Sunday, April 21, 2002

Xavier works toward diversity

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For years, four words have commonly been used to describe Xavier University: Catholic. White. Expensive. Basketball. But one year after riots in Cincinnati, a change is taking shape on the Evanston campus of 6,523 students. It is one that will increase diversity in both enrollment and faculty, and re-emphasize the college's commitment to service.

        “We have known for years that we need to do a number of things with respect to diversity,” said the Rev. Michael Graham, SJ, Xavier University president.

        “That comes as no surprise. Post-April, there's a sense of urgency. We decided to stop saying, "It would be nice, but....' ”

        A year ago this month, students weren't on campus when Over-the-Rhine erupted in a fury of fights and fires. But they had plenty to say when they returned from East er break.

        Days after the April 2001 riots, Father Graham assembled a group of faculty and staff dubbed the “Call to Action Committee” to give students an outlet to talk about racial unrest in Cincinnati.

        Hundreds gathered for a standing-room-only forum. Anthony Hudson, 21, now a junior finance major and vice president of the Black Student Association, was one of them.

        “Some Caucasian students were saying they were afraid and I was saying, "I'm just as afraid,”' the College Hill student said.

        Emotions were tense in the cramped boardroom in Schmidt Hall. Some students defended the police. Others voiced support for Timothy Thomas, the man whose shooting death by Cincinnati Officer Stephen Roach sparked the worst race riots since 1968.

        “It was everything from people being sad to people being amazed to people not knowing what to do,” Mr. Hudson said.

        The group of school officials who organized the forum were so moved by what they heard that day they made a commitment to look inside the institution in the area of race relations.

        A call went out to those in admissions, to the deans and the faculty: What would it take to create an administrative structure that would increase campus diversity, an issue that had only been part of casual conversation in years past?

        Today, school officials can point to progress, though a list of specific diversity initiatives won't become part of the school's formal strategic plan until the Board of Trustees votes in late 2003.

        For now, Xavier doesn't have a target for how much it wants to increase the 8.3 percent African-American student enrollment because that diversity initiative has not been finalized. (Total minority enrollment is 14.3 percent.)

        But it has launched programs to reach local minority high school students in hopes of increasing their numbers on campus.

        Xavier's admissions office added two positions, one last June and another in January to both target local students of color who haven't traditionally been attracted to Xavier and to attract national minority candidates.

        “What we need to do is get kids on campus so when they say, "Xavier,' it's not, "Will (basketball player) Dave West go pro?' but it's images of the campus,” Father Graham said.

        Trustees raised tuition 7.5 percent last fall, in part, to hire 13 new tenure-track faculty members and fill 20 other vacant faculty positions. Twenty-six of those positions have been filled and five are African-American. Four percent of faculty on Xavier's campus are African-American and a total of 9.5 percent are minority.

        To increase faculty diversity, school officials tried two strategies:

        • They offered two at-large positions, which were open in any department but solely to minority candidates. Robert Jefferson was hired from the University of Iowa for one of those positions to a post in the history department.

        • Officials also shifted resources to make sure offers were competitive for minorities.

        “Faculty told us you can sometimes find yourself in a bidding war,” Father Graham said.

        Instead of holding out, he was told to be willing to up the ante. And that's what the institution did.

        That commitment is striking a chord among black students like Ayshah Matthews, 21, a business management major and president of the Black Student Association. More African-American students mean more minority leaders on campus and that can lead to diverse programs outside the classroom and a broader range of views inside, she said.

        “It feels good as an African-American student to see more African-American faces on campus,” said the junior from Fort Wayne, Ind.

        Historically, Xavier has been slow to change.

        “We've only been co-ed for 30 years this year so our non-coed time is still in our institutional memory,” Father Graham said. “That past has a kind of continuing presence.”

        School officials plan to look at changing diversity throughout the campus, but will put a special emphasis on African-American issues.

        “We have yet to fully integrate the experience of non-majority culture(s),” Father Graham said. “It would be true with women, African-Americans (and the) growing number of Hispanics and gay people who are willing to say so.”

        Chris Seelbach, a senior human resources major, is founder of Xavier Alliance, a campus club that serves as a support group for gay, lesbian and bi-sexual students and their allies.

        After months of lobbying, in December 2000, he and others convinced the student government body and the administration to allow a club on campus.

        “Xavier is transforming from a stage that they were building these great new buildings to a justice, academic-oriented phase,” Mr. Seelbach said.

        The university is not where it needs to be, but “it really shows that Xavier is trying to catch up.”

        An internal Xavier team has also been working to create a model for community engagement that involves academics, service projects, public policy and community revitalization.

        Faculty members will be encouraged to lead students to develop ideas that affect the neighborhoods surrounding Xavier. An economics class, for example, might create a neighborhood revitalization plan.

        Leading the way, Father Graham has made a commitment to spend eight hours a month visiting communities and institutions. His stops have included Over-the-Rhine, the Evanston Recreation Center, Taft High School and the Elm Street Clinic.

        By doing this, he hopes to increase Xavier's impact.

        But the experience of shaping a more diverse campus has also been for Father Graham the answer to an existential kind of question. The Jesuit emphasis is on a faith that does justice.

        “What does it mean to be a Catholic, Jesuit president at a Catholic, Jesuit college?” he asked. “Well, this is what it means.

        “Take it seriously or walk by it and quit asking the question.”


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