College presidents discuss faults, changes regarding racial inclusion in higher education

Four college presidents spoke in the "Race in Academia" symposium in the W.E. Singleton Center Tuesday. Photo by Raelyn Fines

College presidents discuss faults, changes regarding racial inclusion in higher education

Hannah Eason, News Editor

Four Richmond-area college presidents spoke Tuesday afternoon at VCU’s W.E. Singleton Center about race and its effect on higher education. “Race in Academia,” a Wilder Symposium, was hosted by former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and moderated by former Norfolk State University president Alvin J. Schexnider.

Quotes have been edited for grammar and space.

Makola Abdulla, Virginia State University president

On the challenges of race:

I think that people believe that because we are an HBCU, that there are challenges in fact that we might not face, and that’s true. There are some challenges that we don’t face in the same way that our colleagues would face. We were founded on the idea that African Americans should have access to quality higher education, so we were founded with that notion.

On philanthropy:

There’s always been that balance between reaching out for resources to help our institution, while at the same time understanding the personality and DNA of the institution and making sure that the donations, no matter how large they were, didn’t violate the DNA of the institution. With some donations, it is a question that comes up a lot.

On valuing inclusivity in higher education:

The promise is not to train people how not to be racist. It’s in fact to make sure that we give them every tool we can for them to choose not to be racist. We need to make sure that institutions that are doing that type of work are valued. We spend a lot of time valuing institutions for their measure of prestige or rankings, and some of those institutions with the highest level rankings are the ones that are the least diverse and are serving their communities less rather than more. Not only do we have to do the work, but we have to turn to each other and value it amongst ourselves and say, “this is an important part of higher education.”

Ronald Crutcher, University of Richmond president

On issues of race in higher education:

These issues are alive and well. Fifty years ago, I’ll be quite honest, when I graduated from Miami University in 1969, I really believed that by the year 2000, universities would have figured out how to use diversity as an educational benefit to everyone in these institutions. Sadly, we have not reached that point.

On echo chambers within college campuses:

People are only talking to other people who agree with them, and it plays itself out on college campuses as well. Before our students come to our universities, they’re coming from communities. Universities, regardless of the sector, are the last opportunity that we have to socialize these individuals when they come to our campus to interact with people who come from different cultures, who come from different socio-economic backgrounds, who come from different ethnicities and those who come from different political ideologies.

On race and the United States:

Part of the problem with the United States is that we have actually never really, at a fundamental level, dealt with the aftermath of slavery and Jim Crow. I went to Germany for many years, and Germany is not a perfect place, but in Germany they have made it their business to ensure they never forget what happened during the Second World War. We’ve never really done that, we’ve always kind of dealt with it on a surface level. And the wound has healed slightly, and then something comes along and the scab gets torn off. And so it’s always like an open sore.

VCU President Michael Rao and Reynolds Community College President Paula Pando spoke in the “Race in Academia” symposium. Photo by Raelyn Fines

Paula Pando, Reynolds Community College president

On race and the American dream:

Without completing something of value, access to education doesn’t mean very much. And when you look at the success rates across the county, and you desegregate those success rates by race, you can see that we have a very long way to go in achieving or fulfilling that mission of access to opportunity and the American dream.

On students leaving higher education:

I think across all sectors of higher education, we put the reasoning behind the failure to complete right on the shoulders of the students. They weren’t serious, they weren’t prepared, they were overwhelmed, they have too much going on, the list goes on and on. When we look at the data across all sectors, it shows that 75% of students who leave higher education are academically eligible to continue. We did the research at our college asking, what is the average grade point average of those who leave without a degree or credential? It’s a 3.1 GPA.

On changes in the classroom:

The best colleges are really taking a close look at what’s happening inside of that classroom. All of us are doing really great work in the support — we’re all opening up food pantries, we’re all doing a better job with mental health and bringing more counselors on and so forth — but if that magic isn’t happening in the classroom, you can’t give it away for free.

Michael Rao, VCU president

On the history of inclusion in American universities:

We start with the fact that Amercian public research universities did not begin with the idea that we were going to include everyone, certainly didn’t have anything in mind with regard to the place America would have in the world. The creation of public colleges and universities really did not include anyone other than white guys. A study came out recently that you’re far better off being born rich in this country than being born smart in this country, and we’ve got to change that.

On college affordability:

One of the issues with respect to the completion at Virginia Commonwealth University, where we are studying this, is cost, the ability to afford going to college. That’s one of the reasons why financial aid is one of our top priorities. Our argument with the state is that, unlike the other research universities, VCU has more students who are eligible for a Pell Grant than UVA, William and Mary, and Virginia Tech. What that means is that we have a different situation. We have many fewer out of state students and much less in terms of revenue to offset the costs that we need to come up with to make certain colleges as affordable as they can be. But that’s one of the primary reasons why many students don’t complete.

On institutions and commitments to diversity:

I was terrified my first year of college. What I did, honestly, is I assimilated. I figured out every way I could to mimic, frankly, other white guys. I don’t know how everybody else can do that. I still think today that even though we’re committed to inclusion, we say that we’re committed to diversity, the actions really don’t show that. These large institutions continue to do what they have always done, and it’s really not working. We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to do more to engage people from all levels.

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