African-American learning community faces resistance

UConn program will house first- and second-year African-American male students

The University of Connecticut’s recent announcement of a planned learning community intended for first- and second-year African-American male students has reignited a decades-old debate regarding ethnically themed living spaces on campus.

Two members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights penned a letter to university President Susan Herbst urging her to reconsider the community’s launch. And the school’s Undergraduate Student Government cited unfair living situations and demeaning connotations in passing a resolution against the proposal, The Scholastic House of Leaders who are African American Researchers and Scholars, or ScHOLA2RS.

The notion of racially segregated dorms works directly against the diversity the spaces aim to celebrate, explains Gail Heriot, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a law professor at the University of San Diego.

“While I understand the need to provide safe spaces for students, I see [ScHOLA2RS] as a mistake, one that will cause more racial isolation for African-American males on campus,” she says. “We need to provide more opportunities for minority students to meet the people that they might not have much in common with, not take them away.”

Despite the controversy, similarly themed learning communities (sometimes called program houses) exist on many U.S. campuses. For example:

  • Brown University’s Harambee House is for those interested in African culture.
  • Cornell University has the Akwe:kon, which celebrates American Indian culture.
  • University of Minnesota has the Casa Sol, concentrated on Chicano and Latino studies.
  • University of California, Davis hosts an Asian Pacific American theme house.

The ScHOLA2RS initiative at UConn will house 40 students in the NextGen Hall building, which a capacity of 720. It joins a robust learning community roster, including La Comunidad Intelectual (based around Caribbean and Latin American cultures) and the Women in Math, Science & Engineering Learning Community.

Such programs serve first- and second-year students with personalized academic guidance and offer a support system on a large public research campus, says David Ouimette, UConn’s director of learning communities.

They also provide specialized academic courses in addition to alternative living opportunities at no extra cost. ScHOLA2RS, which opens in fall 2016 and is supported by a $300,000 grant from the Booth Ferris Foundation, will focus on professional development as well as leadership skills. Each student will be matched with an internship during their first college summer.

The program aims to build upon the success that black males have experienced in high school by providing resources and opportunities that have been shown to improve graduation rates, according to Ouimette. The university’s overall male population has a graduation rate of 81 percent; but only 55 percent of black males graduate within six years.

“There are occurrences on campus exclusive to the African-American male experience,” says Ouimette. “We want to encourage an open dialogue about possible perceptions and help to identify what’s holding these students back from the academic achievement we know they are capable of.”

Most Popular