Thursday, October 18, 2001

College chasing after diversity

Wilmington's goal to reflect society

By Ben L. Kaufman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        WILMINGTON — Wilmington College recruiter Chip Murdock pursued Shannon Nixson as if she were an All-America soccer star.

[photo] Shannon Nixson (left) talks with recruiter Chip Murdock at Wilmington College.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
        Instead, she was a good student at Hughes Center for the Teaching Professions and a community and school leader.

        Miss Nixson is also black. She was targeted because of her talent, her color and Wilmington College president Dan DiBaisio's commitment to a campus that reflects Ohio's diversity in the midst of 96 percent white Clinton County, about 50 miles northeast of Cincinnati.

        “They made sure I came here,” she said.

        Miss Nixson is one of 49 students of color in the freshman class. It's the largest minority contingent in the college's 131 years and was mostly recruited from urban high schools.

        After hearing Miss Nixson's junior class presentation on “Life after High School,” Mr. Murdock gave her his business card.

        “I knew she would be a good fit,” Mr. Murdock recalled. During Miss Nixson's senior year, he renewed contact each time he visited Hughes, stayed in touch by telephone and brought her to the Quaker campus.

        “The Quaker man on the box of oats” was everything she knew about the Religious Society of Friends, but Miss Nixson, 20, chose Wilmington to study education because of “the good financial aid package and the small campus.”

        This year, she and black Hughes classmates Charla Gray of Avondale and Natalie Howard of Bond Hill are among 292 Wilmington freshmen.

        Last year, Wilmington had 28 freshmen students of color. In 1997 it was 15 and in 1993, when the college hired Art Brooks as its first director of multicultural affairs, it was eight.

        “Today, you don't feel like such an outcast,” Mr. Brooks said.

        Today, 117 — or 9.9 percent of the 1,182 students — are nonwhite, more than twice the percentage six years ago.

        Resources invested in them reflect Dr. DiBiasio's priorities when he became president in 1995.

    • Founded: 1870 by Quakers in Wilmington, the seat of Clinton County, about 50 miles northeast of Cincinnati.
    • Enrollment: 1,182 students on the main campus, about 90 percent white.
    • Branch campuses: 4360 Ferguson Drive, with 132 students, and Sharonville, with 268 students.
    • Majors: 24 bachelor's degrees in arts and sciences.
    • Graduate degrees: Its first graduate degree program, in education, begins in January.
    • Tuition and fees: $15,746 annually.
    • Room: $2,920.
    • Meals: $3,160.
    • Financial aid: 95 percent of students get some financial aid; average package is almost $12,000.
        “If you all look alike and you all think alike, there is something wrong,” Dr. DiBiasio said. “Education has been, is and will continue to be the best hope for dealing with race in America.”

        For African-Americans, his campus goal is 11.5 percent, the proportion of blacks in Ohio's 2000 census.

        That puts pressure on Mr. Murdock and fellow recruiters to enroll at least 50 college-ready black youngsters for 2002-03.

        However, recruiting isn't enough. Wilmington has graduated as few as two blacks per year in the past six years.

        Successful diversity also means creating financial and cultural support systems for students who never had been in a white-majority class. Typically, minority students need scholarships, grants and loans to cover most of Wilmington's $24,000 annual costs.

        Even if it means some debt, Wilmington is a good deal, Mr. Murdock tells prospects who also are looking at historically black Wilberforce and Central State universities.

        “The real world is mostly white. You need to be able to blend in. It's not like high school.”

        Witnesses to change at Wilmington include Edwin Short, 21, a senior business major and football running back from Mount Healthy. He chose Wilmington for its “great student-prof relationships. I didn't want to be a number. Here, right from the start, they knew my name.”

        In recent years, the school has seen improved retention and graduation rates, attributed in part to Mr. Brooks' programs, creation of the Concerned Black Students group, hiring black recruiters and African-American mentors.

        That last may be foremost. Miss Nixson's mentor is junior Tainiya Fair of Cleveland, who provides tips on classes, faculty and living in Wilmington.

        “It's her job to make sure I'm not stuck in my room,” Miss Nixson said. “She's pretty cool.”

        Isolation is one reason she often sits with blacks at meals. “That's the only time we have to socialize and to relate to each other.”

        Don't read too much into that, recruiter Mr. Murdock cautioned. “We're pretty tight-knit as far as sticking together.”

        Race relations were much better than he expected when he arrived last year and they're getting better, said Hughes alumnus Brian Banks, 19, a sophomore from Walnut Hills.

        “I'm cool with a lot of white people but you talk to people you know.”

        For all of its commitment, one missing piece is faculty. The first tenured black professor probably was Marie Buncombe in English in the mid-1960s. Of the 65 tenure-track positions today, two are filled by black assistant professors.


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