M. Rick Turner, Dean of Office of African-American Affairs, Cites Optimism, Continuing Challenges in Annual Address

February 07, 2006
February 7, 2006 — Speaking in the Dome Room of the Rotunda on Feb. 2, M. Rick Turner , dean of the Office of African-American Affairs, criticized what he saw as the University of Virginia’s shortcomings in some aspects of diversity — particularly the need for more black faculty, students and administrators — while also praising a “serious, sustained attempt” to address issues of equity and diversity in the past 12 months.

Turner pointed to a recent study in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education that ranked U.Va.’s 86 percent graduation rate for African-American students as No. 1 among 25 “Public Ivies.”  He said that he was proud of that accomplishment, but added his belief that the University can do better.”

I think we can realistically aspire to raise this percentage to 90 percent,” said Turner. “Our future challenge is to build on our successes.”

Turner listed some of the many programs sponsored by the OAAA that are keys to the University’s high retention and graduation rates for black students.  The nationally acclaimed Peer Advisor Program, under the leadership of Associate Dean Sylvia Terry, introduced a new program known as black study time (BST).  Over 50 percent of black first-year students participate in the program, which fills four classrooms on Sundays (and three classrooms every other day of the week), and 87 percent of those who participate rate it as highly effective.

As Turner observed, the work of the OAAA has not gone unnoticed.  In June 2005 the College Board recognized the office as a “Model of Excellence” for “its incredible success in helping the University of Virginia attain one of the highest African-American graduation rates in the country and for [its] development of successful, replicable methodologies that can used by other organizations."

In the past year, another of those “methodologies” — the Faculty-Student Mentoring Program overseen by Assistant Dean Peter Yu — experienced its greatest growth since it was created in 1995.  The program, lauded by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia in 1998 as a model for successful student retention, provides faculty mentors with the opportunity to share their research and encourages students to seek out these research opportunities.

Citing retention studies that have demonstrated the value of cultural centers on predominantly white campuses, Turner said that the Luther P. Jackson Black Cultural Center sponsored more than 40 events, which, beyond their benefits to black students, give all members of the University and Charlottesville communities opportunities to explore and experience African and African-American culture.

In addition, Turner cited the Black Student Leadership Council, which was created in the mid 1980s to provide student networking and partnership opportunities, and reinvigorated in 2005 under a new name, the Black Student Leadership Institute (BSLI).  The institute offers monthly training for blacks in leadership positions on subjects like the characteristics of leaders, program planning and leadership skills.

How, Turner asked, can the University meet its challenge of building on this success?

“We must become more vigilant, more honest and committed to creating a fully and truly welcoming environment ,” Turner said. “ An environment, as all of you know, is not welcoming when we fail to pay close attention to segregation in our midst.”

In that regard, Turner said that it was incumbent upon the University to see that racial diversity is evident throughout all offices and departments.

In addition, he called black student enrollment “much too low,” noting that total black enrollment in 2005 numbered 1,508 (including 1,188 undergraduates and 285 students of graduate and professional schools), which is only a small improvement over the average total black enrollment of the last five years (1,466).

Turner also called on the University to apologize for “the unpunished brutality and bullying of slaves and free blacks during that awful time in our history at the University and in the Charlottesville area.” He continued, “I think it would be a major step toward improving current race relations.”

Turner added that increases in the number of black faculty have been impressive during the past year, and he credited the “relentless pursuit of African-American faculty throughout the country” by Gertrude Fraser, vice provost for faculty advancement. “For the first time since my arrival in 1988,” Turner said, “I think a serious and sustained attempt is being made to address the issues of diversity and equity at the University.”

Referring to the appointment last fall of William B. Harvey as the first vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity, Turner said that many positive things are beginning to happen.

“I really do feel that Mr. William Harvey is going to bring a lot of progress with the help of all of us at U.Va. ” Turner said.