Sept. 22-28, 2000
Back Issues
Engineers awarded NSF grants in information technology
U.Va.'s new online finance system nearing completion
New center uses nurses' expertise

The true story of the Alderman map thief

In Memoriam
Writer's Eye competition opens Sept. 25
Hot Links - "ClarkCam"
Q&A - Turner's passion produces results for Arican-American students
Foreign TV programs offered on Grounds
Need CA$H?
Researcher to speak on DNA study of Jefferson descendants
Upstart Aussies troupe to perform in Charlottesville
After Hours - Berdel finds peace of mind and body through t'ai chi ch'uan
U.Va. among six centers studying heart disease in diabetics
Turner's passion produces results for African-American students

By Dan Heuchert

Rick 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.

The 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 of 1988.

With 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.

We recently sat down with Turner at his office in the Luther P. Jackson House for a wide-ranging discussion.

Q: 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.

I 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.

On affirmative action

It 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

Q. What changes have you seen during your tenure? How have the students changed, and how has this place changed?

A. 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 other people.

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.

We 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.

Q. 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 here?

A. 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.

I 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.

My 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.

My 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 good writers.

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 there.

I 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.

And 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 issue.

Q. Once the students get here, how do you prepare African-American students for achieving success at U.Va.?

A. 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.

[Associate] 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.

What 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.

Q. 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?

A. 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.

African-American 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.

Q. How will we know when affirmative action is no longer needed?

A. 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.

Many 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 came in.

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.

Q. 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.

It 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 happening.

Q. What future plans do you have for this office? What are you looking forward to?

A. 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.

As 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 of life.

It 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.



© Copyright 2000 by the Rector and Visitors
of the University of Virginia

UVa Home Page UVa Events Calendar Top News UVa Home Page