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African-American Affairs office has charted successful, 25-year course

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M. Rick Turner
M. Rick Turner, OAAA dean

African-American Affairs office has charted successful, 25-year course

By Charlotte Crystal

The Office of African-American Affairs set sail in rough seas a quarter of a century ago and still is on course with a focus on academic achievement, student retention, advocacy for black issues and cultural programming around Grounds.

“The OAAA has strengthened the University through its many efforts in nurturing diversity and promoting African-American cultural events, raising institutional awareness and helping U.Va. grow into an ethnically and culturally rich institution that reflects modern society,” said Gene D. Block, vice president and provost.

The office was built in the aftermath of the American civil rights movement. In 1969, President Edgar F. Shannon Jr. sought advice on desegregating the traditionally all-white, all-male bastion of higher education. A faculty committee recommended: “The first thing that must be done is to convey to the entire Commonwealth of Virginia that all Virginians are welcomed at the University.”

In October 1975, unhappy with the slow pace of progress, the Black Student Alliance called for the establishment of an Office of Minority Affairs, an idea quickly endorsed by a University planning committee.

Half a century: African-American milestones at the University

1950 • Walter N. Ridley is the first black student to enter U.Va. and earns a Ph.D. in education three years later.

1959 • The first black undergraduate, Robert Bland, receives his engineering degree.
March 1963 n Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at U.Va.

May 1963 • Faculty, students participate in city’s first sit-in at Buddy’s Restaurant.

Spring 1969 • Student demonstrators demand recruitment of black students and faculty and the establishment of a Black Studies Program.

October 1969 • Associate professor William Elwood is appointed assistant for special programs in charge of U.Va.’s desegregation efforts.

May 1970 • Faculty adopt an interdepartmental major in Afro-American Studies.

Summer 1976 • U.Va. establishes the Office of Afro-American Affairs, with William M. Harris as the first dean.

1978 • OAAA inaugurates Spring Fling Weekend to encourage minority enrollment.

1981 n Paul L. Puryear takes the post of OAAA dean.

April 1981 • U.Va. creates the Institute for Afro-American and African Studies, directed by Armstead L. Robinson until his death in 1995. The institute is later named for Carter G. Woodson, who founded African-American History Month.

February 1985 • Puryear starts a diversity workshop to improve relationships between black students and white faculty.

1986 • Rev. Joseph A. Brown becomes OAAA dean.

Spring 1986 • Students call for U.Va.’s divestment in companies in South Africa under apartheid.

Summer 1986 • Task force makes recommendations for the enrollment and retention of black students and faculty.

Late ’80s to present • U.Va. is cited for having the highest graduation rate of African-American students, around 84 percent, among public universities.

1988 • M. Rick Turner named OAAA dean.
February 1990 n The Luther P. Jackson Black Cultural Center hosts Rosa Parks.

1994 • Black Student Alliance members march to Carr’s Hill to protest race issues.

1996 • Office of Equal Opportunity Programs issues the “Muddy Floor” report assailing the working conditions for African-American classified staff.

1999 • Longitudinal Study of African-American students shows that the majority find OAAA is a useful resource.

Established in 1976, the Office of African-American Affairs (its name changed in the mid-’90s) was charged with promoting the success of African-American students and an institutional culture that embraces diversity.

Providing a welcoming environment for African-American students is the guiding star of the office and the inspiration for dean M. Rick Turner. “Our goal is to provide a high level of comfort for black students bsy being here, by providing a place to go and a friendly shoulder to lean on,” Turner said. “We shower our students with love and care.”

Mentoring programs

Several of the programs established under Turner’s guidance have made the University a national leader in retaining and graduating African-American students.

Above all, its nationally recognized Peer Advisor program, established in 1984 and run by Associate Dean Sylvia V. Terry since 1989, has played a crucial role in U.Va’s success in graduating black students, Turner said. [See companion story.]
In 1993, the American Association of University Administrators recognized Terry’s work for “exemplary practice in achieving campus diversity,” and in 1999, The Templeton Guide: Colleges that Encourage Character Development cited the initiative as a model program.

Another successful OAAA initiative is the Faculty-Student Mentoring Program, directed by Assistant Dean Xiaoming “Peter” Yu, which matches second- and third-year students with faculty members with similar interests. In 1998, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia recognized it as one of the “successful student retention models in Virginia’s colleges and universities.”

Student retention

“The OAAA has been instrumental in the recruitment and retention of African-American students and in promoting an institutional awareness of issues affecting minority students,” said Leonard W. Sandridge Jr., executive vice president and chief operating officer.

In 1999, according to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, U.Va.’s graduation rate for black students was 86 percent, tied with Dartmouth College and Duke University, and behind only seven prestigious schools in the Northeast. For the past several years, among public institutions of higher education, U.Va. has had the highest graduation rate for black students in the country.

“Having a critical mass of African-American students at U.Va. is one of the major reasons black students come here and graduate,” Turner said.

Parent contact is key

Key to OAAA’s success with African-American students has been the close ties Turner has established with their parents. The OAAA holds an annual orientation program, “Harambe I,” to welcome entering African-American students and their parents to U.Va. President John T. Casteen III and other top University officials attend, Turner said.

President Hereford and members of Black Student Alliance
Photo courtesy of “Corks and Curls” yearbook, 197
Members of U.Va.’s Black Student Alliance, and other students, met with President Frank L. Hereford in the mid-1970s urging him to establish an office to address minority concerns. In 1976, the University formally established the Office of Minority Affairs, now the Office of African-American Affairs.

The office also hosts a fall program for parents during Family Weekend, and throughout the year, Turner keeps in touch with parents by telephone, meetings and mailings of a semi-annual newsletter, Visions.

The office also does its part to support and recognize students’ accomplishments, holding “Harambe II,” an annual awards ceremony honoring entering students who have earned grade-point averages of 3.4 or higher after the first semester. Two years ago, a similar program was added to recognize students with consistently high academic achievements as well as accomplishments in leadership and athletics.

“Their college experience will be the foundation for the rest of their lives,” Turner said. “I urge our students to leave their own personal legacy at the University.”

Cultural programming

The Luther P. Jackson Black Cultural Center takes the lead in coordinating OAAA cultural events with academic departments and University groups. The center co-sponsors a broad array of programs year-round — concerts, lectures, art exhibits, poetry readings, plays and food festivals, to name a few.

The OAAA takes a lead role in organizing activities for African-American History Month, bringing guest speakers and artists to the Grounds, ranging from jazz pianist Herbie Hancock to African scholar Ali A. Mazrui.

Enrollment of African-American Undergraduates
Year Total Undergrads Af-Am. Undergrads % Af-Am.
1960 3,184 N/A N/A
1967* 5,096 19 0.4
1970 6,576 121 1.8
1976** 10,000 425 4.2
1980 11,046 792 7.2
1990 11,304 1,261 11.2
2000 12,489 1,190 9.5
2001 12,595 1,168 9.3

* 1967 was the first year that U.Va. kept statistics on African-American students.

** 1976 was the year that U.Va. established the Office of African-American Affairs.
SOURCE: U.Va. Office of Institutional Assessment and Studies.

“We are very proud of the cultural programming our office sponsors,” Turner said. “There was little to none in place before the office was established and it has grown gradually over time. Our office has worked hard to help broaden the cultural horizons of the University community as a whole.”

Thanks to the efforts of the Office of African American Affairs and support from faculty and administrators, the minority presence at U.Va. has grown, although it hasn’t yet reached the point where it mirrors the population of minorities — especially blacks — in the larger population.

Blacks now make up 3 percent of the teaching and research faculty and 6.7 percent of administrative and professional faculty, more than doubling in both cases from 1976 levels. Two recent, high-profile administrative appointments that have gone to African Americans are Craig Littlepage as athletic director and Paul E. Norris Jr. as chief of U.Va. police.

Many black undergraduates now at U.Va. are enthusiastic participants in University life, active in musical and dramatic performances, leaders in student government and other groups. Many also excel academically and have won University-wide and national recognition for their achievements.

“The University has made progress,” Turner said. “But because of the persistent nature of the problems of race in our society, unfortunately, I think this office will always be needed.”

Challenges continue, but the seas of social change are gentler now than a quarter century ago. African-American students still appreciate the sense of security that comes from climbing aboard a smooth-sailing ship with Turner’s hand at the helm.


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