In the second of two articles, staff writer Robert Marquand explores factors from within and without American black culture that serve to keep blacks out of US colleges and universities. IT'S known as ``the Prescription'' by minority students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y. It's a rigorous mix of tutoring, study groups, meetings with senior faculty, and participation in campus life; and it's the way Eddie Knowles gets black and Hispanic students, many from disadvantaged homes, through one of the country's toughest science and engineering programs. While nationally only 38 percent of prospective black engineers get their college degrees, 60 percent at RPI do.
The prescription isn't fancy. It's characterized by hard work, modest gains, and constant shepherding of students by a staff that ``doesn't talk failure,'' says Mr. Knowles, RPI's dean of students, who is black. Blacks have their own chemistry, physics, and engineering clubs at RPI. They sign up in groups for tough courses like Advanced Heat Transfer and Thermodynamics II.
``You have to understand how damn hard this school is,'' Knowles adds. ``Valedictorians come here and make their first `C.' I tell our blacks, `You will get plugged into our system and work harder than you ever have.' And they do pretty well.''
But if RPI represents a minority education success story, the overall picture for blacks in higher education is not as rosy.
A combination of residual prejudice, economic priorities, and cultural differences has made the black professor a disappearing species and the black student a dropout threat; many schools lack adequate support networks for blacks in fields of study such as the sciences, law, and medicine.
Frustration over lack of a significant black presence on campus has been at the heart of nearly every racial protest on United States campuses this year, even though the triggering events were often race-related fights or slurs.
Only 2.3 percent of all full-time American college professors are black, and the number is going down. In 1986, only 820 of the 32,000 PhDs awarded went to blacks; less than half that 820 plan a college career. Of 8,000 engineering and physical science PhDs, only 39 were black.
Black student enrollment in college is down from a 1976 peak of 33 percent of all black high school graduates, but it has remained steady since 1980 at about 27.5 percent (the national average for all races is 34 percent). The latest US Census Bureau figures, in fact, show an increase in black enrollment, to 28.6 percent. Fewer black males are going to college (down 7 percent from '76), but more black females are.
The problem, however, is not so much getting blacks to school as keeping them there. Attrition rates are uniformly high. Only 1 in 4 blacks at the University of California at Berkeley, for example, will graduate. About 45 percent at the University of Michigan never finish.
Support networks for blacks on campus are a mixed bag. The structure of support needed to retain flagging students is expensive, and requires a kind of leadership not easy to find. ``Some schools think they can just open up a minority affairs office and get results overnight,'' says Knowles. ``That's a mistake. These [offices] often become student hangouts [with] very little substance to them.''
In the last two months, student activists and minority groups have aimed protests more specifically at these problems, which they see as examples of ``institutional'' or ``structural racism.''
On May 5, Yale president Benno Schmidt Jr. was confronted by 200 students protesting the unrenewed contract of a black lecturer in the business school. At Harvard May 11, students sat in at the Law School over the lack of black professors there. ``Concerned Students of All Colors'' at Smith College on April 17 threatened the school's administration with a civil rights lawsuit and submitted a highly detailed set of grievances and demands covering lack of black faculty, staff, students, and curriculum.
A diminishing number of black role models on campus raises concern among minority leaders over the future of black intellectual participation.
Thus far, the issue has been framed as one of racial exclusion in the predominantly white colleges. In response to protests, Williams College, for example, has set minority faculty hiring quotas of 20 percent by the early 1990s. A Smith College study recommends 20 percent by 1995. Duke University has committed to at least one new black faculty member in each of its 50 departments by 1993. The Universities of Wisconsin and Michigan have set similar targets.
Yet, more officials wonder if colleges aren't making promises they can't keep. The problem is a lack of available black professors. In Williams College's 10-year evaluation last fall, for example, an outside accrediting team found attention to minority faculty hiring one of the school's greatest strengths. Williams spokesman James Kolesar says colleges in general are ``obsessed'' with affirmative-action issues, but ``only about 2 percent of the black PhDs granted each year are in subjects we teach. Even if they are all high quality, that leaves less than 1 in 10 to choose from - and everyone is clamoring for them: black colleges, universities. Our problem is, how do you hang onto these people? They are constantly getting better offers.''
Why aren't there more black faculty?
One ironic reason is affirmative action itself. Corporations are hungry for black professionals. A black PhD makes an average of $7,000 more a year in the private sector than in academia.
The same principle holds true for black undergraduates. Bright black students have many options besides taking a PhD. ``A black 23-year old with a BA, maybe with a wife ... it's not easy for him to say, `I'll live off a $5,000 stipend for six years and go to grad school,''' says Afro-American studies professor Esther Terry of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. ``There aren't a lot of precedents for it.''
Most black faculty are massed in education (accounting for more than half of all black PhDs awarded in '86) and social science departments. Michael Hirshorn of the Chronicle of Higher Education reports no black PhDs in 1986 in fields such as astronomy, geology, European history, classics, architecture, law, or German, Italian, Spanish, or Russian language or literature, among others.
Much of the blame (along with lack of cultural relevance and reward) is given to the tenure process - which looks to many blacks like a highly uncertain venture into a white mainstream checkered with old-boy and old-girl networks. The mentor is the most crucial figure in the process - the senior academic who guides, counsels, makes the academic enterprise come alive, and who often recommends tenure.
``You can live or die on the whim of your adviser,'' said one black PhD.
That tenure depends more on personality than academic skill or a dissertation is a commonly held perception among black academics.
Denise Carty-Bennia of Northeastern University's Law School says blacks have to subtly ``sell out,'' or ``play the game,'' to get tenure. ``You have to learn the appropriate social skills and white reference points. If you want to get into a field like English or anthropology you have to tie yourself to the system; you can't afford to be black. A lot of us go through psychic shutdown along the way.''
Blacks have also had difficulty getting published in journals - considered an academic rite of passage. Charges of racism may in some cases be true, if the work is tied to a ``black perspective.'' But most journals have a ``blind review'' process, where names are kept off manuscripts. Reviewer Margaret Sims says some blacks see a rejection slip as a sign of total failure, and, tragically, don't do basic revisions to make the article publishable.
The National Congress of Black Faculty reports that nontenured blacks often get kicked around from college to college as assistant professors and lecturers. This is especially frustrating for blacks who end up at rural or small-town campuses lacking in a black community, or black churches.
A significant number of student and faculty activists have demanded that black faculty be granted tenure as a form of affirmative action. Minority officer James Henry of the University of Iowa says in no uncertain terms: ``There needs to be a mandate at colleges to keep black faculty, make sure they get published, and give them tenure.''
Yet to waive scholarly merit as at least the ideal of tenure is a highly explosive proposal, raising issues of academic quality and integrity. Many currently tenured black faculty oppose a pro forma tenure, saying it's not only condescending, but cheapens their own accomplishments.
Keeping black professors is only half the problem. Between 1965 and 1985 the number of blacks enrolled in college jumped from 238,000 to 1.07 million. Blacks entered mainstream education in record numbers. During the same period, the blacks going to historically black colleges decreased from 44 percent to 16 percent. In recent years, aggressive college recruiting campaigns have been carried to blacks as well as whites, with schools taking great pains to show that scholarships and loan funds are available.
Yet many black students don't stay. Of freshman blacks in 1980, only 31 percent had graduated by '86 (compared with 55 percent white, 50 percent overall), the National Center for Education Statistics reports.
One of the reasons, students say, is the powerful reinforcement of ``white culture'' - from the curriculum to the social scene. ``A lot of my friends tell me, `I just want to leave; I've got to get out,''' says Berkeley student Regina Freer, a black. ``A lot of them question their right to be here.''
``Some blacks can take life in an all-white environment; some can't,'' says Tony Brown, a popular black journalist.
To a black student away from home for the first time and struggling with academics at a school with only a tiny black presence, even ``unintentional'' racial insensitivity can seem magnified. Direct racist comments or acts invoke raw anger.
Black student leaders admit that some blacks are not prepared for the highly competitive, careerist climate of many major universities. Affirmative-action students in particular have been ``set up to fail,'' says another Berkeley black - given the impression a little remedial work is all they need.
Several schools report that blacks and minorities are cowed by seeking support, even with the best facilities, and even when they are on the verge of failing. A black student who had to withdraw from Princeton last fall told the Daily Princetonian that failing ``was something that could have been avoided, but I didn't feel confident as a minority student going to find out exactly what steps needed to be taken.'' Black role models are few.
Many blacks struggle with an ingrained ``pathology of failure,'' says Harvard professor Glenn Loury.
In a 1988 study of an inner-city Washington high school, Signithia Fordham of the University of the District of Columbia describes the peer pressure not to succeed, not to ``be white,'' a ``brainiac'' or a ``homosexual,'' that black youth (particularly males) impose on each other. Black achievers from an early age are split between a black ``kinship'' identity and an individualist ethos of accomplishment, she writes.
Sociologist Christopher Jencks, in a comprehensive June 13 New Republic review of William Julius Wilson's new study ``The Truly Disadvantaged,'' opens up a middle ground between ``blaming society'' and ``blaming the victim'' for black performance in jobs, marriages, education, and city neighborhoods.
Building a black presence on campus, in all fields, means establishing a well-financed, long-term program of support - one that deals not only with academic learning, but with attitudes and students' place in the community. This is especially true in areas such as the sciences, where learning takes place in a sequential manner (algebra to trigonometry to calculus, in math), and requires patience.
Successful programs such as that at RPI take this tack. RPI engineering major John Matos, who praises Dr. Knowles's ``Prescription,'' says: ``None of my aunts or uncles ever went to college, I'm the first one. There was a need for someone to understand everything I was going through.''
Minorities at RPI look after each other, ``stay up late during finals and midterms, and tell our friends, `Don't quit,''' says Joy Dunbar, a senior.
Programs vary widely from school to school, but the best usually contain these elements: A visible commitment from the college president. Sustained student contact with senior faculty. A comprehensive, coordinated approach. Strong, well-governed minority groups. A central meeting place. Involvement in campus life.
Knowles feels minority participation on campus especially is greatly undervalued, not only for its potential for student development, but also as a way to combat racism.
RPI students, for example, are required from the beginning to participate in both black and mainstream activities. Blacks must form a diverse set of academic and social clubs within their own community, and can't rely on the black student alliance alone.
``Join the sky-diving club, the radio club. I don't care,'' Knowles adds, ``but get involved somehow. That's how you are empowered. That's how blacks are going to feel a right to be here. As participants, you can claim the institution as partly your own.
``But that isn't going to come overnight. It's going to take time.''
Part 1 in this series ran yesterday.
MAKING MINORITIES PRIORITIES
Activists say schools could do more to roll out the welcome mat to minorities. Some suggestions:
A visible commitment from the college president. This smooths the path bureaucratically inside the school. One measure of seriousness is financial support - something that also looks attractive to corporations with seed money, and helps with matching grants.
Sustained contact with senior faculty. Each school has a few stellar professors who embody the ideals of higher learning. While teaching assistants and graduate students can help students with basic tutoring and ``ground level'' personal problems, blacks should get to know experienced scholars. This opens the door for mentoring.
A comprehensive, coordinated program. The smorgasboard approach - a bit of counseling here, a workshop there - isn't enough. Schools should consider the early identification (reaching into high school) of promising students, college-based summer programs for high school juniors and seniors, lengthy (if needed) freshman orientation that gives a real idea of the level of course work, constant tracking, tutorials, and a minority staff with high expectations.
Strong, well-governed minority organizations. Such groups have developed academic success strategies, from monitoring professors and courses to providing remedial help.
A central meeting place. At several schools, students commented on how important a simple coffee lounge in the minority affairs office can be. They value a place to meet and talk.
Involvement in campus life. Alexander Astin at the University of California at Los Angeles has shown that students who get involved in campus activities - clubs, societies, sports, hobbies - are far more likely ``to persist'' and not drop out than students who are merely observers.