Monday, April 26, 2010

Latinos in Higher Education: Too Few to Celebrate

Rosie with Bola Akanji, a visiting scholar from Nigeria,  & Jody Lisberger, chair of URI Women's Studies Program


In 1974, not long after I finished my bachelor's degree, I visited a friend who was in graduate school at Iowa State University in Des Moines, Iowa. It was the first time I had ever gone to the Midwest and I knew absolutely nothing about it. It never occurred to me that people would be any different from my hometown of San Francisco. Yes, I know; I was very naive.

My friend took me to a favorite restaurant; she wanted me to try the pork chops, cut thick like a steak, the likes of which I had never seen. The waitress came to our table, took one look at me and said, “You aren't from around here, are you?” I stuttered, “ Uh, no…” and I looked around the room. Every other person in the room was several shades whiter than I; it didn't help that it was midwinter when no one in the room would have seen the sun for a couple of months. My hair, coal black, long, thick and curly, really stood out in contrast to the blond and light brown hair of everyone else in the room. I felt vaguely embarrassed; I guess I don't belong here, I thought.

People are not usually as direct as that waitress but I have had many, many experiences like this; veiled, implied, hinted at, but clear, nevertheless. In fact, I still experience it even though my hair is going gray and worn short. The difference is that now I am acutely aware that this situation should have changed more than it has.

I was thinking about this when I went to the open house our new university president's residence. Looking around, I saw everyone there was white except for me. I still feel a brief pang of panic in that kind of situation, but I have been there a long time; I'm sure they have forgotten about my difference. But I can never forget; I was nearly overcome with the desire to go to the president, who was standing by the door amiably greeting all the visitors, to say, “Hi, I'm one of your 12 Latino faculty!” But it was not the time or the place to call attention to myself, although there is never a good time or place for this issue.

This is my seventeenth year at the University of Rhode Island. According to the university's own Fall 2008 statistics, there are five Latinos in the College of Arts and Sciences. Overall, URI has 699 faculty members: only twelve, or 2%, are Latinos or Hispanic; nineteen, or 3.2% are African or African Americans. Four hundred ninety-eight are white.

The Latino or Hispanic statistic has a kind of hidden trick to it: several are from Spain or the Latin American countries; perhaps half are United States-born and/or raised Latinos. What difference does that make? It means that the real numbers have not changed in a substantive way during my years here. The Latino population is increasing exponentially in the United States, even here in little Rhode Island, but Latino students are not getting into the higher education pipeline. Faculty members born in Latin America tend to be from privileged backgrounds because the majority of the people in the region are poor; if one has the money to go to college, there is money for other things as well.

It is only in the United States that Latinos have the upward mobility to go from working-class to university. At least, that’s the way it has been in the past; California’s economic collapse will have a great impact on the ambitions within the Latino community because California has been the state that has turned out the highest number of educated Latinos. California’s disaster is a disaster for all Latinos in the U.S.

The disaster ignited a few years ago with the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996. Proposition 209 ended affirmative action in admissions to the university system, including the University of California, the state’s flagship university and one of the most distinguished and important in the Wiith theworld. My doctorate is from UCLA.

The California university system had to come up with a different way to diversify its student body, and it did, but the long-term effects have included a dramatic drop in the number of Latino and black students. In 2006, marking the ten-year anniversary of the passage of Prop 209, The Nation magazine noted that the incoming class had only 100 African Americans out of 4,802 new students. Latinos are not mentioned.

Rosie with the chair of our History Department, Marie Schwartz

This year, here at the University of Rhode Island, our Talent Development Program, which runs a pre-matriculation session during the summer for disadvantaged students of all colors, is expecting a drop in its enrollment of about 50%. The TD program, like every other part of the university, is suffering from the severe cuts in funding. These developments mean that my classes will be whiter. The cuts in funding and the reduction in scholarships also mean that many young people will not even attempt to go to college.

One disturbing trend I've noticed is how much students are working at full-time jobs. I have run into students who work the night shift and come in barely able to stay awake in class. I made a comment to a student the other day noting the early hour of her e-mail to me, and she said that she read her e-mail just as she got off work at 5:30 in the morning.

A couple of weeks ago, I was standing in a grocery store line, waiting impatiently as the clerks scrambled to find a price for yucca for the customer in front of me. Suddenly, a young man's voice called to me, “Dr. Pegueros—let me help you over here.” The clerk was a student I'd taught a couple of summers earlier, a Latino. I asked him how his studies were going. He'd had to quit, he told me. It just got too expensive, but he was planning to come back. I chatted with him for a bit, my heart squeezed in my chest. I hope that he will get back but I have my doubts. Latinos have the lowest rate of retention; if they actually drop out, as this young man did, the chances of their return drops dramatically.

This is a major problem for our community. We are running way behind the pack, and the less education our children get, the greater disadvantage they will be at as we become the largest minority in the country.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

"Let reverence for the laws become the political religion of the nation."

The controversy over inviting evangelical theologian Greg Boyd to give the keynote address at the inauguration of URI President David Dooley.

The University of Rhode Island inaugurates a new president on April 8. David Dooley, a biologist by training, is described as the son and husband of Baptist ministers. I did not give this detail a second thought; after all, Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, was a Baptist minister. Then he announced that evangelical theologian and pastor Gregory Boyd, known for his opinions on gays (“I have to regard homosexuality as “missing the mark” of God’s idea”) and divorced women (“adulteresses”) would be delivering the keynote address. 

What could President Dooley have been thinking to have invited him? New England is one of the bluest regions in the union; Rhode Island, the most Democratic state.

President Dooley invited Boyd who, he says, is a friend of the family. This worries me more than anything I’d heard about the new president thus far. On one hand, it feels rather like the Obama/Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy during the presidential election. Obama distanced himself from the pastor as the race progressed. At the time, I remember thinking that Obama must have learned Wright’s controversial opinions over the course of attending his church for twenty years, and seen from the perspective of the black community, his opinions were justified: He claimed that God should punish America for its racism. Could a black person, enduring what blacks have had to endure throughout our history, feel any differently? Slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching; school segregation; discrimination; general abuse—how could any reasonable person believe differently? Yet Obama must have realized that to white America, his association with him would cause a firestorm, and it did.

Nevertheless, Obama withdrew from the church and, in the opinion of many, threw the Rev. Wright under the bus. But then, he was running for president of the United States. Loyalty fell aside in favor of the pragmatism of winning an election.                                   

President Dooley stated that he chose Gregory Boyd because he had read a great deal by Boyd and felt that his writing had much to offer as a message of hope to the university community. Did it never cross his mind that he would be alienating and marginalizing whole segments of the university community? Or did he consciously choose to throw US under the bus in favor of a Wonder Bread message of hope?

We have major problems at URI. The diminishing financial contribution of the state has forced us to find more and more monies outside of the state budget, and to lean on students for greater and greater fees. Student retention is poor; minority student retention is worse. Programs are slashed; tenure lines are reduced, with department heads having to vie with each other for the lines that open when we lose a member of the faculty to retirement or death. But the new president choose Boyd's vision of hope. For me, his beliefs about women and gays invalidate anything he will say: I have no desire to contemplate the musings of a bigot.

In every organization I have ever worked for, “white, straight, and Christian” have been the default settings. Sometimes an administrator was acutely aware of this and acted to change it, but in most cases, they considered complying with the laws pertaining to discrimination and affirmative action as a nuisance, at best. Sometimes it came down to a discomfort around what to do about Christmas in a non-religious setting. At other times, there were greater stakes.

In the 1980s, I worked for a progressive organization that, in preparation for a major push across the United States, hired large numbers of organizers. Every week, they would take a new staff picture. There were two minorities on staff: A black woman and me. Every week, the two of us would look at the picture and wonder when they would do something about the unrelenting whiteness of the expanding staff. Finally, we posted a note under the picture (by this time there were over 100 staffers) that read, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

Nobody figured it out. We watched as people stared at the picture, trying to divine the “trick” and finally, turned away. They never saw anything wrong with having only one brown and one black face in the sea of white faces.

If any institution is identified with equal opportunity for all, it is the state university. “All” includes a vast sea full of humanity: Jewish, Christians, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, atheist, agnostic, gay, straight, and so on. Christianity should not be the default setting here.

Why shouldn’t an evangelical theologian be the keynote speaker at an inauguration? What about his right to free speech, you may ask. It's not about his rights. It's about setting the tone for the future of a pluralistic institution, a state university.

URI is a public institution; separation of church and state should be respected here more than in any other institution in our country. A theologian brought as a speaker in another situation would be fine; students, faculty and staff would be free to come to listen or to protest or to ignore the whole event. But the inauguration of a president is a unique occasion where the new president lays out his vision for the institution. It is disturbing that he would bring in a speaker who narrows rather than expands that vision.

Would the inauguration of the president of a Baptist college be strange if God were left out of it? I would think so because God is at the center of instruction; why else have a Baptist college? It is the adherence to religious principles that sets it aside from other institutions. But the heart of a state university is adherence to constitutional principles; constitutional government is what finally broke the monarchies of the old world. Our public persona should be blind justice; we should maintain an arena where everyone is free to practice their own religious beliefs, or have none at all, and not be compelled to listen to a religious message on an occasion of state .

To bring an evangelical theologian to give the keynote speech at the inauguration is a betrayal of the separation of church and state precisely because they espouse prejudice-ridden religious dogmas that discriminate that against many people. It declares that it is not enough to draw inspiration from the august body of laws and the secular culture that animates our republic. Religious leaders usually use their Gods to inspire and manipulate their followers. And when they are not followers? Then they are POTENTIAL followers; one must just play the right chord to drag them in.

Abraham Lincoln declared, "Let reverence for the laws become the political religion of the nation." If it was good enough for Lincoln, should be good enough for us.

I doubt that President Dooley intended to proselytize his religious beliefs at his inauguration but it is disturbing to see that he does not realize that that is what the proposed speaker's message is likely to be. A message of hope? In what? In whom? Why pick a speaker who, by his own admission, has never spoken at a secular event? How will a speaker whose life is constructed around the message of the Gospels give a message of hope that does not involve hoping and trusting in his God? Is he even capable of delivering his message without alluding to God?

In the wake of this controversy, President Dooley has issued a statement declaring his belief in diversity. Words. More words. We want deeds; so far, his choice of a keynote speaker indicates his real beliefs far more than his reassuring platitudes.

Periodically, articles and studies appear that claim that the faculty of universities tend to be liberal. I would say that this incident shows “liberalism” at its squishiest and most spineless in its inability to protect itself against those who threaten it. As for having “some speakers who make us uncomfortable,” how about this: Let us begin with one who says we should vote on YOUR marriage.

I feel betrayed. Whatever hope I had in the new president faded when I learned how his mind functioned as shown by this signature choice and his apparent inability to see the insult he has slapped us with. We may not have had a choice in the speaker but we can choose not to participate in a new era of self-deception.