By Charles Hallman
Dr. Eric Kaler, president of the University of Minnesota, admits that he is aware of the Black community’s longtime skepticism toward the state’s land-grant university, an often strained relationship that did not improve when the university dropped the General College and made its “world-class” declaration in the late 1990s. A few years later, the opening of the Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center, otherwise known as UROC, on the city’s North Side in 2009 heightened suspicions among many Blacks.
As a result, the MSR during a 30-minute interview in his Morrill Hall office asked President Kaler to speak to our readers on the school’s overall commitment to diversity.
“We didn’t have a trusting relationship with the community,” said Kaler, who was named president in July 2011, regarding UROC. “There was a concern that we were going to work on the community rather than work with the community or actually work for the community.”
Kaler offered reassurance that the university is fully committed to diversity, citing as examples the hiring this year of Dr. Katrice Albert as diversity and equity vice president and Danita Brown Young as dean of students.
“It’s incredibly important to me that we have a diverse university [and] that we have a real, genuine, deep engagement with communities of color — of all colors,” explained Kaler. “We have a host of people who are deeply committed to not only representing the Black community and the university, but also engaging the Black community. I view that engagement as part of my job as well.”
Albert interjected that among the reasons she accepted the offer to come to the U of M after seven years as chief diversity officer at LSU was the commitment Kaler refers to. However, after former Senior Vice President Robert Jones’ departure this year to be president of the University of Albany in New York and his office was eliminated in what school officials called a need “to shrink administrative expenses,” some community members questioned this commitment, especially to UROC, which was Jones’ brainchild and for which he had served as the guiding force.
“Robert invested a lot of his own personal capital in that, and I know that the history was not easy,” recalled Kaler. “There is no issue at all about the future of UROC or any thought at all about stepping away from our commitment to that facility and what that facility stands for.”
The university’s population of students of color has grown by about four percent from 2000, from 14 percent to just over 18 percent this year. Still, for many Black youngsters looking at colleges and universities to pursue their education, the “U” oftentimes isn’t at the top of their list. And if they do enroll, some often don’t feel comfortable or fully accepted there.
“I know what you have just told me is true,” responded Kaler. “I don’t completely understand why it’s true. In her interviewing process, Katrice and I had some of that conversation [as well]. Danita Brown Young [also] is aimed at improving that connection.
“We need to be a place where all our students want to come. We need them to realize that the University of Minnesota should be an aspiration for them. They should be aiming themselves to come to the University of Minnesota.”
Added Albert, “I want to help with access, especially [for] students of color, to come to the land-grant institution, to see it as their top college choice to get a world-class education. It’s really about a commitment to concentrating on the recruitment efforts of Minnesotans and especially students of color so that they see the ‘U’ as their top college choice from very early on.”
The university “needs to be creative” in recruiting Blacks and other students of color, advised Albert. She points to the “Joining a Legacy” program specifically designed to serve both currently enrolled Black students and prospective Black students. Recently, a group of local Black male youngsters visited the campus “so that they could see other Black men enjoying the ‘U’, excelling academically and encouraging them to consider the ‘U’ as their top college choice,” noted Albert.
“The Huntley House is an important part of that,” said Kaler of the campus dorm “designed to build community by exploring the shared experience of African American males in and out of the classroom” when it opened in 2012. He pointed out that 17 Black males are now living there, up from seven a year ago.
“The state of Minnesota deserves to have a world-class university,” stated Kaler. “That world-class university needs to be inclusive, diverse, and needs to be accessible. It needs to be inspirational for students to excel in grade school and high school so that they are ready to come to the university.
“I think UROC is an important part of that,” he said in reference to recruiting more local Blacks. “When you step in [the] UROC building in North Minneapolis, you are stepping onto the campus of the University of Minnesota. UROC can be a gateway to making those connections [in the Black community].”
As we resumed our discussion on organizational diversity, Kaler reiterated, “When [Blacks and other students of color] come to a big place like this, you want to see people who are like you and you need some role models. [With] Katrice’s arrival, and Danita’s arrival, you can say we doubled the number of high-ranking African Americans at the university. But it’s not about numbers, it’s about getting a population that looks like Minnesota. We need to create that welcoming environment for staff and for faculty.
“We hold diversity as one of the keys of our mission and a key part of who we are,” said Kaler. “You cannot have an excellent world-class university without having a diverse world-class university. It is essential to creativity [and] to everybody to understand what the world is about and to interact with people from different backgrounds, different cultures…
“We’re not there yet,” concluded the University of Minnesota president, “and I don’t fully know why. But we are working hard to figure that out. I hope this is not the last time we have this conversation.”