Diversity a challenge for college community

by Erin Haller

Simpson College – the school that started George Washington Carver on his path to higher education – faces plenty of challenges in keeping the Carver legacy alive in the early 21st Century.

At the end of Black History Month – a month filled with numerous campus activities that have given students the opportunity to remember the lives of blacks, their struggles and their contributions – Simpson students, faculty and administrators are trying their best to improve diversity on campus. But, they concede, the battle is long and costly.

“You look at your future, looking at when you were at your best. Simpson’s acceptance of [George Washington] Carver was one of those times when we were at our best,” said Bruce Haddox, dean of academic affairs. “We must keep that memory before us so we can be at our best again.”

Accepting a black man such as Carver to college in 1890 was practically unheard of. Building on that accomplishment, Simpson continued with its hopes of attracting more black students, a goal that has seen its ups and downs over the last century.

Black students once comprised a much larger percentage of the Simpson student body than they do now.

In the fall of 1973, about 6 percent of the college’s total enrollment was black students., a trend that continued for several years. By 1982, just over 20 black students were enrolled.

Since 1993, 30 black students have graduated from Simpson, according to college records. Overcoming that decline has been a challenge for the college for many years.

The North Central Association’s accreditation report of Simpson from 1996 acknowledges the efforts made, but also the lack of results in constructing a diverse college community.

“Simpson College has a long-held conviction that a diverse learning environment is best for preparing students for their future. The college has studied the question and celebrated with Carver activities and the science building,” the report stated. “Yet the environment remains reflective of central Iowa. Action supported by a resource commitment is needed.”

The environment of central Iowa is proof of the challenges ahead for Simpson and its peer colleges.

Part of the struggle for Simpson, a struggle shared by Iowa’s many other colleges and universities, is that of limited resources. According to the state of Iowa’s 2000 Census, of the 187,306 college students in the state of Iowa, 3.1 percent were black. Only 2 percent of the state’s total population is black.

Numbers such as those make recruiting efforts difficult.

“With minority students it is a smaller pool. We live in a state that is homogeneous,” Haddox said. “It is an issue in Iowa. It is an issue with the regents [instittutions], and it is a money issue.”

While that may appear to be a low point, college administrators, staff, faculty and students are setting before themselves numerous goals and means of achieving them.

A President’s Commission on Multicultural Affairs was created to address the issues of increasing the number of minorities on campus, students, faculty and staff, and addressing the issues and concerns of those individuals. Haddox said the goal of the committee was to consider what the college can do to strengthen the minority experience.

Three subcommittees have focused on strengthening Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations, the Ounce of Doing project and Black History Month.

“One of the big goals is to have an assistant dean devoted to minority issues,” said Nicolas Proctor, an assistant professor of history who serves on the minority affairs committee.

While the committee has made sincere efforts in building minority enrollment and awareness at Simpson, college officials also hope to eventually recruit a dean for multicultural affairs who, unlike members of the committee, can work full-time to addressing multicultural issues on campus.

“We have to add an assistant dean for minority affairs to focus on all the facets of minority student life,” said Haddox. “It is in the strategic plan and it is a high priority.”

Proctor said faculty service on adds to their already over-stretched schedules, the biggest criticism in the 1996 North Central Association Accreditation Report.

“We need one person to focus on [minority issues] and spill over into academics, recruitment and student development – a go-to person,” said Proctor.

He said programs such as the “Ounce of Doing” project could have produced greater results if one person were assigned to making those programs a full-time job.

Haddox said a dean for multicultural affairs would be responsible for programming for minority students and recruiting minority students.

“Simpson has a lot to offer, but it’s kind of a vacuum right now,” Haddox said.

Student positions have helped bolster diversity efforts. Senior Lisa Anderson served as the diversity director for Student Senate and was a liaison between the student body and members the International Student Organization, Concerned Multicultural Students and LGBTQA.

“We wanted to help the minorities have better voice and to have a go-to person within the student body,” Anderson said. The students who took advantage of her availability were those who “have a genuine concern and want to see an improvement in minority issues.”

Anderson said a concern that has continually surfaced is how to retain and increase the enrollment of minority students. This concern continues to be addressed by the Office of Admissions.

“Simpson will continue to target under represented populations with our recruitment strategies,” said Deb Tierney, vice president for enrollment and financial assistance. “The Office of Admissions understands the important role we play in addressing this all-important institutional priority. Each year the admissions staff evaluates current recruitment strategies and implements new ones in an effort to attract a more diverse applicant pool.”

The admissions office has added several college fairs and high school visits to schools with a high percentage of multicultural students and to larger Midwestern metropolitan areas, including Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Mo. and Omaha, Neb. Minority events and fairs are also key to the college’s strategy.

Haddox said part of the struggle has come with attempts to allocate sufficient funding for minority scholarships. The George Washington Carver Opportunity Grant was established in 1968 and continues to serve minority students.

The college is continuing efforts to attract minority faculty and staff and has seen some success this year. Eun Hee Shin, assistant professor of religion; Jin Park, instructor of music; and James Kim, instructor of music, have joined the faculty this year. Ken Smith was hired as the area coordinator for Residence Life. All are minorities.

“It’s a high priority, but it is difficult,” Haddox said, who added the college hopes to have a member of a minority fill a future opening in criminal justice studies at Simpson.

Both Proctor and Haddox said they recognize one of the biggest hurdles in overcoming the challenge that lies ahead.

“Largely, the problem is money,” Proctor said. “To have an assistant dean [of minority affairs] and to recruit qualified, domestic minorities you need money,”

Proctor said money creates further problems when Simpson is forced to compete with large schools such as the University of Iowa or Iowa State University.

“Simpson can’t compete in that market because we can’t buy minority students,” he said.

Proctor emphasized the need to reach students at a young age and to develop a “pipeline” for minority students into Simpson. The issue that needs to be addressed is making the pool of qualified applicants bigger and encouraging more black students to attend college.

“To seriously address the problem, you have to give kids the tools they need to succeed,’ said Proctor.

Tierney said the admissions staff has worked with several students from Simpson’s Upward Bound Program, assisting them with the admission process as well as helping them complete financial assistance forms.

Creating student awareness is another aspect that the multicultural affairs committee has set before itself for several years. The creation of Cornerstone 6 was the result of these efforts and one that continues to be analyzed and strengthened.

“It is an opportunity for the vast majority of students to look at something very familiar in a very different way,” Proctor said. “It pushes students, white students especially, out of their comfort zone because it gives them a chance to look at issues that are avoided.”