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February 19, 1998

Low graduation rates among African Americans have led to a controversial report urging Pitt to rethink the way it nurtures black students

Graduation rates among African Americans at Pitt are so low that the University should rethink the way it recruits and nurtures black students, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Jack L. Daniel argues.

Among first-time, full-time Pittsburgh campus freshmen who entered the University from 1985 through 1992 (the most recent cohort for which statistics are available), only 17.1 percent of blacks graduated within four years. That's compared with 39.4 percent of whites and a 20.6 percent rate for all minorities, including blacks, Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans.

After six years, 41.3 percent of the black students had graduated, compared with 66.4 percent of whites and 45.9 percent of all minorities.

"While there is clearly a need to continue to recruit additional African American students, we can no longer tolerate the demonstrated steady state of under-achievement," Daniel wrote last fall in a report to Pitt's senior administration.

Daniel's 98-page report is entitled, "A 21st Century African American Student Agenda: A Matter of Higher Expectations," but it is better known as the Daniel Report. Whatever the title, the report has touched off an impassioned debate about the future of African American student recruitment, retention and graduation here.

Even the report's critics say the debate was long overdue. And they applaud Daniel's recommendation that Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and Provost James Maher lead a University-wide campaign to improve black retention and graduation rates. They also concur with Daniel's argument that all Pitt faculty, staff and administrators, not just black ones, must help African American students.

But in a jointly written response to the Daniel Report, submitted this month to Provost Maher, committees of black faculty, staff and students took issue with a number of Daniel's findings.

In particular, the respondents said Daniel implicitly, and unfairly, criticized minority academic support programs such as the College of Arts and Sciences' University Challenge for Excellence Programs (UCEP) and the engineering school's Pitt Engineering Impact Program. Privately, Daniel's critics say they fear his report could be used to justify cutting or even eliminating programs like UCEP and Impact. They say Daniel — who co-founded and formerly chaired Pitt's black studies (now Africana studies) department and has worked here for three decades — doesn't seem to appreciate the complex web of racism, self-doubt and economic hardship that entraps many black students.

Daniel has even been accused of being on a power trip, betraying his fellow African Americans, and acting as a dupe for anti-affirmative action conservatives.

"Oh, I've heard all of those accusations," said Daniel, with a laugh, adding that no white administrator could get away with writing a report like his.

"What I'm proposing represents a shift from business as usual, and change is always threatening to some people," he said. "But as an older woman from the Hill District once told me, 'Jack, one sure sign of insanity is to do the same thing over and over, and expect a different result.' This University can't keep doing the same things it's been doing for African American students and expect to improve those students' academic performances and graduation rates." Daniel and his boss, Provost Maher, stress that the Daniel Report is just a starting point for discussion.

"Jack's report generates questions we should address," Maher said. "It isn't a blueprint for the future or a report that has major conclusions." Daniel believes Pitt hasn't quite moved beyond the 1950s and 1960s idea of measuring success by the number of minority students admitted. "It's time to move beyond the notion of access as the be-all and end-all," he said.

"The University of Pittsburgh has made significant strides in providing access to under-represented minority students, but what good is access if it comes with disproportionate rates of failure?" In his report, Daniel proposes four standards of success for black students at Pitt: improved grade averages and graduation rates; graduation of blacks from a wide array of majors, including the University's more prestigious academic programs; a steady stream of black Pitt grads moving on to elite graduate and professional programs; and, ultimately, Pitt African American graduates enjoying "outstanding careers that give them national and international professional acclaim." No one should feel threatened by those goals, Daniel said.

"I can say factually that in writing this report, I had and still have no intention of changing any African American's [professional] position or causing them to lose a position," the vice provost maintained. "As far as special access programs are concerned, I don't want to abolish anything that we have." Daniel said he wrote to the heads of several Pitt minority access programs (he wouldn't specify which ones) to assure them he didn't want to do away with their units. "I called them on the phone and asked them if they had concerns, to get back to me," Daniel said, "and no one did." Daniel, who tends to refer to himself in the third person, said: "This document is Jack Daniel's report to the chancellor and provost, prepared at their request. Jack, in writing this report, is not purporting to represent the African American community or act as a spokesman for that community. The document represents the opinion of one person, but one who has almost 30 years of experience at this University and who has spent a major part of that time dealing with these kinds of issues." Critics say it's all very well to call the Daniel Report merely a catalyst for discussion, but people outside the University are viewing it as a statement of Pitt policy.

One black Pitt administrator, speaking on condition of anonymity, commented: "Jack can say this is just a preliminary report, but it's been distributed all over campus and in the community. High school guidance counselors have read it and they question some of its conclusions. I've had African American students tell me they're having second thoughts about enrolling at Pitt because of this report." The Daniel Report states: "The case has been advanced that, to the extent that the University admits a significant number of educationally disadvantaged students, lower retention and graduation rates might be expected. Regardless of the merit of this argument, it cannot be permitted to serve as a rationale, much less an excuse, for a paltry institution-wide African American undergraduate four-year graduation rate of 17.1 percent. Nor should anyone seek solace in the fact that other institutions are not doing well with African American student recruitment, retention and graduation." According to the American Council on Education, Pitt's six-year graduation rate for African Americans (41.3 percent) actually is a bit higher than the national average (40 percent) for Division I colleges and universities. But according to Daniel, "Meeting the national norm is not an appropriate standard for assessing the University's efforts related to African American students." Graduation rates among African Americans served by Pitt special access programs tend to be worse than for the University's overall population of black students, the Daniel Report notes.

Between 1985 and 1992, an average of 14 percent of UCEP students graduated in four years (vs. 17.1 percent for all Pitt black students), though 42 percent graduated within six years (vs. 41.3 percent among blacks University-wide). Nearly half of the black freshmen admitted to the College of Arts and Sciences enter through UCEP.

Of the 164 black students in Pitt's School of Engineering between the 1986-87 and 1991-92 academic years, 123 enrolled through the school's Impact Program, which is the second-largest program (after UCEP) for African American undergraduates at Pitt. The overall, six-year graduation rate among the Impact students was 31.7 percent, slightly lower than the 34.7 percent rate among all black students in the school.

q The Daniel Report includes an inventory of current Pitt academic support and financial aid programs for minority students, and dozens of recommendations.

One of those recommendations has since become policy: Provost Maher has asked Pitt deans for an unprecedented amount of information about their schools' minority student programs as part of the planning documents due to the Provost's office March 2.

Maher said: "The wording of the questions I've posed varies, based on responses of the schools in the previous three years of the current planning process. But the theme is: What are you doing to recruit, to educate and to graduate under-represented minority students in your programs?" Other Daniel Report recommendations include the following: * Provost Maher and the head of each Pitt special program for African American students should agree upon a set of goals for that program, aimed at ensuring the educational, personal and career progress of the students it serves. If, after five years, the program isn't meeting its goals — or if the graduation rates and grade point averages of its students are "significantly below" those of the general student body — the program should be overhauled or discontinued.

According to Daniel, African American student programs must be held to the same standards of quality, centrality, cost effectiveness and comparative advantages that apply to other Pitt units. "We must have zero tolerance for mediocrity," Daniel said.

* "Given the very significant financial investments the University has made in recruiting and retaining African American students, it is recommended, as strongly as possible, that the University take immediate steps devoted to achieving greater investment returns, as evidenced by much higher African American student graduation rates and other educational outcomes than currently is the case," Daniel wrote.

Pitt processes nearly $20 million a year in financial aid support for African American students, Daniel wrote. That total includes Pitt scholarship monies, programs for disadvantaged students, and funding for black teaching assistants and fellows, as well as external financial aid processed through the University.

While Pitt should continue to award some aid based on race, continuation of that aid should be based on academic performance, Daniel argued.

* Academic support services for Pitt students should be based on educational need; race should not be a factor, Daniel wrote.

Moreover, all courses for credit should be provided by the appropriate departments. UCEP and other special programs for educationally disadvantaged students should no longer offer courses for academic credit.

Daniel said the University must avoid even the appearance of offering what he called "educationally disadvantaged course sections designed for inferior African American students." * Pitt should develop an aggressive strategy to recruit high-achieving African American students.

Daniel told the University Times: "We have made a decision at this University to improve the overall quality of our freshman classes. There is no reason why, with a concerted effort, we cannot improve the overall quality of our African American freshmen, while at the same time maintaining special access programs." The vice provost acknowledged that Pitt faces "tremendous competition" from other schools for academically elite blacks from southwestern Pennsylvania, but he said market research shows the University enjoys a very positive image among African American students outside the state, particularly in the Washington, D.C., area.

Hard work, creative thinking and institutional commitment could go a long way toward luring local Honors College-caliber blacks, Daniel said. "Look at our football team, which just went out and recruited one of the star athletes in Pennsylvania" — Valley High School senior Brandon Williams, a top running back with a 3.6 grade point average. Williams last month announced his intention to enroll here next fall, choosing Pitt over Notre Dame, Ohio State and UCLA.

"People could have said, 'Oh, the Pitt football team has just been to its first bowl game in 10 years. How can [Panthers Head Coach] Walt Harris expect to recruit somebody like that?' Well, Walt Harris didn't think in those terms. He just went out and did it. And I'm saying we can go out and compete more successfully for black scholarship students as well as [black] regular admits with solid high school grades and SAT scores. We just have to make an institutional commitment to doing it, and then put our heads together and figure out how." q Daniel says Pitt can afford to implement his recommendations.

"With internal reallocations of current resources and with a systematic strategy, a lot of what I'm calling for could be done," the vice provost said.

It's not all a matter of dollars and cents, he pointed out. "Getting kids from the Pittsburgh Public Schools involved with Pitt faculty, making sure those kids have good experiences here, can lead them to enroll here, as we've found with our summer programs" for high school students.

Daniel, who is interim dean of the College of General Studies, said CGS plans to sign an articulation agreement with the Homewood campus of the Community College of Allegheny County, similar to other agreements fostering the transfer of CCAC students to the University.

"I don't know how many students we'll get through this," he said. "But most Homewood students are African American, so that should translate into at least a few more, well-prepared black students coming to Pitt.

"Little moves like that add up," Daniel said. "In some of our schools and departments, recruiting just a handful of African American students would make a revolutionary change." As for academic scholarships for blacks, additional funds could come through the University's half-billion-dollar capital campaign (still in its early, so-called "quiet phase" of lining up donors and pledges prior to the official campaign announcement) and intensified fundraising by the Pitt African American Alumni Council, Daniel suggested.

When Daniel talks about raising expectations for African Americans, he likes to refer to a "high-risk" black student who was admitted to Pitt's Johnstown campus despite a C-plus high school grade average and a combined SAT score of only 810. The student didn't meet UPJ's normal admissions standards and might have dropped out if several professors (all of them white) hadn't spent many hours outside the classroom tutoring him, and if the campus administration hadn't waived late fees when he couldn't pay his tuition bills on time.

"That student was me," said Daniel, who was one of two blacks admitted to UPJ in 1960 as part of what was then called a bold experiment in minority access.

"The point is, I wasn't just granted access," Daniel emphasized. "A number of people at Pitt took it upon themselves to help me, and they held me to a higher standard than I probably would have held myself to. There's something about holding people to the highest expectations that can do wonders. That's what I'd like to see this University do today for its African American students, on an institution-wide basis."

— Bruce Steele

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