of the discussion thus far has been a lagging graduation rate for those students. UConn’s six-year graduation rate among all students is 83 percent, but the graduation rate for African-American males remained stuck at 55 percent in 2015 – up just 1 percent from the 54 percent graduation rate three years earlier.
“We know the information about the persistence in graduation rates of African-American males across the country, which are relatively lower than their peers,” Hines said. “However, we know the representation at the graduate and professional school level, (and) black males are highly underrepresented there as well. This is two-fold.”
Creating a ‘safe space’
ScHOLA2RS House is part of a larger effort by the university to create a “safe space” for African-American males on campus, Hines said. He said the community would be a place where residents could talk freely and validate their experiences with “microaggressions” and racism they face in everyday life on campus – a “safe space.”
However, the decision to promote the community as a safe space has raised concern among faculty and students. “That is so troublesome to me,” Price said. “The flagship university of the state of Connecticut is not safe? If that’s the case, that’s a disgrace.”
Price said it would not take “a rocket scientist” to conclude the campus is not safe for all students, but said she doesn’t think university officials “want to own” the responsibility solving the problem would entail.
She said if the solution is creating safe space for minorities who face discrimination, the university needs to open living and learning communities for “the other ‘others'” – citing Asian-American and LGBT students as examples.
The African American Cultural Center, which Price leads, already provides a number of resources to African-American students, as well as a place to gather as a community. Price said working to improve African-American student retention – one of the main priorities for ScHOLA2RS House – has been a priority of the cultural center for years.
“That is exactly what we work on 24/7 in this center,” Price said. “We have a class that meets here, a peer-mentoring class, that we’ve had for years. We have from 120-130 kids every semester. These students soar. … We have been working on retention, recruitment, graduation forever and ever and ever. And the evidence is shown by our students. So, it’s not like we’ve been just sitting here, like ‘La, la, la, la, la. Oh, hopefully these kids are going to do well.'”
Haddiyyah Ali, a UConn sophomore and Undergraduate Student Government senator, said by calling the new community a safe space, the university is openly acknowledging parts of the campus are unsafe for minority students.
“I would love to see the university moving toward improving all spaces on campus rather than sequestering safe spaces on campus,” Ali said. “I think what the African American Cultural Center does is not only provide that space, but pushes it outward.”
Pursuing a separate living community could have benefits, Price said, but there are also a number of drawbacks.
Price said if the already small African-American student population concentrates its living situation to an even smaller area, it could harm the effort to build a complete university community.
“It is so important for other students, majority students, to see African-American men thriving, studying, making progress, going on to graduate, getting to know them,” Price said. “This is what happens when people are together in a community. They get to know each other. They get to live with each other. … So, when you pull people away in this way, that is all gone.”
Despite the criticism, Hines said he hopes ScHOLA2RS House can provide an escape from a world in which African-American males experience “only-ness” on a regular basis.
“Only-ness means they have to go into a classroom, and sometimes they are pressured by their professors and peers to speak for the whole African-American community,” Hines said. “That’s a huge burden to carry as the only African-American male in your class. We want to talk about how to navigate those experiences.”
Hines said opening ScHOLA2RS House is in part a response to President Barack Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, which is designed to help disadvantaged youth stay on track toward earning a college degree. He said much of the inspiration for UConn’s learning community came from the University of Minnesota’s Huntley House for African-American Men, which opened in 2012.
The program will be funded by a $300,000 grant from the UConn Foundation and the Booth Ferris Foundation. Part of the grant money will go toward paying a graduate assistant during the first three years of the community’s existence, Ouimette said. The graduate assistant will be expected to critically evaluate the level of success students experience as a result of living in ScHOLA2RS House.
The Office of the Provost approved the grant application and is overseeing creation of the learning community, Reitz said.
Handling the backlash
The university has spent much of the time since the announcement of the learning community battling issues of “misperception,” Ouimette said.
The decision to create a separate residential space for African-American men has sparked backlash, ranging from accusations of “segregation” to concerns about how effective the community will be in combating low graduation rates.
Some of the criticism has come from national conservative media outlets.
After an article about ScHOLA2RS House was posted on The Blaze, a conservative news outlet founded by commentator Glenn Beck, other major conservative figures began to weigh in.
Former U.S. Representative Allen West, a black Republican and Tea Party activist from Florida, shared a link to the article from his website in a blog post that called the opening of the learning community “segregation.”
“The left has gone full circle on the issue of civil rights, and the only thing that’s changed is their intentions,” the post on West’s website said. “From the enactment of Jim Crow laws to Woodrow Wilson’s segregation of the federal civil service, the left has been no friend of Civil Rights historically.”
The plan has also generated debate on multiple threads on Reddit and other social media.
Reitz emphasized that participation in the community is voluntary. Furthermore, Hines said anyone who identifies with the African-American male experience is welcome to apply.
Hines and Ouimette said no guidelines have been set to decide how individuals will be selected for admission to the community. If a non-African-American male and an African-American male are competing for the same spot in the community, it is not clear who would receive preference.
“We’re working that out,” Hines said. “That’s just an ongoing conversation that we’re having now.”
It probably will not be an issue this fall. Hines said only 13 students have committed so far to living in ScHOLA2RS House for the 2016-17 academic year. He expects the number to increase once university admissions decisions are sent to the incoming freshman class.
Contrary to several incorrect reports, the university is not building a new dormitory for the sole purpose of housing African-American males in the learning community.
Students admitted to ScHOLA2RS House will live in UConn’s newest residential dormitory, NextGen Residence Hall, set to open this fall. The residence hall will house 700 students and eight living and learning communities, according to Ouimette.
ScHOLA2RS House will share floor space with Innovation House, which is open to students who “are passionate about entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity,” according to its website. NextGen Hall also will be the home for EcoHouse, Eurotech House, Public Health House, Engineering House, the STEM Scholar community and Women in Math, Science and Engineering (WiMSE).
Reitz said ScHOLA2RS House would not be the first gender-based or race-based community at the university. She said female students in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors are welcome to join WiMSE. Furthermore, Reitz said La Comunidad Intelectual (LCI) is a community for students with a Latin American background.
However, according to the learning community’s description on its website, LCI is open to anyone with an interest in Latino or Latin American studies. Students in the community “critically examine Caribbean and Latin American cultures, customs and traditions as they exist at UConn and beyond.”
In short, LCI is focused on the study of Latin American culture while ScHOLA2RS House will be about providing resources and opportunities to its residents.
“We will just talk about experiences that African-American males go through at predominantly white institutions, and we will also focus on graduate and professional school support as well as academic, social, emotional and career development,” Hines said.
How have students responded?
For all the clamor creation of ScHOLA2RS House has caused, some UConn students are concerned it will not have the desired effect of increasing graduation rates among African-American males.
“I definitely believe that black males at UConn are not given enough resources if they are at-risk for graduation,” Ali said. “All the research proves those things, and I’m not disputing that fact. What I am disputing is that 43 black men in a learning community are somehow going to fix our 54 percent graduation rates.”
Ali also expressed concern the community could give more weight to racial stereotypes, becoming a “tokenizing experience rather than an inclusive experience.”
Other students are concerned that the university created this space only for African-American males when African-American females could stand to benefit significantly as well.
Holden Powell – a senior who serves as vice president of Sankofa, a group at UConn working to promote awareness of the African-American experience – said he could see the potential benefits of the community, but is concerned about black women in need of the same resources.
“Where is the representation for women in the STEM fields?” Powell asked. “Where is their moment to also have upliftment and be catered to through some institution? It’s unfortunate that it’s only for black men, but I feel as though the backlash has been pretty unreasonable in the sense that it’s a simple learning community.”
Student activist Julian Rose, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering, also expressed concern about the lack of female representation, saying he had “a lot of questions about the decision-making” and believes African-American females experience the same isolation on campus as their male counterparts.
Rose said student activism over the past year created the environment that pushed the university to work toward solving the problem of systemic racism on campus and creating safe spaces – including ScHOLA2RS House.
Despite having their reservations, all three believe the learning community will have a net positive effect on the university community.
Not all students expressed concerns about ScHOLA2RS House. In fact, many African-American students are excited about the opportunities it will provide for future incoming freshmen and sophomores.
Jhavier Leslie, a UConn sophomore majoring in accounting, said he was apprehensive during his transition from a high school in Hartford with a 98 percent African-American student population to a college campus where that population is just 5 percent.
“Before coming to college, I never really spoke to a white person my age,” Leslie said. “I ended up having a hard time connecting with anyone and eventually decided to move off campus and go back home. If this learning community was around when I was a freshman, I probably would have still been (on campus) now.”
Leslie challenged those who used the term “segregation” to consider whether they would use the same language for the Women in Math Science and Engineering community. He said to call ScHOLA2RS House “segregation” would make about as much sense as calling an historically black college or university segregated.
There is no question he is enthusiastic for the community.
“The idea of black men, future leaders, living together and forming a brotherhood is amazing,” Leslie said. “The guidance from black faculty members here at UConn can truly influence students to achieve great things.”