passion produces results for African-American students
Turner, dean of the Office of African-American Affairs, is
nothing if not outspoken. It's clear, though, that he speaks from
the heart. He is passionate about his position, which is more
of a calling to him than a job.
intensity of his commitment has produced results. The University's
six-year graduation rate for African-American undergraduates entering
in 1993 was 84.6 percent, the highest among public institutions
in the country, and the highest among any school -- public or
private -- participating in the Association for American Universities'
annual survey. That number has come a long way; African-American
students entering in the fall of 1976, the year the OAAA was founded,
graduated at only a 66.1 percent rate. The biggest leap in the
graduation numbers coincided with Turner's arrival in the fall
a four-person professional staff, the OAAA is charged with "the
creation of a community supportive of African-American students'
full participation in University life," according to its
mission statement. It has four key functions: running the Peer
Advisor Program, which matches incoming first-year and transfer
students with upperclass mentors; sponsoring the Luther P. Jackson
Cultural Center, which preserves and disseminates ideas and information
about African and African-American peoples; maintaining the Nat
Turner Library; and administering a mentoring program pairing
second- through fourth-year African-American students with faculty.
recently sat down with Turner at his office in the Luther P. Jackson
House for a wide-ranging discussion.
You're one of the longest-serving deans at the University and
one of the most outwardly passionate about the things that you
do. What keeps you going?
A. My dissertation at Stanford University was on the academic
achievement and retention of black students in predominately white
institutions, and it's very rare that a person can study and research
and then get a job in doing that at the [university] that has
the highest graduation rate of African-American students in the
country. That's really the ultimate professionally. That's my
passion, having an opportunity to work with the best and the brightest
African-American students in the country. My passion comes from
the achievement of African-American students, the involvement
of their parents in the life of the University.
enjoy studying the racial climate at other predominately white,
selective institutions, and I can't help but to compare their
climate to ours. I measure the racial climate, to some degree,
on the institution's retention and graduation rates. At most public
institutions, there is about a 20 percent difference in their
retention and graduation rates of African-American students. Not
only [that], but there's also a wide gap in terms of the commitment
to the recruitment, enrollment, and retention and graduation of
African-American students. So my passion is predicated on the
commitment of the University of Virginia to African-American students
over the past 10 years.
is time for us to start affirming affirmative action. When
I talk with students at Harambee, I remind them that they
are qualified to be here -- that they deserve to be here.
They have excelled throughout their lives. However, I'm
also quick to tell them that even though they have high
grades and test scores, they cannot ever forget that they
are here because of the sacrifices of their ancestors. They're
not here solely on their individual merit. They must be
reminded (or in some cases informed) that our forebears
demonstrated, agitated, and died so they could attend classes
and graduate from this institution that was born in segregation.
I remind them that our ancestors are "miracles"
-- that we all, in fact, are "miracles." For if
things had been left in the hands of the Founding Fathers,
African-Americans would not be at the University of Virginia
or any other predominantly white institution.
... Those of us who have benefited from affirmative action
in the '60s, '70s, and '80s have a special obligation not
only to tell African-American students the truth about their
presence here, but also to tell them about the opportunities
that preference has offered us. Too many of us have suppressed
the truth because we are in a state of denial ourselves.
Far too many of us lack sufficient concern for the overall
performance of African-American students. It is important
that we as administrators and faculty change. We owe our
students the same commitment, guidance, loyalty and sacrifice
that our ancestors afforded us. We are successful but we
didn't get to this point in the same way as everyone else.
... It pains me to see African-American students not being
able to engage in discussions and debates about controversial
subjects like affirmative action and issues of race because
they have not studied them. My observation about this unpreparedness
has convinced me that our students need to further their
political education in order to sharpen their political
consciousness. It is frightening to think that our students
may believe that the struggle for equality stopped with
the end of formal segregation.
... I reject the notion that segregation and discrimination
will return with a vengeance causing havoc and promoting
a disastrous situation that will nullify the 1954 Brown
vs. Board of Education decision. But, at the same time,
I have no doubt that if affirmative action comes to an end,
the number of African-American students attending primarily
white institutions would decrease noticeably. The loss cannot
help but to take a psychological toll on our students in
this setting. Only time will tell the fate of affirmative
action as we know it.
Meanwhile, we as parents, administrators and faculty need
to begin acknowledging affirmative action, for it is a deliberate
attempt to balance a historically one-sided equation in
higher education. We need to begin an open dialogue to better
equip our students with articulate responses when they are
confronted, as we know they will be, with this issue. When
all is said and done, the bottom line is we must begin affirming
affirmative action. We must take the negative sting out
of it for the sake of our ancestors who fought and died
and for the sake of our children -- our benefactors."
-- From Visions, the OAAA newsletter
What changes have you seen during your tenure? How have the students
changed, and how has this place changed?
African-American students used to [be] more involved in the life
of the University. I am somewhat concerned [that] African-American
males are not taking full advantage of the huge resources at the
University. It's a major concern of mine that I've shared with
My primary job is to assist the University of Virginia in becoming
a more welcoming, nurturing, supportive environment for African-American
students. That's becoming more difficult because of the lack of
emphasis on retaining African-American faculty, staff and administrators.
Part of the retention and graduation for African-American students
is also having the opportunity to see other people that look like
them, so if there are no African-Americans, particularly males,
in the Dean of Students Office in Peabody Hall, if there are no
African-American association deans in Garrett Hall -- when 85
percent of African-American students are in the College of Arts
& Sciences -- something's wrong. I'm concerned about the lack
of sensitivity in these offices regarding the need to include
African-Americans. I really feel that the issue of affirmative
action has given some people license to forget the University's
affirmative action commitment.
need to become more accountable on issues of diversity and the
only way that we become accountable is for the people in power
to believe in diversity.
You've parented three successful young people. How'd you do it?
How do you apply those lessons to being a dean of young people
Well, we have been consistently honest with our children. I have
been somewhat of a disciplinarian in raising my children. There
were some rules and regulations that we stuck to. We monitored
their experiences. We were involved.
couldn't wait to be a daddy and I took that very seriously. [My
children] probably think I take it too seriously. My wife would
say, 'Rick, it's over," in terms of monitoring -- she just
told me that the other day.
children grew up in a very happy household. We kept them busy.
And the strength has been my wife. ... We knew what we wanted
to do in terms of being parents, and we had a pretty good idea
of how we were going to be able to do it.
I wanted my children to be athletes, too, and it's just been a
blessing to have three children play Division I basketball. They
were talented, but not gifted. One thing that I always asked them
to do is to work harder than everybody else, because if you [do],
something good's going to happen.
children had to read [and write] every day. Anything that you're
doing every day, the chances are high that you're going to be
good at it. The result of that is that all three of them are very
I had to be there. I wanted people to see my black face ..., so
whether it was soccer, baseball, basketball, I was going to be
the coach or I was going to be the assistant coach. I was going
to be in the classroom ... because my children needed to see me
cultivate the interest of parents who leave their children here.
I want them to be involved. We have parents' advisory associations.
I always ask students, "If you had to do this again, would
you [come to U.Va.]?" And 99.9 percent of black students
or white students say yes. I say, "Would you send your children
here?" You know what some of them say? They can't wait to
send their children here. We're building legacies within the African-American
community. You don't find this at too many other institutions.
that's why I'm concerned, because of the excellence that we have
created, that [U.Va. President] John Casteen has created with
his leadership, with his brilliance, with his passion, with his
commitment; that [Dean of Admission] Jack Blackburn and the admissions
office [created], being steady as rocks when other institutions
are faltering in regards to losing sight of their commitment [to]
affirmative action. We have been standing tall, and hopefully
we will continue to stand tall in regards to this broad, controversial
Q. Once the students get here, how do you prepare African-American
students for achieving success at U.Va.?
They come in prepared. What we try to do is continue doing what
their parents have done, encouraging them to get involved and
take full advantage of the University of Virginia. We shower them
with love through the Peer Advisory Program.
Dean Sylvia Terry -- probably one of the most competent administrators
at the University -- has built this program almost from scratch
... into what it is now, which is a model program across the country.
... We're very proud of that. Our colleagues across the country
know and understand that if you want to model retention and graduation
of African-American students, you come to the University of Virginia
and you talk with Rick Turner and Sylvia Terry.
we have created is a holistic approach, starting with admissions,
starting with the passion and commitment of Jack Blackburn and
his staff, [Associate Dean of Students] Angela Davis and Residence
Life, and [Associate Vice President for Student Affairs] Pat Lampkin
years ago, training students to be more conscious and culturally
aware to the new student body coming in.
Your office's emphasis on peer mentoring is credited with raising
the graduation rate. Why does it work so well, and can that model
be applied to other students?
It works so well because of how it's managed and how it's developed
and the passion that goes into that. Sylvia Terry ... is the best
in the country. She insists on excellence. She trains her [peer
advisers]. They are trained to serve African-American students,
and it starts before students even get here.
students' trials and tribulations and their history in Virginia
and at the University are much different than any other students'.
Other students don't need this brand of advocacy, of caring, of
commitment, because other students haven't been locked out historically
from this institution and other institutions. Their socio-history
is different. Asian students are different. Hispanic students
are different. White students' history is different.
How will we know when affirmative action is no longer needed?
When this country can begin to redistribute wealth. When we can
stop separating ourselves. What we have done historically is lock
African-American people out from housing, from schools, from jobs,
from everything in life. For over 500 years, whites have separated
themselves from people of color. Here at the University, we expect
17- and 18-year-olds to not separate themselves in fraternities
and other enclaves? But they model our behavior. They model the
behavior of their parents. They model the behavior of society.
They go into academic departments and see no people of color,
so they think it's all right, that's the way that it should be,
and it always has been.
students are culturally misinformed. This is what the school system
in America has done -- miseducate all of us. The curriculum has
not told them to honor and respect other cultures, and so what
makes us think that as 17- and 18-year-olds, when they come here,
they're going to be able to do that? If anything is going to happen
during these four years, we have to be consistent in all of the
kinds of things that we do to prepare our young people to leave
here more culturally competent.
I don't think they're leaving here being more culturally competent.
I think that they're leaving here as separate-minded as when they
If we're committed to racial diversity, we'll make the deans and
the academic departments accountable to hiring and retaining African-American
scholars. No one is asking them or making them do that, so therefore
you go into most of the departments and you see no African-American
faculty members, no diversity agenda, no plan.
What is your office's role in the "Charting Diversity˛ program,
and what would you like to see come of it?
A. We're actively involved in that project, but I think we have
the wrong people involved in that. We have people who don't have
any power, can't make any decisions. [It's] just preaching to
the choir. I don't think that much is going to happen unless the
Faculty Senate dedicates itself to making something happen.
has to happen in academic departments. The deans who have the
power and the chairs who have the power have to begin to activate
and devise some diversity plans. We can meet all day. We can talk
all day. Nothing's going to happen with talk. ... We have made
a difference in terms of students, but when you talk about us
as adults, you talk about the deans of departments, you talk about
giving them an agenda, expecting some change, I don't think that's
What future plans do you have for this office? What are you looking
I'm really looking forward to continuing to provide the kinds
of excellent service that we have been providing over the past
12 years. There's not a lot that I would change in the Office
of African-American Affairs. The Office of African-American Affairs
-- like the Women's Center, like International Studies, like the
French House, like the Spanish House -- will always be needed
as long as we have African-American students, just like the Women's
Center will always be needed as long as we enroll a sizeable number
of women. We need to be cognizant of the fact that that kind of
diversity strengthens the University. The Office of African-American
Affairs is here because of being locked out, because of racism.
Racism is still here and as long as it's here, there'll always
be a need for an office for African-American students.
long as African-American students are treated differently, they
need strong advocates. They need people with passion. They need
to see people who are at the University as advocates for them.
... I don't want people to think that just because we have an
Office of African-American Affairs, that there should not be other
African-American people in student affairs and in other walks
all goes together. ... The climate has to be conducive for our
continuous excellence, and so when African-American students go
into these offices, they need to see people who look like them.
That can do nothing but enhance their educational experience and
enhance everybody's educational experience. White students need
to see African-American faculty members in front of the classroom,
too, so they believe that the University is committed to diversity.