Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Berea College commentary

Below is the body (minus footnotes and endnotes) of my FINAL paper as an undergrad. It's my contribution to an Environmental Justice (EJ) analysis of my alma mater, Berea College (BC). I focused on BC's hiring and admissions policies, and how these related to EJ. Other folks in the class wrote an introduction to EJ and sections on BC's funding, consumption patterns, and curriculum. If anyone's interested in more info about EJ, BC, or wants a complete, properly formatted version of the paper, feel free to contact me. Enjoy...
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Admissions and Hiring
Berea College’s foundational mission to provide affordable, interracial education to young people of limited economic means aligns significantly with the aims of the environmental justice movement. Education provides a means to bettering one’s material circumstance, articulating a societal critique, and becoming empowered to bring about social and political change. Far too many working class people and people of color are denied access to quality education, and BC has been combating this injustice for 150 years. In addition, by striving to create an interracial educational environment and cultivate genuine racial understanding, BC counters the racist socialization that young people receive in U.S. society. The vision of BC as a “continuous learning environment” provides significant opportunities to integrate the College’s mission into all aspects of its operations, including purchasing, funding, curriculum, and admissions and hiring. As a result of its efforts, BC continues to produce educated, working class young people with well-developed leadership potential and a critical anti-oppression analysis 150 years after it was founded. These accomplishments take place within Appalachia, “…one of the most economically and educationally depressed regions in the nation,” further highlighting the importance of the institution’s mission.

A judicious look at contemporary U.S. society reveals the truth in Being and Becoming’s assertion that “racism is deeply embedded all across America.” Prejudice certainly enjoys wide expression throughout American culture, ranging from powerful institutions all the way down to individuals’ subconscious fears about people of other races. Recently-published research in the journal Science reported that both blacks and whites exhibited subconscious fear responses even to photos of people of the opposite race. Perhaps predictably, these results varied inversely with the level of interracial contact the subjects had experienced. This example and countless others demonstrate what Being and Becoming refers to as “…the continuing and complex matrix of systemic racism and personal prejudices in America” and hence the importance of institutions such as BC and the goals of the environmental justice movement.

Yet clearly the BC of 2005 and the world in which it exists differ sharply from that of 1855. Some of the most notable differences include the relative “whiteness” and affluence of BC’s student population compared to the BC of 150 years ago. Do current levels of diversity lend themselves to creation of a “safe space” for youth of color as well as the sense of interracial community so critical to overcoming racial stereotypes? Have people of color and working class people become a marginalized population within a BC community dominated by middle class whites? Has the College sacrificed its commitment to educating low-income Appalachians in pursuit of other goals? And what roles do BC’s hiring, admissions, and workplace dynamics play in advancing or detracting from the College’s mission and the goals of the environmental justice movement?

As pointed out in the introduction, the principles of the environmental justice movement demand a change in the very structure of our society. If BC is to stand in solidarity with the environmental justice movement, and in opposition to the perilous intersections of environmental destruction and race/class oppression, this goal must be reflected throughout the institution’s social environment. Our community must strive to be a place which recognizes, not obscures, differences of class and ethnicity, and which seeks to overcome oppressive relationships across race and class lines. Through interviews with several BC staff and administrators, it became clear that while the College’s foundational commitments are central to its strategic planning process, there remains much work to be done.

Admissions
Since the principles of environmental justice include the right to equitable educational opportunities, one of the most important decisions BC makes is who gets admitted. Jamie Ealy, Director of Admissions, described the dialectical nature of BC’s admissions process as it seeks to meet a variety of sometimes contradictory goals. These goals include the admission of black and white students of high academic potential but low financial means, students with a penchant for social justice, community service, and sustainability, and those who have significant leadership potential. The information the Admissions office uses to identify such students include standardized test scores, personal interviews, U.S. government indicators of financial need, high school grades, and evidence of civic engagement. While one can easily envision students who meet some or even many of BC’s recruitment goals, top-performing Appalachian students (and non-Appalachian students of color) have a much wider range of educational options available to them than they did in 1855. In addition, youth of color and working class youth face significant hurdles to high academic achievement, and hence may have underdeveloped academic and leadership potential that makes identifying them much more challenging. Another consideration is BC’s desire to maintain a rigorous academic environment and to make wise use of its significant investment in the students it does admit. As a result, a strong focus on underprivileged students means that more remedial work will be required on the part of the College’s academic program as well as a higher risk of poor retention rates. So BC is left in the tricky position of competing for the highest-performing students the region has to offer while also attempting to identify students who have considerable, if underdeveloped potential.

These recruitment challenges have at times forced BC to prioritize certain goals over others, and have tested the College’s commitments to its stated constituency. For instance, BC’s traditional definition of the Appalachian region has been extended in order to accommodate shifting populations of Appalachians (e.g., southern OH) and to provide access to a larger pool of potential African American applicants (e.g., Birmingham, AL). Additionally, changes in BC’s academic program that have lessened the emphasis on remedial work have paralleled a loosening of the College’s requirements for financial need. Under President Stephenson, for instance, at least 50% of incoming BC students had to be “full-need,” that is, amongst the lowest-income category according to government indicators. As of 2003 approximately 40% of incoming BC students were considered full-need. For the 2005-06 school year, approximately 37% of BC students are full-need. Yet despite these compromises, there are several indicators that BC is successfully negotiating the difficult admissions terrain.

One important indicator that Jamie Ealy uses to assess BC’s success in serving low-income students is the percentage of BC students that are eligible for Pell grant assistance. According to Jamie Ealy and Bryan Erslan, Director of Student Financial Aid Services, currently approximately 79% of BC students are Pell grant-eligible, compared with the national average of 20-25% of students at other institutions. Similarly, 68% of new BC freshmen come from families where neither parent has a college degree. In terms of building racial diversity and supporting racial justice, BC’s African American student population fell from a clear majority throughout much of the College’s first forty years to less than 7% in the early 1990s. Yet increased attention to this issue has begun to reverse the downward trend. Under the leadership of Carl Thomas, Associate Director of Admissions and a BC alum (’78) who has worked for the College since graduating, the admissions program created a “Minority Services Team.” This project has placed special emphasis on building relationships with African American communities and community organizations, and on strengthening outreach to potential African American applicants. In addition, the College now hosts an annual “Carter G. Woodson Open House Weekend” specifically for the recruitment of African American students. At least partly as a result of these efforts, the BC African American population has climbed to nearly 20% over the last 13 years (compared with 3-4% at other liberal arts colleges). The College has also placed increased emphasis on the success of African American students once they’ve enrolled, resulting in significantly increased retention and graduation rates. Additionally, Black Enterprise’s biannual report “Top 50 Colleges for African Americans” listed BC as 13th in 2003, up from 32nd in 2001.

Other interesting indicators include attitudes of BC students as compared with other college students nationwide. BC’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment surveys BC first-year students bi-annually using national surveys created by the Higher Education Research Institute. According to these surveys, which track nationwide student responses dating back to the 1960s, when compared with national norms, incoming BC first-year students are more likely (by 13%) to say that they have a high chance of socializing with someone of another ethnic or racial background. These same BC students have consistently tracked 10-20% higher in considering “helping to promote racial understanding” as “essential” or “very important” when compared to students at other institutions over the past 30 years. Finally, a survey administered to all BC students in Spring 2003 found that BC’s students’ ratings were significantly higher than other schools in terms of the degree to which they socialized with people of another ethnic or racial background and how much they felt their institution emphasized such interactions. Clearly such responses by BC students can give us an idea of how the BC environment affects its students’ attitudes about race, and how far we have yet to go.

Though many of these indicators demonstrate considerable success by BC in honoring its foundational mission and hence supporting the goals of the environmental justice movement, there remains more work to be done. Primary among this work is a movement beyond the College’s current definition of interracial. Being and Becoming currently defines interracial education as “…the education of black and white people together for the benefit of their learning (both inside and outside the classroom), their understanding of one another, and the reconciliation of the breach in our lives caused by slavery, institutional racism, and the resulting personal prejudices found in both black and white communities”. This definition makes sense for an 1855 BC, and clearly much work remains in “reconciliation of the breach” between whites and blacks, but a widened definition of interracial would both aid in this reconciliation and better reflect the changing external realities facing BC in 2005.

Both Jamie Ealy and Carl Thomas suggest that while the “next big thing” in BC’s student recruitment efforts should be the Latino population, currently the College is not making a proactive effort to serve this population. The Latino population in Appalachia is growing rapidly, and certainly represents an underserved population. Recent U.S. Census Bureau data shows that for eleven southern states (eight of which are considered part of BC’s “service area”), the Latino population increase from 1990-2000 ranged from 44.6% (WV) to 393.9% (NC). While their percentage of the overall populations of these states remains relatively small, BC should take note of this trend. In particular, undocumented youth are shut out of higher education opportunities. BC could do much to advance its anti-racist and anti-classist mission and thereby support the environmental justice movement by expanding its target constituency to include Latinos.

Another approach to widening the level of diversity would be for BC to increase its enrollment of international students. As a former Nepalese BC Student Government President once said, such a move would also better position BC “...to serve the Appalachias of the Global South.” Currently the College only admits approximately 30 new international students per year (7% of the incoming class), yet these few students contribute significantly to both the level of cultural diversity and academic rigor of the overall campus. In addition, international students often bring valuable perspectives to our community that are extremely relevant to environmental justice concerns and which otherwise might remain obscured. Increased racial and ethnic diversity not only broadens the wisdom and experience of the overall community, it helps to break down the sense of isolation students of color experience in a rural, residential, mostly-white college community.

Such expansion of BC’s recruitment strategies would obviously require some changes in the College’s infrastructure. For example, Spanish-speaking admissions counselors would be necessary in order to build relationships with Latino communities and to adequately sell the College to the families of potential students. The College would also need to provide resources to undocumented students in order to help them gain citizenship during the course of their education. These changes would require additional funding, since both undocumented students and international students consume a disproportionate amount of the financial aid budget due to their lack of federal and state government support. Currently, these students cost about $9,000/year more than the average student who is a U.S. citizen. Clearly, changes of this magnitude cannot happen without significant commitment from the BC Administration and Board of Trustees.

Whether or not such an expansion of BC’s recruitment mission takes place, additional work must be done to create a more inclusive social environment at BC. Students of color continue to be regularly confronted with racist attitudes—both on campus and in the wider Berea community. Such attitudes, if left unexamined and unchallenged, allow white supremacy and classism to flourish and thereby contribute to the perpetuation of environmental injustice. The College needs to strengthen its commitment to anti-racist education throughout its continuous learning environment. There also needs to be greater diversity and diversity-consciousness amongst BC’s staff, faculty, and administration.

Staff
Beyond simply having access to education, BC students deserve access to an educational environment that stands in opposition to oppressive social relationships. The hiring decisions that the College makes and the inclusion of staff in its continuous learning environment contribute significantly to the overall social environment. Even strictly from an academic perspective the College has reason to be concerned with staff diversity. Being and Becoming cites recent research stating that “…racial diversity enhances the learning of both white and black students.”

Currently however, BC’s staff is considerably less diverse than its student body. The College does outperform national averages when it comes to faculty diversity, yet its overall population of people of color staff is only 8%. Carolyn Castle, Director of People Services, attributes the lack of staff diversity primarily to the demographics of the communities directly surrounding the College and to competitive job opportunities existing in nearby Richmond and Lexington. Like Carolyn, Stephanie Browner, Dean and the Associate Dean of the Faculty, expressed support for a diverse and inclusive workplace. Dean Browner also described several means through which the College seeks to accomplish this aim. These practices include guidelines for Faculty Chairs and Department Heads when conducting hiring searches, and pro-active outreach via journals, databases, and campuses that access significant African American populations. The employee handbook published by People Services also suggests that attention be paid to advertising of College job openings in order to “…increase diversity within the potential employment pools.”

In addition to its hiring practices, BC’s orientation process for all new faculty and staff includes some attention to diversity issues. Orientation sessions for all employees make clear that BC’s workplace expectations (which are modeled on the Great Commitments) are valuing all people, integrity, caring and plain and sustainable living. Yet these sessions are not meant to be comprehensive with regards to cultivating a non-oppressive workplace. The College instead relies upon ongoing workplace education via People Services. This education consists of regular trainings as well as “feedback and development circles,” and is facilitated by People Services’ Learning Coordinator Mark Nigro. Mark, whose position was created in Fall ’03, does one or two trainings/year called “Bringing Out the Best in Others,” as well as offering three orientation series/year. He is currently designing further ongoing curriculum, and has also organized annual workshops on diversity from trainer Bruce Manchion which have included 120-150 BC staff. In addition, Brenda Hosley and Laura Crawford offer diversity trainings for new faculty, academic advisors, labor supervisors, campus security, CELTS, the Collegium, and the Learning Center, as well as training department chairs in recruitment and retention of college faculty. Most of these trainings are voluntary, and Dr. Crawford also facilitates an optional discussion group on race issues for interested faculty.

While these efforts are significant and important, several facets of BC are indicative of an institution that is run largely by middle class white people whose commitments to equality appear dilute relative to those of the institution’s founders. Such leadership cannot be relied upon to truly steer this institution in a direction commensurate with environmental justice. Little, if any, attention is paid to the socioeconomic background of faculty, for instance. Dean Browner asserts that it would be “unusual” and potentially discriminatory to inquire about applicants’ socioeconomic background. Whether BC faculty have any real sense of the experiences of BC students resulting from their socioeconomic status is therefore left to chance, and there does not seem to be any class sensitivity training that parallels the racial diversity training faculty and staff receive. What are the implications of this lack of understanding for interactions across class lines between people with differing levels of power? Might BC faculty and staff even perpetuate classism in their pedagogy and personal interactions with students? Clearly the constituency that BC serves needs an education that incorporates an anti-oppression analysis if we are to critically analyze our society and create positive social change.

With regards to racial diversity and sensitivity among its staff, the College also needs improvement. In compliance with federal law, BC is an “equal opportunity employer,” yet the institution does not have an official affirmative action policy for either staff or faculty. When asked about the selection process for BC faculty, Dean Browner stated that the College seeks out the “best candidate,” defined as someone with “…appropriate expertise and knowledge, a commitment to excellence in learning and teaching, a willingness to join a community effort to learn, know, ask questions, raise issues, debate, challenge, make improvements.” Affirmative action policies could potentially improve the overall racial diversity of BC’s staff, or at least encourage the College to think more comprehensively and systemically about staff diversity. The Department of Labor's Employment Standards Administration's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) enforces Executive Order 11246 dealing with equal employment and affirmative action. OFCCP points out that the development and implementation of “affirmative action programs” has led to real gains in employment opportunities for women and people of color nationwide, and has helped individual workplaces to improve their retention and recruitment of qualified, diverse employees. Dean Browner asserts that the College has an affirmative action policy in spirit, if not officially, and points to the higher-than-national percentage of BC faculty of African heritage as evidence of this claim. Being and Becoming however states that “…[BC] has had modest success in recruiting black faculty, and almost no success in attracting black employees in the top administration and in hourly workers.”

In addition to more diverse staff and faculty recruitment, interview processes should strongly emphasize the socioeconomic demographics of BC students and favor applicants with well-developed race/class analysis and those who have significant experience working with young people similar to those who attend BC. These steps are crucial not only for creating an educational environment that empowers BC students, but can also begin to build a critical mass of environmental justice-minded leaders within the BC community. Without adequate leadership, the College will likely continue down the path of other white, middle class private institutions and move further away from the institution’s foundations and solidarity with the principles of environmental justice. In a recent memo detailing some of her and Dr. Hosley’s trainings, Dr. Laura Crawford noted:

We have been firmly committed to Berea College and we passionately believe that Berea needs to have a well-developed and cohesive diversity program for the total college. Currently at Berea, it is assumed that every faculty and staff is responsible for diversity work but there is little obvious accountability for institutional diversity work. Except for Berea, every college/university we know that is committed to working with diversity and especially interracial issues has a visible and structured position that ensures on-going diversity work. We strongly recommend that a position be developed that has responsibility for the diversity program. There are so many different things being done on our campus but there is no comprehensive assessment and planning of essential activities. There needs to be one person that oversees, prioritizes, and coordinates the diversity program that provides the needed awareness, knowledge and skills for every one at Berea College.

Another area in which the College falls short is wage equity. According to Diane Kerby, Vice-President for Business and Administration, the College currently bases its pay grades for staff on a number of factors. These considerations include data collected from other, similar workplaces and a “salary survey” conducted in 2001, which VP Kerby says is not available for public scrutiny. VP Kerby noted that efforts have been made in recent years to reduce the gap between employees at different ends of the pay scale. Yet a wage survey of Madison County completed by Dr. Daniel Vazzana’s ECO 319 class in 2002 revealed that some BC employees were not being paid a living wage. According to this report, the self-sufficiency wage for Madison County ranged from $6.82/hour for a single adult with no children to $17.39/hour for a single adult with an infant preschooler. At the time of the report, BC’s minimum wage was $7.00/hr, which, while better than some Madison County businesses, is still insufficient for most people to live on. On the other end of BC’s pay scale, the College’s top five highest-paid staff receive annual compensation packages ranging between $131,000 and $216,000. Clearly an institution which pays its five highest-paid staff in excess of $778,000 per year while denying others a living wage does not adequately value the lives of some people, nor does it exhibit a “…way of life characterized by plain living.” Such low wages are also an obvious indicator that BC staff are not actively empowered in the decision-making of this institution, since very few people would choose to work for sub-standard wages. Indeed, an examination of the College’s governance structure and pay scale does seem to indicate a correlation between those who have an institutionalized role in decision-making (i.e., administration and faculty) and those who receive the highest wages.

Other environmental justice-related concerns that involve the workplace include safety and the right to organize. Clearly a workplace which does not actively seek to ensure its employees’ safety, or allow them the internationally-recognized human right to free association is one that is out of synch with environmental justice concerns. BC has received high ratings for its quality as a workplace, and this is a big draw for potential employees according to Carolyn Castle. With regards to BC as a union-friendly workplace, Diane Kerby asserts that there have been no attempts at unionization during her tenure with the College, and that the College does not have an official position with regards to the unionization of its workforce.

Finally, with regards to workplace safety, further scrutiny of BC’s safety record is needed. For 2002, 2003, and 2004, BC recorded 3, 4.7, and 3.8 work-related injuries and illnesses per 100 workers. These figures are less than the 5.8 injuries/illnesses per 100 workers for other private industries of a similar size to BC, but higher than the 2.7 injuries/illnesses per 100 workers for other industries providing “educational services.” According to Carolyn Castle, the College does provide ongoing training of all employees for their health and safety on the job. This training is provided by the “Environmental Health and Safety Department.”

Clearly, BC is steps ahead of most of the rest of U.S. society with regards to its treatment of and concern for the oppressed in our society. Many people who have truly been subjected to the barbarity of race and class oppression might even consider the institution something of a haven. But being merely ahead of the curve would not have satisfied the radical visionaries who founded this community, and clearly it should not satisfy those of us who care about the institution today. BC was founded with the goals of eradicating the classism and racism that pervaded U.S. society, forces which exist still today despite the best efforts of generations of activists. As in 1855, BC must decide whether to make peace with oppression, or to stand in stark opposition by providing living proof that another world is possible. Our community makes these decisions not in its public relations materials and proclamations of its fund-raisers, but in the inner workings of the institution itself—in seemingly mundane decisions made every day by the College’s administration and faculty. Until all stakeholders are involved in running this institution, and unless BC recognizes that service to its chosen constituency is not the same as empowerment, the radical, egalitarian vision which founded this great institution will become but a fairy tale for future generations.

3 comments:

Paramendra Bhagat said...

Berea College

Paramendra Bhagat said...

Another approach to widening the level of diversity would be for BC to increase its enrollment of international students. As a former Nepalese BC Student Government President once said, such a move would also better position BC “...to serve the Appalachias of the Global South.” Currently the College only admits approximately 30 new international students per year (7% of the incoming class)

Ahem.

This piece is well written and talks up an important topic. But it also reads like propaganda in part. It is amazing how you bring eveything down to the phrase "environmental justice." Issues in race, class, unionization all are about "environmental justice." Really? And there is not enough criticism of the leading administrators who are brightest stars of racism and classism at the institution. The age old tactic of pitting one group of students against other, especiall on issues of race, you seem to buy into. My experience at the school was the top dogs make blatant use of tools of racism so as to keep in check anyone who might ask the power questions. These people are not innocent. Trent Lott lost his job for one racist comment. These top dogs seemed to thrive on them. Racism is the biggest issue where the concentrations of power are the largest. Your article does not seem to appreciate this point.

Paramendra Bhagat said...

Good to see you finally blogging. Better late than never. Maybe we should start a blog called Berea 2000 and invite a ton of students, current and former to pariticipate in these discussions. It is so easy to set up.