Minority faculty play key role in minority student success

Tessa Duvall

When Howard Bailey asked for an application to Western Kentucky State College, the guidance counselor at his high school told him he wasn’t college material.

“It was the second year that our school system at home had integrated,” Bailey said. “So I know that guidance counselor wasn’t real accustomed to dealing with an ol’ burly football — black football — kid with average-at-best grades. That’s not who they want to work with.


“I remember that. I will never forget that.”

Bailey, vice president for Student Affairs at WKU, has used his own experiences to help students of all races and backgrounds during his 44-year career on the Hill.

“It’s been a passion of mine, being a Western alum. I came here at a time when most African-Americans that were here were athletes that got some special assistance,” he said. “There was no special assistance for students like myself that were mediocre-to-average students that didn’t have any specialty. So I’ve always wanted to reach out and help meet that need.

“There is a different transition that an African-American or other minorities go through when they leave their home and that base support unit and go into an all-white world without that safe space of home to go back to every night to re-energize your battery.”

To ease that transition, in 2010, Bailey created the Early Start program for at-risk minority students who are conditionally admitted to WKU by way of South Campus. Students come to WKU a day prior to M.A.S.T.E.R. Plan and meet with a panel of faculty and staff. This panel lets students know exactly what to expect in the first year of college and what resources are available to them and their families.

“I detected that those students, — we want them here, — but they needed people of color to sit down with them on the front end of their college experience and tell them, kind of read them the riot act and tell them, ‘Now this is what you’ve bought into,” he said. Do you really understand what is expected of you? This is what your college experience is going to be. Here’s some of the pitfalls. There’s going to be warm weather, attractive young men, attractive young ladies. There’s going to be social events, and you can look up, and you’ve been here five or six weeks, and you’ve had a great time. And then, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m about to flunk already.’

“And by the fact that you’re on the South Campus indicates that you’ve had some academic issues to begin with. I reached a frustration level that those students were not being read the riot act and being told, ‘Look, this is what it’s going to take for you to survive college.’”

Vee Smith, assistant director of the Office of Diversity Programs, said Early Start pairs students with administrative, faculty and staff mentors to help them ease into the college experience.

In the 2010 cohort, 85 of the 96 students invited to Early Start attended, Smith said. Of those 85, 47 returned for the spring semester. Although numbers for the 2011 cohort won’t be available until this summer, Smith said retention has improved, which she attributes to an increasingly serious tone of the program.

“This is you. This is totally based off your career,” Smith said she tells the students. “We don’t bite words, the group of us, so they absolutely know, ‘If you don’t do good, you’re going home.’ And we say that. Sometimes you just need to hear that — it’s that simple. If you’re not here to really get a degree, then don’t waste time, don’t waste money. Go on home now before you’re $20,000 in debt, because most of these students are here on loans, and you have to pay those back.

“And that’s not just for African-American students. All students just need to have that wakeup call sometimes that freshman year.”

This school year, the university formed a task force with the goal to improve the number of freshmen who remain at and graduate from WKU. In the fall, WKU enrollment was at 21,048 students but fell to 19,640 this spring. President Gary Ransdell said in a previous Herald article that WKU loses about 25 of each freshman class going into their sophomore year.

Bailey said many white faculty members often don’t feel comfortable having these frank conversations with minority students because they may not be prepared to work in a diverse setting. About 85 percent of public school teachers in America are white females, he said, and most have not had experiences that prepare them to teach underprivileged and underprepared minority students.

Skills and diplomas aren’t always enough to prepare an instructor for the classroom, he said.

“But did anyone prepare you to go into a classroom that’s got 8 to 10 African-American males from the West End of Louisville…,” he said. “And there’s nothing in those writing courses that prepared you for that. So you and that student have trouble connecting. It’s just a reality. It’s not something that someone planned.”

At South Campus 30.2 percent of the students who take at least one class are black, while just 10.5 percent of instructors are black.

“We in higher ed. know it’s a problem, but most of the time, we ignore it,” he said. “And then when the student doesn’t do well, we lay all the blame on the student. Well, we didn’t exactly give the faculty member the training to teach the student that they culturally know next to nothing about.”

This disparity, Bailey said, reduces the probability that students will be retained. Ideally, the makeup of the faculty should mimic the makeup of the student body, he said.

Richard Miller, vice provost and chief diversity officer, said WKU is making strides in hiring more minority faculty.

In fall 2010, WKU employed 129 minority faculty, of which 42 were black, and an additional 70 were Asian or self-identified as two or more races. This was up from a total of 105 minority faculty in fall 2009, according to documents Miller provided.

WKU is currently instituting a minority faculty recruitment plan providing financial incentive to departments that hire qualified minority faculty, Miller said.

Beginning in fall 2013, a fund for minority hiring through Miller’s office will partially pay for two tenure-track positions each year for the next six years, he said. The first three years, 50 percent of the salary and benefits of the minority hire will be paid, and the following three years, 25 percent will be covered, leaving 75 percent for the department to fund.

Miller said this frees up money for the department to use for other needs and signifies a “major institutional commitment” to diversifying staff.

Sherry Reid retired as dean of Bowling Green Community College in 2010, and she said during her time as dean attracting minority faculty to South Campus was challenging.

“We had a hard time getting minority applicants because there are so few, and they are in such demand, that it’s just hard to hire really good minority faculty,” she said. “They have so many other opportunities, and South Campus is not a lot of faculty members’ first choice, because if they’ve prepared for university teaching, they have a different paradigm in mind for what that would be.”

Miller said that moving forward, the university must better prepare faculty to work with the diverse student body of South Campus.

“I think it’s important that we have faculty that can relate to students, who understand diversity and respect differences. That’s not easy for some faculty — it really isn’t,” he said. “But I think it’s our responsibility to work with our faculty so they become more comfortable teaching students, engaging students that don’t look like them. I would like to see more faculty of color at South Campus, and sometimes students relate better to faculty who look like them.”

Although cultural sensitivity sessions are hosted, they are not offered on a regular basis, and WKU should do a better job with training, he said.

“There are so many things that you have to deal with when dealing with faculty — working environment conditions, professional development opportunities, trying to get tenure, teaching large classes. We need to provide more opportunities for them to avail themselves to cultural sensitivity. We do some things, but they’re not systematic — yet,” Miller said.

But, having a diverse classroom is really there to benefits students, he said.

“If a student is comfortable in their own skin, they shouldn’t be inhibited from doing anything that they want to do,” Miller said, “and not use race as an excuse to do something or not to do something.”

*Editor’s note:  This is part three of a four-part series.