Polarization hinders the debate

Much middle ground on both sides remains unexplored by the University students and officials.

I would like to thank Adri Mehra for his vote of confidence. In his column “Rethinking saving general college,” Mehra said he considered me a “hell of a guy” and insinuated that I would pipe up if I had concerns about issues of access and diversity relative to the changes proposed by the Academic Task Force report. I, and others who believe deeply in the social-justice mission embedded in the educational enterprise, do have concerns.

Mehra’s column misses the mark when characterizing the motivation behind the movement to save General College as being trendy and/or misguided. The General College embodies access, educational equity and the social-justice mission of higher education at the University. It embodies opportunity for low-socioeconomic status students, first-generation students including immigrant students, and students of color who are disproportionately represented among the poor and those who are least likely to go to college.

I encourage Mehra and others trying to make sense of the changes introduced in the Academic Task Force Report and Recommendations: Academic Positioning report to think critically and to ask the difficult questions. The report indicates that Minnesota’s high schools are becoming more diverse while graduating classes are shrinking overall so that by 2018, approximately one in three high school students will be a person of color. Those students of color, who are more likely than European Americans to live in poverty, are also more likely to attend underfunded schools and least likely to attend college. In 2018, if they do decide to pursue higher education, they might be confronted with high tuition, high admissions standards and competition from out-of-state students if the Academic Positioning report recommendations are fully implemented as they currently stand. Ask yourselves, how exactly would a low-socioeconomic status student attending an underfunded P-12 school district get admitted to an institution engineered for people who have access to the highest quality education and have the support of a family with high levels of social capital and financial means?

Those of us who care deeply about the University and the inherent social-justice mission imbedded in the educational enterprise are concerned about the potential consequences of transforming General College. This is of special concern because: 1) the community and technical colleges are doing a very poor job of retaining students of color beyond the first year and a worse job preparing them for transfer to four-year institutions; 2) the four-year state universities, all but one being outside the metropolitan area, have a poor record of recruiting and retaining students of color (i.e., they have student bodies with less than 10 percent students of color and retention and graduation rates far worse than the General College); and 3) to become one of the top three research universities in the world, the University will have to become more like private universities that are characterized by high tuition, high admissions standards as defined by high ACT/SAT scores, class rank, the rigor of the courses taken in high school, as well as the overall rigor of the high school from which the student graduated. Ask yourselves, how, in this anti-affirmative action climate, will the University admit students who attend underfunded schools, have families living in poverty, and present themselves with a 20 ACT score, a 55th percentile class rank and no advanced placement courses on their transcript when General College becomes a department and can no longer decide who is admitted?

Finally, Mehra wants to portray the General College issue as one simply of race when it is an issue of race and socioeconomic class, factors that are intricately intertwined in significant ways with academic achievement. Unfortunately, people of color are still overrepresented in the group of Americans who are living in poverty, are overrepresented in the group of Americans who attend underfunded schools and are underrepresented among high school students enrolling in higher education. In Minnesota, only 43 percent of African American, American Indian and Chicana(o)/Latino(a) students graduate from high school and less than half of that meager number go on to higher education. Moreover, there are significant numbers of European American students, particularly from rural areas in Minnesota, who also face the challenges of attending underfunded schools and, subsequently, graduate from high school underprepared.

Unfortunately, there has been a polarization of positions. Consequently, we are losing sight of the objective – to arrive at the most effective model for providing educational opportunity and success for students who, according to prevailing admission standards, are considered underprepared. There is much middle ground to be explored by both sides. David Taylor, dean of the General College, has called for dialogue between the college and administration to arrive at a reasoned solution. I strongly encourage this dialogue; otherwise, the losers might be those students who most need the opportunity and, ultimately, the University that needs the richness of the socioeconomic, racial and ethnic diversity inherent in this student cohort.

Avelino Mills-Novoa is theassociate vice president for multicultural and academic affairs. Please send comments to [email protected]