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A Legacy to Overcome
The University of Georgia hopes to become a more desirable destination for black students

By Don Campbell
Athens, Georgia

Aubrey Johnson knew she wanted to attend the University of Georgia since she was five. "I didn't really know what it was," the black UGA junior recalls, "but I was walking around saying: 'I'm going to UGA.'" Her parents encouraged the notion by buying her UGA T-shirts and stuffed bulldogs, the school mascot.

In her sophomore year at mostly white North Gwinnett High School in suburban Atlanta, Johnson began to draw the interest of colleges and universities around the country. "Michigan was calling me all the time, and sending me letters," she said. "But I didn't want to go to Michigan; I wanted to go to UGA."

So she applied to UGA and received an acceptance letter that arrived at her home in the little town of Sugar Hill, Georgia, on January 22, 2002. She remembers that date as one of the happiest of her life.

Tameisha Moore, also a black UGA junior, grew up in another small town-Shellman, in rural southwest Georgia. She attended the mostly black Randolph Clay High School and applied to UGA the same year as Johnson. Although friends and even her high school counselor advised her to set her sights lower, her ambition was rewarded when she, too, was accepted by UGA.

(Photos by Chris Stanford, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 

Johnson and Moore share more than skin color and an enthusiasm for the University of Georgia. Despite being the hottest commodity in higher education-high-achieving African Americans-neither was recruited by UGA. That they got in on their own is a good news story that, ironically, illustrates the problems that this university continues to face as it lags behind other flagship public universities in the South in recruiting and enrolling black students.

More than three years after a federal appeals court struck down the school's race-conscious admissions policy, UGA's black enrollment is stuck at 5.3 percent, roughly half the percentage of black enrollment at southern universities with which it likes to compare itself academically, notably the flagship universities of North Carolina and Virginia.

More troubling, UGA's enrollment of black freshmen this year dropped 26 percent from the fall of 2003, although black enrollment also declined at several flagship universities outside the South, including Michigan, Ohio State, UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois.

The focus by the media on freshman class enrollment numbers grates on UGA officials, who point out that there are more than 1,800 blacks among the 25,000 undergraduates and 8,000 graduate students on campus, that UGA is an increasingly diverse school that excels in retaining black students once they're enrolled-95 percent of black freshmen return for their sophomore year-and that UGA is one of the leading schools in the country in awarding doctoral degrees to blacks.

Still, UGA's situation is noteworthy because the issue of diversity has whipsawed the institution ever since two African Americans, Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, made history in 1961 by integrating the school amid protests and a riot. While UGA spent much of the '60s defending segregation, it spent much of the past decade defending an affirmative action program that ultimately was struck down. Now the university is considering a new race-conscious admissions policy, and critics of affirmative action are threatening a new round of lawsuits.

It's a story that illustrates the challenges of recruiting and maintaining the kind of "critical mass" of black students that provides them a comfort level. In UGA's case, a legally charged atmosphere has been made more difficult by a history and legacy that recalls the days when blacks were not welcome.

The numbers may not tell the whole story, but they are hard to ignore. While black enrollment averages 23 percent at Georgia's 34 state colleges and universities, it still lags below six percent at UGA. This, despite a commitment in 2002 to raise that level to eight percent in the next three years.

In fact, since 2000, UGA has enrolled more Asian students than African Americans in a state where the black population is 14 times that of Asians. This year's 26 percent decline in black freshman enrollment was not the worst showing, either. In 2001, the year the courts struck down UGA's admissions policy, enrollment of black freshmen declined 38 percent. And the "yield rate"-the number of students who enroll after being accepted-continues to run eight to ten percentage points lower for blacks than for whites.

Defenders and critics of the university alike are quick to cite the history that still shapes UGA's image among parents of college-bound students in Georgia, especially parents of African Americans.

"Georgia has a legacy to overcome," said Frank Matthews, publisher of the magazine Black Issues in Higher Education. "It just never has been perceived as a warm, inviting place for black people. They have to admit that, and they have to work doubly hard if they want to overcome it. And if they don't want to overcome it, they'll just get left behind because, in the final analysis, all great universities have very strong diversity profiles."

"We're still blessed with some history we've got to overcome," conceded UGA Director of Admissions Nancy McDuff. "And certainly there is a sense of that for the parents of many current college students, who did not have a positive experience at the University of Georgia."

Echoed Keith Parker, UGA's associate provost for institutional diversity: "First of all, we must let individuals know the history and that we have graduated from 1960. And as a result, we think we're in a position to always acknowledge the past, but we're not living in the past. We're looking forward."

Not all students-let alone their parents-would agree that UGA is not living in the past. Chantal Stepney, a black senior from Atlanta, recently wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that when she is asked back home if UGA is as bad as it was during the days of Hunter and Holmes, she tells them no, but adds:

"I don't have police officers escorting me across campus, or rocks being thrown at me while people stand and cheer. But I do let them know that UGA is still a place where the old Confederate flag flies high, where people are still afraid to talk about race-related issues and few professors and students look like they do. I tell them that sometimes, it is rather difficult being a minority here."

It's also difficult for a university to look forward when it is bogged down in a legal morass. UGA faced 15 lawsuits in six years challenging the race-conscious admissions policy that was rejected in 2001. Much like a policy at the University of Michigan that the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in 2003, UGA applied a "Total Student Index" to about ten percent of its undergraduate applicants that gave a small numerical bonus to minority students.

But the high court's parallel ruling in the Michigan case that diversity could be considered as part of an overall admissions plan has given UGA hope that a new policy that pays tribute to the benefits of diversity will pass legal muster.

Whatever the legal hoops, the personal experiences of Aubrey Johnson and Tameisha Moore should be both worrisome and encouraging to UGA officials. That both were prime candidates for UGA but never crossed its radar screen suggests a lack of sophistication and aggressiveness in recruiting that elite private colleges and many top public universities mastered years ago. That both students ignored the legacy of UGA, applied on their own, and have embraced both the campus and this college town suggests that UGA has the potential to become a choice destination for blacks.

Johnson, who at the time wanted to become a veterinarian (she has since decided to pursue a double major in psychology and sociology), thought it was strange that so many other schools were interested in her but UGA apparently was not. "It kind of hurt me. Because I felt like, I'm a minority and I want to go into a field-veterinary medicine-where there's not a lot of women and there's not a lot of blacks, and UGA should be looking at me," she said. "But they never recruited me. They never came after me."

She applied anyway, having already decided that if she were not accepted she would go to the University of Tennessee, or Auburn or Clark Atlanta University (a historically black college). "Then I'd transfer over, because I wanted my degree to say University of Georgia."

Her visit to UGA for orientation in July 2002 was "the first time I'd ever set foot on this campus," she said. "But I knew this was where I wanted to go... When I got to orientation, I was like, 'Oh my God, this is like North Gwinnett; there's no black people here.' But it didn't really upset me, because I know so many intelligent black people, and there should be more here. And ever since then, I've been trying to get more black people to apply. But I've had to do it on my own. I try to make them feel welcome, because when I got here, I felt like there was no one here to guide me, and tell me what to do. Things could be better, but I love it."

 
"We're still blessed with some history we've got to overcome," says Nancy McDuff, admissions director at the University of Georgia.
(Photo by Chris Stanford, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Meanwhile, some 200 miles to the southwest, Tameisha Moore was wondering if she would even qualify for UGA. Despite having a 3.97 grade point average and a resume full of school activities, her SAT score was only 1040. She applied to Columbus State and several historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) "for security," but her heart was set on UGA. She spent spring break on the Athens campus with a friend during her senior year in high school and liked it immediately.

"I was a small-town girl and I wanted to step outside the box," she said. "I was overwhelmed by it."

But she wasn't getting much encouragement back home. Moore, a marketing education major, says her black high school counselor was trying to steer her toward a black college. "He was like, 'Are you sure you want to go up there with all those white people?' People were saying, 'That school's so hard. Are you sure you're going to be able to stay up there and not fail?' A lot of people are still looking for me to fail."

Moore says she has had no personal experiences that have made her feel unwelcome, and she believes there are "a lot of smart kids" back home who are not being told that UGA is a realistic goal. "They don't tell them: 'Apply because it's a great school.' I'm not against HBCUs. They say you should go there for the experience. But if you've grown up around black people all the time-and my high school was mostly black-there's no [new] experience in an HBCU, because that's what you're used to.

"I wanted diversity," Moore added, "because when I go out into the world and get a job, it's not going to be with just black people, it's going to be white people, it's going to be Asian people, it's going to be Indian people. It's going to be a lot of different people. And up here, I've seen the face of everything. I've seen more than I've seen at home. And that's what I try to tell them."

If there's a refreshing simplicity about the benefits of diversity in the eyes of Johnson and Moore, there's nothing simple about achieving it in the eyes of UGA officials. The litany of obstacles they cite is long:

  • It's a supply-and-demand problem, with too much competition for Georgia students from out-of-state universities offering financial incentives that UGA can't match, and historically black schools appealing to racial pride.
  • Georgia's K-12 education system, which ranks near the bottom in national assessments, is not preparing students for the rigors demanded by UGA as it grows in academic stature. This reflects a finding by the College Board that only 1.25 percent of the 150,000 students who scored higher than 1300 on the SAT last year were African American.
  • The state's acclaimed HOPE scholarship program, which pays the annual tuition and fees bill for qualifying Georgia residents, has kept more bright students in the state, making competition for UGA admission even more intense. High school graduates who earn a B average in a curriculum that contains certain core courses are eligible for the scholarships. Despite HOPE, however, the extra costs of attending UGA put it out of reach for some African Americans. The total cost of attending the university is estimated to be $11,530 a year for in-state students who live on campus, and $20,900 for out-of-state students who live on campus. In Georgia, 38 percent of blacks live below the poverty level, compared with eight percent of whites.
  • Although UGA is developing outreach programs, it lags far behind schools like UNC-Chapel Hill, which has an array of programs that focus on mentoring, preparing for the SAT and identifying prospective minority applicants early in high school.
  • Too often, academic success in high school is disparaged, particularly among black males, and only half as many black males as females in Georgia go on to college.
  • State budget cuts mean that UGA's enrollment cap on freshmen is unlikely to be raised much in the foreseeable future, despite projections that the number of college applicants in the state will increase by nearly half in the next dozen years or so.
For McDuff, the UGA admissions director, trying to create diversity can be a zero-sum game. "If a guardian angel dropped a billion dollar endowment on me today," she said, "and the state said to use this for diversity scholarships, and I just had that one added component of being able to recognize competitive students who are diverse, and give them scholarships, we would improve, and somebody would lose."

Added McDuff: "Everybody's as aggressive as they can be. The problem is, we're all competing for the same students. It's not a win-win situation. Somebody wins, somebody loses."

With flagship universities around the country in ever-higher demand, McDuff argues, the only way to control demand is to become more selective in admissions. "We're becoming less diverse because we're reflecting the high achievers in the country. And that is a problem nationally that I don't think is going to go away. It's a combination of the economy and the cost of education and where the resources are in K-12-school systems that are not equitable.

"A student from a two-professional family is probably going to have more focus on education, is going to be better-read, is going to test better than someone from a first-generation family going to college. So we've got problems, and it starts in K-12, and a lack of equity, and it is highly reflected in our flagship institutions."

A generation ago, McDuff says, UGA wasn't nearly as selective. If you could do C-level work, you could get in, and the university could accommodate the demand. "Now," she said, "given the demand to attend UGA, driven by growth in population [the state has grown by more than 50 percent in 20 years] and an economic incentive to remain in the state through the HOPE scholarship, you've got to use some characteristics to determine who gets in. When you use demonstrated academic performance, which the university has relied upon heavily-curriculum in high school, grades and test scores-we're not on an equal playing field. And almost every state institution I know has the same problem."

 
Keith Parker, associate provost for institutional diversity, hopes to increase the University of Georgia's 5.3 percent black enrollment.
(Photo by Chris Stanford, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Critics say that the supply-and-demand argument is a cop-out, that aggressive recruitment and programs that prepare students for college will expand the applicant pool among African Americans.

"It's a very easy and dangerous game that's often played, that you can't have access and excellence-they can't co-exist," says Frank Matthews, the publisher of Black Issues in Higher Education. "I think the University of Georgia fell into that trap." The University of Virginia is harder to get into than UGA, he notes, "yet they always have a critical mass of black students...the same at Chapel Hill. Even the University of Florida has upped the ante."

Those schools stand apart from UGA, in Matthews' view, "because no one has made a conscientious and determined effort to enroll (black) students at the University of Georgia, and the danger is that the longer they play that game, they exacerbate the problem. And at some point they're going to be so far behind it's almost insurmountable, without retreating to some program that will probably be ruled unconstitutional."

At the University of North Carolina, Archie Ervin, director of minority affairs, points to a consent decree signed by the university in 1981 as a pivotal step on the road to full integration there. The school set an informal and unofficial "soft target" of a ten to 10.5 percent African American enrollment, and worked throughout the 1980s to achieve that. Since the early '90s, black freshman enrollments have reached as high as 12 percent.

"Leadership that comes from the campus is important," said Ervin. "If we hadn't had the last two or three chancellors that we've had, [who] talked the talk and walked the walk and kept the resources and vision there, it wouldn't work here either. Our credentials have gone up and our diversity has gone up, and that hasn't happened anywhere else that we're aware of."

UGA has taken a number of cues from schools like the University of North Carolina. It has created a department of institutional diversity, which focuses not just on enrollment of minority students, but also on attracting minority faculty and staff. It has created scores of clubs and organizations for minorities. Its Black Affairs Council, which includes all African American students on campus, is offering formal training in the art of recruiting, so that when students return home they will encourage friends and acquaintances to consider UGA.

UGA has established three satellite admissions offices to target high schools in the Atlanta area and in rural south Georgia, and is looking at ways to use black alumni to market the university in forums such as class reunions.

In the wake of the Michigan rulings, and after having its own admissions plan ruled invalid, a UGA faculty committee is considering a policy stating that diversity benefits the university, opening the door for a return to considering race in admissions. The policy defines diversity broadly to include racial and ethnic diversity, geography, language diversity, personal background and life experiences. However, the committee decided recently not to include race as a factor in 2005 admissions, deferring it at least until 2006 because of "legal uncertainties." The committee also recommended that a special office of admissions aimed at minorities be established, and that the university look for ways to offer need-based financial aid.

But Stephen Farmer, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina, says that affirming a commitment to diversity is only the first step.

"I don't think that having the ability to recognize race as one factor in our admissions process allows us to stop working hard to recruit these (minority) students," said Farmer. "That's only the start of the recruitment process. All the work happens after that. Having affirmative action doesn't mean we don't have to get out and hustle to get students to enroll, because we most certainly do.

"Having that one piece of additional information doesn't make things easier for us in the end," said Farmer, whose staff reads every application, some two or three times. "We have to actually convince these people that Chapel Hill might be a good place for them. We try to start early outreach sometime in their freshman or sophomore year in high school. And that's a big share of the work."

Dr. Louis Castenell, dean of the college of education at the University of Georgia and a catalyst in efforts to diversify the campus, says the university has to be creative in its marketing to blacks, much as a corporation would be, if it wants to accelerate a process that has been in the works less than a generation.

"If you've been in the game for fewer than 15 years, you have to take extraordinary steps to engage people, in a way, to catch up," Castenell said. "And I think the only way you'll ever catch up is to be like a business. You've got to be innovative, and you've got to give added-value to your product in a way that will attract customers. Just saying, 'We've changed and we're the Bulldog Nation'-that's not going to work."

Steve Pearson, a former college admissions officer who has served as student counselor for 18 years at majority-black Decatur High School in suburban Atlanta, agrees that talk doesn't get the job done.

Pearson says he has had very little contact with UGA, despite having served on an advisory committee of high school counselors there a few years back. He would like to see UGA take some simple steps, like sending out cards with the name of an admissions officer who could be easily reached by phone, or holding workshops with high school counselors and teachers to advise them on ways to encourage prospective UGA applicants.

"What people say is not as important as what they actually do," said Pearson. "And so if you want to recruit students of color, then get out and recruit them. There are ways to do it. I just have not seen a whole heck of a lot of that, personally."

In the final analysis, UGA's progress on diversity probably will depend on students like Aubrey Johnson and Tameisha Moore, who cut the university a lot more slack than do outside critics.

When she first arrived at UGA, Moore felt like she stood out. "But being the kind of person I am," she said, "I take into account Georgia's history and the South's history and America's history. Everybody wants UGA to make these rapid increases in the black population, but it's not going to happen. People don't understand that it's going to take time.

"But I just love UGA," said Moore. "That's what I try to tell the kids when I go back home. It just gets in your blood. Come here, and there's nothing like the experience."


Don Campbell is a freelance writer and a lecturer in journalism at Emory University.

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National CrossTalk Winter 2005

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