President on campus diversity: University listening, making strides

Pell-eligible, low-income students have more than doubled in five years

9/21/2011 | By: John Trent  |

During a presentation to a diversity advisory council to the Nevada System of Higher Education's (NSHE) chancellor on Monday, University of Nevada, Reno President Marc Johnson acknowledged both the accomplishments and the challenges of creating a more diverse campus.

"We've been listening a lot," Johnson said, noting that the University's plans and programs for its students and faculty in diversity have included "listening to students, and faculty, and community groups" in an effort to make the institution a more inclusive place.

The overriding goal, as with many other student success initiatives of the past few years, Johnson said, has been forging a campus culture of "when we bring a person on campus, regardless of background, we will treat each student with the expectation that they will graduate."

Johnson's 20-minute presentation, which was followed by a showing of a documentary film produced by University graduate student Chris Barry, "Nevada's First-Generation," followed by a roundtable discussion, was made before NSHE Chancellor Dan Klaich and the NSHE Inclusive Excellence Advisory Council in the ASUN Senate Chambers in the Joe Crowley Student Union.

The Inclusive Excellence Advisory Council, comprised of southern and northern Nevada diversity leaders, has as its charge "two significant goals: graduating students and not leaving students behind," Klaich said at the outset of the morning.

"When we talk about just letting some (students') hopes drift off into the breeze, I just can't do that," Klaich said. "That's where (the Inclusive Excellence Advisory Council) has the opportunity to teach us some very important things."

Johnson said diversity and inclusiveness have become University focal points.

"It is part of our mission statement, and it is something we believe in," Johnson said, noting that the University, as written in the mission statement, "respects and seeks to reflect the diversity of the citizens of Nevada in its academic and support programs, and in the composition of its faculty, administration, staff and student body."

Johnson said the University has a broad definition of diversity, to include gender, ethnicity, culture, socio-economic status, ability/disability, age, sexual orientation, geography, veteran and first-generation status.

"As we go about our programming, all of these elements are very important to us," Johnson said.

Johnson said that the University had made an important appointment to further the campus' diversity efforts. Reg Chhen Stewart, who has directed the University's Center for Student Cultural Diversity since 2003, was recently appointed Director of Diversity Initiatives.

Stewart's role will include sitting on the President's and Academic Leadership councils.

"He will get to know us, advise us and not only help with student retention, but help bring more faculty of diverse backgrounds to our campus," Johnson said.

Johnson cited several statistics and studies to show that the University must produce more diverse graduates.

"We really have to make education available to everyone if we are to create the workforce Nevada needs," he said, noting that a Lumina Foundation study had found that for the nation to reach a goal of 60 percent of all future workers holding a college degree, attainment gaps among and racial and ethnic groups, particularly in Nevada, must be improved.

Currently, about 26 percent of the University's enrollment are students of color, while the number of Pell-eligible, low-income students have more than doubled over the last five years, Johnson said.

In addition, the University has a 79 percent retention rate for students of color, which is above the national average, Johnson said.

He cited the successes of the Center for Student Cultural Diversity as a good example of the extra effort needed to recruit and retain a more diverse student body. Of the students who seek the resources available at the Center for Student Cultural Diversity, about 95 percent of them are retained by the University, the Center's annual report said.

"The Center for Student Cultural Diversity has been a real gem," Johnson said. "It's played a very important role in helping our students understand what it takes to live here, to work here."

Other successful efforts have included College Shadowing Days, an Adopt-A-School program targeting four local elementary schools, financial aid and college application workshops, and youth leadership summits. It is estimated that nearly 4,000 school-age students are hosted annually by such programs, Johnson said.

"By doing this, we're reaching out to students in our public schools and building their aspirations for college," Johnson said.

Johnson also cited the Dean's Future Scholars Program as "an extremely effective program," where at-risk students are identified in the sixth grade, then are provided mentoring, on-campus summer camps and employment. More than 400 students are currently involved.

"These are all pieces of the answer to enhance the aspiration of our young people," Johnson said.

Lonnie Feemster, a longtime northern Nevada education and diversity advocate, said he was impressed with such effort, calling the University a "progressive organ" in feeding "the diversity pool."

"I appreciate the University keeping up with the trends and needs of the college community," Feemster said. "To continue to do what needs to be done, I applaud you."

Efforts by the Disability Resource Center, Veterans Services, the Latino Research Center, as well as the Upward Bound, TRIO Scholars and McNair Scholars programs have given the University many different approaches and specific tools to meet the institution's broad definition of diversity.

Still, Johnson acknowledged, there is work to do.

He noted that although recent studies indicate that 20 percent of earned doctorates in the United States go to people of color, currently "18 percent of our faculty are in the aggregate of different categories of people with color. We need to bring this in line with national norm."

In addition, Johnson said, the University needs to continue to listen to its community regarding diversity.

"We want to be accountable to you and we want to take your suggestions on how we can improve our operation," Johnson said.


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