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October 10, 1996

Pitt looks for ways to improve quality and diversity of undergrads

Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Jack L. Daniel is a man with a mission: By mid-way through the spring semester, he plans to inventory all of Pitt's minority student programs; consult with the people who administer those programs; consider the internal and external constraints on recruiting and retaining minority students (especially African-Americans); compare notes with other universities, and recommend strategies for enrolling and graduating a more diverse Pitt student body.

Provost James V. Maher assigned Daniel the project on Sept. 26. Daniel said he'll begin this week by writing to the heads of Pitt academic responsibility centers, asking them to provide details on programs in their units to assist minority students.

"This will fit in with the restructuring and strategic planning that's going on throughout the University. It's going to be a systematic response to the Board of Trustees' stated goal of improving the quality and diversity of our undergraduates and graduate students," Daniel said.

He won't be working alone. Besides consulting with dozens of staff and faculty members, Daniel will work closely with Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Beverly Harris-Schenz on the project.

Pitt's recent progress in minority student affairs is a good news/bad news scenario.

African-American and total minority undergraduate representation on the Pittsburgh campus have increased steadily during the 1990s and stood at 9.2 percent and 13.8 percent of the total student body, respectively, in fall 1995. (Fall 1996 final statistics aren't available yet.) Black freshman enrollment at the Pittsburgh campus also has increased steadily and was at an all-time high of 13.7 percent, or 346 students, in fall 1995.

But minority enrollments at Pitt's four regional campus remain minuscule. And the percentage of black Pitt undergrads who graduate within six years has ranged from 40 to 50 percent in recent years, compared with average rates of about 70 percent for white undergrads.

African-Americans accounted for just 5.2 percent of Pitt graduate students in fall 1995, with total minority graduate enrollment at 9.8 percent.

"We've reached the point at Pitt where we've attained a critical mass of minority students, including some very bright and talented African-American students," Daniel said. "The challenge now is to see to it that those students receive the services and financial aid and so forth that they need to graduate." In a separate but related project to his Provost office assignment, Daniel plans to convene a meeting later this month of Equipoise, an organization of African-American faculty, staff and administrators at Pitt.

Daniel said that the group, which he chairs, will discuss projects to pursue during the remainder of the academic year.

"I can't speak for the group at this point, but I can tell you that my first priority will be to focus on the [minority] students, especially the retention question. My second concern is with staff. The staff play critical roles in providing student services, and we simply do not have enough African-American staff at this University, at least not in professional and administrative positions." Blacks made up 12.8 percent of the Pittsburgh campus full-time staff in fall 1995, and were well-represented in a few occupational categories, including service/maintenance (27 percent of such Pittsburgh campus staff were black) and secretarial/clerical (16 percent). But blacks represented just 8 percent of professional staff, 7 percent of administrative/managerial staff and 6 percent of skilled crafts personnel at the Pittsburgh campus.

To solicit input from minority faculty, staff and students prior to the Equipoise meeting, Daniel organized an Oct. 1 open forum in the William Pitt Union Ballroom. About 25 people spoke during the two-hour forum, and another 75 attended.

Several black staff members complained about limited opportunities for professional advancement at Pitt and said African Americans seem to be the first to be laid off when departments make program cuts. Others said that black personnel need to take better advantage of existing opportunities here. For example, Carol Mohamed of University's Office of Human Resources noted that comparatively few African-American staff use their tuition remission benefits.

A number of speakers agreed that black personnel need to communicate better — alerting one another about job openings, for example — and that more African-American faculty, staff and graduate student volunteers are needed as mentors for black undergrads and high school students.

Sometimes, black faculty and staff need to practice "tough love" with African-American students, Vice Provost Harris-Schenz said. "We need to tell them that getting by is not enough, that a C average is not good enough. It isn't enough for majority students, and it definitely isn't good enough for minority students. That's a deep-seated attitude that we need to deal with." Daniel said he habitually stops to talk with black students on campus. During these conversations, he usually asks if they're earning all A's. "If they answer 'No,' I ask them, 'Why not?'" Daniel said. "Then I ask them, 'Do you need any help?'" Daniel said students often seem startled that an administrator is asking about their needs. Often, too, Daniel ends up counseling the students or referring them elsewhere on campus for help.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 29 Issue 4

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