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For Colleges, The Test Now Is Equality

<i> John Brooks Slaughter is president of Occidental College</i>

Within a context of calls for educational reform and accountability, increasing tuition costs and shifting demographics, colleges and universities face some grave challenges. One of the more difficult balancing acts they must perform involves their understandable desire to continue attracting students of demonstrated intellectual ability, while ensuring that any inability to meet tuition costs does not exclude such students.

Heated debates over financial-aid policy may be heard throughout the public and private sectors of higher education. But nowhere is the need for farsightedness in financial-aid policies more acutely felt than in the efforts of colleges and universities to attract, retain and graduate students from low-income families.

The majority of these young people would be first-generation college students who are often victimized by parental unemployment, poor living conditions, inadequate early schooling and low societal expectations. For most people in such circumstances, the idea of a large loan to finance a college education is unthinkable. Many are black or Latino and have known one or more of the added burdens, real and perceived, of minority color, culture and language.

For this group, the barriers at times seem insurmountable. Financial exigencies aside, the difficulties of race and ethnicity are taking their toll by contributing significantly to the decline in the college-going rates of black and Latino students nationwide. This is of particular importance in California, where the relatively low entry of these students into higher education has major societal implications. Given the growth in the population of black and Latino youth compared to their white counterparts, the future of California depends to a large extent on how well and how urgently we address this deficiency.

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True, too many minority students are dropping out before completing high school. But among those who possess a high-school diploma--a figure that is larger than ever in America--more are choosing not to pursue higher education. A considerable part of the blame for that sad fact can be laid at the doorsteps of our higher educational institutions.

During the last year, campuses have been rocked by incidents of racial conflict in several states, including Michigan, Massachusetts, New York, South Carolina and California. Many have involved acts of violence and brutality. Less-publicized instances of bigotry, insensitivity, racism, sexism and anti-Semitism have afflicted nearly every college and university. Students complain that many university administrators are indifferent to these problems and fail to act quickly to solve them.

Dr. Edward J. Bloustein, president of Rutgers University, contends that one of the factors causing these incidents is our nation’s weakened resolve to fight bigotry. Our leaders, he points out, have simply declared victory and moved on to other issues. Bloustein argues that “declaring the war won when it has not been has had grave and unfortunate consequences. Among other things, it has emboldened the bigots among us, and the campuses, as well as the communities throughout the nation, have paid a painful price as a result.”

While other issues, such as deficit reduction, national defense and foreign policy are undeniably vital to America’s future, much more needs to be accomplished in addressing bigotry, intolerance and injustice. Our campuses are an accurate barometer of the magnitude of the challenge.

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Some encouraging signs are emerging. One can sense a change in mood and a growing sense of enthusiasm among college and university administrators, trustees, faculties and students to rectify matters and to remove from our campuses those attitudes, policies and practices that depreciate the values of higher education. We have begun to recognize the need to diversify our student bodies, our faculties and our curricula. We seek to nurture campuses where equity is essential to true academic excellence, where the word quality is seen embodied in the word equality, and where it is understood that those two concepts are not mutually exclusive.

But the challenge still lies before us; not enough is being done. Some institutions and their leaders remain insensitive to those concerns. Although we have failed in the past, sufficient time remains for us to get a passing grade, if not high honors. And I am convinced that we will--as soon as we comprehend that a strong America requires more and better education for all its citizens. It also requires that we understand that the education of all students is incomplete if it is so narrowly defined that it excludes an understanding and appreciation of the rich diversity that is the greatest strength of our society.

As the presidential campaign concludes, I would hope that each of the candidates would recognize and speak to the importance of this issue. This is an exciting time for the country that they seek to lead, and they have an opportunity to strike a tone of harmony and inclusiveness rather than to sustain the dissonant chords of bigotry and intolerance that linger in the air.

I would also hope that the American public, sensing anew that our country’s strengths are historically dependent on an unqualified acceptance of diversity, might listen for harmony as they prepare to vote. This is not a time for viewing the issue of accessibility to higher education as one that affects only a few. It is a time for all of us to invest in the process of using our marvelous diversity to strengthen rather than fragment our society.


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