A college president addressing the retention and graduation issue in higher education Monday at Middle Tennessee State University emphasized creating a campus culture that nurtures students.
Known nationally as an education innovator, University of Maryland-Baltimore County President Freeman A. Hrabowski III kicked off the Retention Summit with a call to listen more to students’ views.
Hrabowski, who has been hailed by Time Magazine as one of the 10 best college presidents in the country, has been tapped by President Barack Obama to chair the Presidential Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African-Americans.
In encouraging MTSU personnel to get to know students personally, Hrabowski said, “You don’t know a person until you know that person’s story.”
In addition, Hrabowski encouraged the participants gathered inside the Student Union Building on campus to use analytics to pinpoint students who might need assistance, including African-Americans, Hispanics, first-generation students and low-income whites.
“Campuses that are becoming increasingly enlightened are using technology and mathematical modeling in order to look at trends in academic performance,” Hrabowski said.
When a member of the audience stated that a bill pending in the Tennessee General Assembly would prevent state government entities from collecting or reporting data based on race, gender or ethnicity unless required by federal law or court order, Hrabowski said, “That is about the same level of enlightenment as burning libraries. … When people don’t want to know the truth, then we have moved beyond the idea of enlightenment completely.”
The measure is Senate Bill 0007, which is sponsored by state Sen. Jim Summerville, a Republican from Dickson. It has been referred to the Senate State and Local Government Committee.
In noting that about two-thirds of Americans do not have college degrees, Hrabowski said, while it’s fine to have beautiful buildings on campus, first-generation students can find them intimidating and diminish their sense of self.
“If a student has a sense of self, that student will work harder and harder," he said, "and nothing takes the place of hard work."
He also urged the approximately 200 participants to foster a climate that does not result in defensiveness when the campus community expresses what he called “the good, the bad and the ugly” about the university.
The summit was held in response to the emphasis on retention and graduation rates in institutions governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents. That reform measure was enacted by former Gov. Phil Bredesen during his last term in office.
“With the Complete College Act of Tennessee that was passed two years ago by the General Assembly, it has put the onus now on the campuses, on the individuals, on the faculty, the staff and administrators to make sure our students are successful and they become productive citizens once they enter our institution,” said Sidney A. McPhee, president of MTSU.
MTSU recently announced that it granted more bachelor’s degrees and graduated more students for less money during the 2011-12 academic year than any other institution governed by the Board of Regents.
However, according to Vincent Windrow, director of the MTSU Intercultural and Diversity Center, the graduation rate for African-American students or 2004 through 2010 was 39.9 percent, a figure he said must be raised.