College diversity is an opportunity for growth
On a cold evening in December 2014, over 400 students, faculty and staff gathered quietly on the central plaza of Salisbury University’s Maryland campus. Chalked on the pavers were the silhouettes of 24 bodies.
As victim names were read, students proceeded to lie down within the outlines and observe several minutes of silence, remembering black men shot by white police officers. Somber remarks were followed by a quiet march of remembrance.
A few months later, after Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore (about two-and-a-half hours away), another peaceful “Die In” involving students was held in downtown Salisbury. The region has had a history of economic struggle and racism in a generally prosperous, progressive state. Days later, students, faculty and staff drove to Baltimore to volunteer in community cleanup.
During these incidences, I reminded our campus that, as an academic community, we celebrate differences and welcome debate, with standards for civility and tolerance. These positive actions show the potential for students on diverse campuses to learn and to grow from national and international issues.
It wasn’t always so. On becoming Salisbury’s president in 2000, I was struck by the relative lack of diversity among our students, faculty and staff.
Since then, the percentage of students from minority families has more than doubled—today representing a quarter of our student body. Diversity has many faces.
Because my life and career were changed by living in Mexico, I realized the importance of global perspectives. Establishing a Center for International Education and an English Language Institute—even personally funding a scholarship for study in Latin America—has bolstered the numbers of students traveling abroad and the international students coming to Salisbury.
But creating a more diverse campus also meant thinking outside the box: A new SAT-optional program for high-achieving high school students who don’t normally test well or who lack resources for prep courses was appealing to many minority families. Today, nearly half of our minority freshmen opt out of the SAT.
Admissions has implemented other innovative programs. Since many of our students are from the Baltimore-Washington corridor, our counselors go to high schools there to review students’ applications and transcripts. An admissions decision is often made on the spot.
Students who don’t meet entrance requirements are counseled about their options. Our actions show students we care.
As my colleague Humberto Aristizabal—who leads the recently formed Office of Institutional Equity—says, “It’s not just about counting heads, but making those heads count.” Students need to know the institution’s commitment to them is more than skin-deep.
Our Office of Multicultural Student Services has organized initiatives such as “Powerful Connections.” We provide a support zone in which diverse students can succeed academically and socially through peer mentoring, advising and other assistance.
The results have been impressive: The freshman-to-sophomore minority retention rate has been 83 percent, higher than the class as a whole. The six-year graduation rate of African-American students is seven points higher than the average of our peer institutions nationwide.
It’s gratifying to see children, relatives and neighbors of minority alumni come to Salisbury because of an earlier generation’s success.
We are far from perfect. Our available financial aid is woefully low, as is the number of racially diverse faculty. This needs to change. And we must continue to have the important, and sometimes difficult, conversations among our students, faculty and staff about race in the academy and beyond.
After the tragedies in Baltimore and other cities, I am reminded of a seven-foot bronze statue on campus created a few years ago by art faculty and students: It depicts famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman, whose Underground Railroad ran just a few miles away from our campus.
The statue, a labor of love, is believed to be the first three-dimensional representation of her on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I am cheered by her passion to do the right thing—and we must follow her example.
Janet Dudley-Eshbach is president of Salisbury University in Maryland.