Marginal gains or steady progress?
Portland State touted a gain of about 124 new black students in 2010–11. In a sea of almost 28,000 students, 874 black students matriculated here last year—3.5 percent of the university’s students—according to data from PSU’s Office of Institutional Research and Planning (OIRP).
Is this cause to celebrate? The OIRP report points out that this 3.5 percent is “higher than Oregon high school completers (who are black), which is 2.7 percent.” Sirius Bonner, a university admissions official in charge of diversity recruitment programs, said a fair comparison is Western Oregon University, with its 2.7 percent enrollment rate of black students.
The final enrollment figures for fall 2011, including the transfer enrollment numbers that boost diversity enrollment percentages, will not be out until the end of this week. But are we putting lipstick on a pig here? These gains seem like a drop of ink in a lake.
Darrell Millner, professor of black studies at PSU, said that matching Portland high school graduation rates for black students is “a pretty low standard. A university like PSU should shoot for a higher standard.”
Bonner points out that even these small gains “[are] great because the potential for loss is great.” Black high school graduation rates have been declining nationally for the past two years, and diversity gains in Portland are a tough game, according to Bonner. Plus, “our competition is the University of Oregon, Harvard and Howard University [a predominantly black college in Washington, D.C.],” because black students often seek out colleges with larger black communities.
Bonner confirmed that many high-achieving black students in Portland high schools leave the state for predominantly black colleges in the south, D.C. and Chicago. Once exposed to larger black communities,they never return home.
But regardless of numbers, how is student life for black students at PSU? Interviews with black PSU students revealed both optimistic and frustrated views.
Linneas Boland-Godbey feels that PSU, and even Portland itself, is a diverse place. He pointed to activities available, such as International Night, where you can learn many types of dances. “A lot has changed since the 1950s. In 2011, people are a lot more accepting.”
Getchi Ermine and Ndey Jube, both African students, had mixed but ultimately positive sentiments. Ermine said she “loves it” at PSU, but that the campus is “not so friendly.”
Jube said, “It’s everyone’s responsibility to succeed. Everyone is treated equally.”
Arie Herbert, a freshman business major, feels engaged and that people in her freshman inquiry class get who she is.
A number of those interviewed discussed the isolation here, a lack of support and the perspective that black students here are used as “an advertisement” for diversity standards that are not really experienced.
Jo Mulumba, who is affiliated with the PSU chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, affirmed isolation, “especially in the science classes.” Wentemi Kante claimed “no one talks to me or approaches me in my classes.” Rachel Gemechu said there was “a lot more diversity” at Cal State at San Bernadino, her previous school.
Black studies professor Darrell Millner describes black life at PSU as “a bit of a lonely feeling. Accomplishments [in ethnic areas] reflect the commitments of the individuals rather than institutional support.”
Diamond Zerework, a political science major and student senator, lamented the cuts to black studies, Chicano studies and women’s studies programs, but praised the “great resources” here such as the Multicultural Center, the Diversity and Multicultural Affairs Office and the prolific student groups.
Indeed, the university seems to have made extensive efforts to support ethnic students through these offices and programs. Melanie Dixon-Caldwell of the Diversity and Multicultural Affairs Office connects students to programs that help with advising, transition from high school, scholarships, multicultural programs and academic assessments. She feels the university has “put pieces in place [recently] for changes.”
Bonner oversees the bridge program that brings 500–700 high school students to campus in the fall. She explained a new scholarship partnership with Self-Enhancement Inc., a local group that helps mostly black Portlanders finish high school.
These dedicated people are trying hard, and great programs are in place. But is it enough? Millner almost jokingly made the comparison to the PSU athletic department: “Are African-American student athletes just 3.5 percent of the athletes on campus?” he asks. “Some departments have figured out how to do ‘affirmative action.’”
It is only fair to acknowledge the low numbers of black enrollment at PSU reflect life in Oregon. The resulting isolation reflects a disconnected nature at PSU that a great deal of students, faculty and staff are working to overcome.
Bonner said no specific numbers are set for black enrollment. “If you set a number, you get problems either way.”
But many organizations set numbers publicly, and reach them. PSU should set its sights higher to develop a large black community on campus, even if it be an island in Oregon. This would do three things: stop the “brain drain” of some of the brightest young black Portlanders to schools out of state, bring new out-of-state black students here and, in the tradition of all newcomers to Portland, help many to decide to stay here permanently.