Turner: ‘The journey continues’
by Andrew Shurtleff
To kick off Black History Month, M. Rick Turner, dean
of the Office of African-American Affairs, delivered his inaugural
State of African-American Affairs address in the Rotunda Feb.
For the vast majority of
the University of Virginia’s 185-year history, the idea
that a black man would give a speech about African-American affairs
at the University anywhere on Grounds — let alone in the
Dome Room of the Rotunda — would have been absurd.
For M. Rick Turner, dean of the Office
of African-American Affairs, it was time.
“I thought it was about time to give the University community
a better understanding of the state of African-American affairs
as I see it,” he said on the evening of Feb. 2, shortly
after delivering remarks to a diverse audience of approximately
Turner has delivered similar speeches for about a decade as part
of Family Weekend events. His staff convinced him to address the
larger community as a way to kick off observations of Black History
Month at the University, he said.
Turner’s address celebrated the many successes of his office,
including black students’ 87 percent graduation rate —
far and away the top figure among public schools in the United
States. For that, he credited the caliber of students the University
attracts and the work of assistant dean Sylvia Terry, who directs
the highly successful Peer Advisor Program.
Turner touted the schedule of cultural events that his office
puts together, lauded the parental involvement his office fosters,
and recounted the University’s involvement in programs for
the greater community. He invited the audience to inspect renovations
to the Luther P. Jackson House that should be complete this spring.
And then he got down to business. His speech was subtitled “The
Journey Continues,” and he made it clear that he felt there
was a lot of road yet to be covered.
“In spite of our well-documented successes, for the past
three or four years I, as well as many others both inside and
outside the University, have become increasingly concerned about
the declining enrollment of black students,” he said. Black
undergraduate enrollment peaked at 1,366 in 1991; this year, it
has dropped to 1,130, the lowest ebb since 1988, he said.
Turner blamed the decline on reduced recruitment efforts in the
face of threats of possible litigation from “the conservative
right and other adversaries of affirmative action.” The
cautious approach, he said, has led some to question the University’s
commitment to black students — an idea with which he disagrees.
With last summer’s Supreme Court ruling upholding race-based
admission policies for the purposes of fostering diversity, “It
is important for the University of Virginia to resume aggressive
recruitment and get back to the business of enrolling more black
students,” he advised, suggesting that a good first step
would be to increase financial aid efforts.
In a similar vein, he called for renewed efforts at recruiting
black faculty and administrators. There are only 25 full-time
black faculty members in Arts & Sciences — 4 percent
of the school’s faculty — and 117 University-wide,
including 51 administrators, he noted.
“We short-change all students, educationally and culturally,
when they are deprived of the experience of learning from black
and other faculty of color in the classroom, and in our offices,”
he said. “Every building and every floor should have black
professionals. This is certainly not the case today.”
Turner praised Gene Block, vice
president and provost, and Arts
& Sciences dean Edward L. Ayers for their efforts at improving
minority faculty recruitment, but made it clear that he sees their
work as a start.
“As the No. 1 public institution in higher education, we
must do no less than lead,” he declared.
Turner also expressed his concerns about the committees appointed
by University President John T. Casteen III and the U.Va. Board
of Visitors that are investigating issues related to diversity.
Past reports from similar groups have been ignored, said Turner,
an ex officio member of the president’s Commission on Diversity
and Equity. He added he is wary that an institutional focus on
diversity would dilute the attention paid to African-American
“Diversity initiatives do not address the complexity of
inherited disadvantages,” he charged. “Once diversity
sets out to accomplish goals that extend beyond the historic attempts
to rectify discrimination based on race, it can and often does
lose effectiveness as a remedy to race-based bias.
“The troubling aspect of diversity programs and non-race-based
initiatives is that they are often put out as a substitute for
affirmative action and other race-based policies, as if the goals
remain the same, but the means for attaining them are different.”
Turner also lamented recent events, including last year’s
allegedly racially motivated assault on Daisy Lundy, a Student
Council presidential candidate of black and Asian heritage, and
ongoing racial profiling of black students, faculty and staff
as part of the police investigation into a series of local rapes.
“While such occurrences may be perceived of as harmless
and inevitable, their effects are often devastating,” he
said. “As a result of such incidents, the progress made
over the years is tattered, and the University community is left
with gaping wounds that only time can heal.”
“The journey continues,” he concluded.