BY JOHN KELSEY

Alabama’s higher education system has had a storied past when it comes to welcoming diversity. Gov. George Wallace’s 1963 “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door,” where he attempted to prevent the racial integration of the University of Alabama, wasn’t the end of the state’s scrutiny by the federal government. Several Alabama colleges and universities in 1983 were again on the cusp of being forced to reevaluate their desegregation efforts.

Then, predominately white institutions (PWIs), as they are still known today, were implicated in a lawsuit brought by Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), arguing they were still operating a “dual education” system that continued to promote segregation 20 years after Wallace’s stand.

DiverseCityThumbnailThe federal case the lawsuit spawned — Knight et al. v. United States — spent two years in litigation before the parties agreed to an initial settlement, part of which directed the defendant schools to enter into a consent decree. The decree allowed the federal courts to monitor diversity recruitment at PWIs in hopes it would “eliminate the vestiges of racism which still exist in Alabama’s college and university system.”

Dr. Hattie Myles, a 25-year employee of the University of South Alabama (USA), was the first African American recruiter at Louisiana State University, where there had been a similar lawsuit during the same time.

“We had to attend this meeting and a guy from D.C. came down,” Myles recalled. “His message was, ‘you either desegregate or you shut down.’”

Myles, now assistant dean of student affairs and educational enrichment, joined USA not long after the decree was put in place and has been involved with recruitment and development efforts ever since. She is primarily involved with the Diversity Recruitment and Enrichment for Admission into Medicine (DREAM) program, a newer version of a similar program initially developed during the decree.

Advancements in minority enrollment plus greater diversified scholarship and grant opportunities eventually led to the case’s closure in 2006, but the final settlement further required the defendants to create and implement “strategic diversity plans,” which USA completed in 2007.

Employing more than 5,000 staff members and educating more than 15,000 students each year, USA is not only economically viable to Mobile, it’s considered a beacon of opportunity and an institution expected to practice social, political and educational equality. But in spite of its diversity plan, one of the central racial disparities still seen in most all higher education is within the faculty.

During the 20 years spanning the decree, the number of full-time African American faculty at USA actually declined, from 3.5 percent in 1993 to 3.3 percent in 2005. Currently — 10 years later — African Americans represent just 4.5 percent (35 individuals) of full-time faculty at USA, while white faculty represent 83.5 percent, or 648 individuals. Such a large disparity may look bad on the surface, but there are many things that account for such numbers.

One of the most apparent causes is what is referred to as a “pipeline” problem. This basically means that minorities, particularly African Americans, aren’t making their way to the upper echelons of higher education to be eligible for faculty positions in the first place.

“All institutions in some form or fashion have and should have the concept of diversity as a part of their central focus and central mission,” USA Dean of Students and Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Michael A. Mitchell said. “In order to do that you’re competing for what is sometimes, depending on field, a limited pool of applicants who have had access to the education and attained the criteria and degree.”

(Photo/ Wikimedia.org) Alabama’s higher education system continues to struggle with diversity decades after Gov. Wallace’s protest.

(Photo/ Wikimedia.org) Alabama’s higher education system continues to struggle with diversity decades after Gov. Wallace’s protest.

Instances of such low faculty diversity aren’t limited to USA, however. Auburn University, for example, has 49 full-time African American faculty members compared with 968 who are white. The University of Massachusetts-Boston, one of USA’s benchmark schools of similar size, has just 30 full-time African American faculty members, according to recent data.

“It’s not just the South,” Myles said. “I go to these conferences and the people at institutions in New York and California, they have the very same issues.”

As one means to correct this problem, USA’s diversity plan called for more of what USA Vice President of Human Resources Pamela Henderson calls “aggressive and assertive outreach,” anything from advertising faculty job openings in places where more diverse applicants may be looking to utilizing a search firm.

“They can do some mining for folks that have the skills, abilities and knowledge,” Henderson said. “And they know in the search firm that diversity would be a plus.”

But search firms are typically reserved for administrative positions, which still leaves a large gap to fill. And while USA and other educational institutions have developed competitive incentives to recruit qualified minority candidates, there is also the fact that many of these candidates will choose to enter industry rather than academia.

To compound the situation, economics can play a large role in which institutions are able to successfully recruit those interested in faculty and administrative positions, regardless of race.

“[Other institutions] have the resources to say, ‘well, we’ll just outbid the University of South Alabama,’” Henderson noted.

And the incentive of increasing someone’s pay based on their ethnicity isn’t something state institutions can do because they have obligations involving everyone who works for the university, as well as how state or federal money can be spent.

“If it takes a substantial financial premium to hire and bring that person in, and they’re making much more than many others in the institution, then that creates issues as well,” USA Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. David Johnson said. “To be fair you’d have to increase everyone’s salary.”

According to Johnson, lifting the consent decree may have actually slowed some progress in minority recruitment. This is mainly because, in addition to more funds being available, the decree offered a certain level of legal protection. He explained that during the decree, schools had the ability to target, for example, an African American for a position without necessarily considering candidates of other races.

“That’s illegal now because we no longer have the protection of the court,” Johnson said. “We can go out and contact [minorities] and ask them to apply, but they still have to compete and go through a process.”

Although some may consider it reverse discrimination, the practice did aid in increasing diversity. Another approach many universities take in hiring is to rely on networks of familiar people and places. This can come with mixed results, too, depending on the network.

“What I see happening often is that structures tend to perpetuate themselves,” said Associate Vice President for the Office of Institutional Effectiveness Angela Coleman. “A lot of that happens because recruitment happens in networks and networks are, relatively, homogenous.”

Coleman herself and the office she works for are both new to USA, being introduced in fall 2013. She works closely with faculty, staff and administration to determine how to improve the campus as a whole. Coleman said she hopes to address the outreach issue by encouraging existing staff to purposefully expand their networks.

“If you’re relying on a network strategy, you’re only going to be able to contact people who people in your network know,” Johnson elaborated. “And there are a lot of people out there who we don’t know about and we can’t reach them.”

Although it can limit the number of applicants, Johnson explained that network recruitment can produce better results than typical efforts.

Even though diversity seems to be the proverbial uphill battle, some things proposed recently may assist in socialization, both before and after a minority candidate is hired. As Coleman explained, “opening the doors is one thing, welcoming people through them is another.”

Being one of the more recent African American hires at USA, Coleman expressed how warmly she was welcomed, but suggested something like a “black staff association” may have the ability to provide a more comprehensive approach in the hiring process. She further explained that being able to connect with people who have shared experiences — such as ethnicity — can make a big impact in getting people to a university and keeping them there. Johnson agreed.

As far as recruiting more minority students and non-faculty employees, USA has experienced better results. From 1991 to 2005, USA managed to improve its student body diversity from 10.5 percent African American to 17.7 percent. In the spring semester of 2015, the student body was 20.8 percent African American, or about 3,285 of 15,805 total students. This percentage more closely mirrors the overall representation of African American employees at the university, 26.2 percent of 5,505 employees.

Although USA is still a PWI at the academic level, with 64 percent of students identifying as white, minority enrollment is higher than what is seen at some of its benchmark schools and other state universities. Auburn University, for example, reports having just 1,886 African American students, less than 10 percent of its total student body of 25,912. The University of Alabama is a little better, enrolling 4,435 African Americans, or 12.3 percent of its total student body of 36,155.

USA’s student diversity has a lot to do with the level of accessibility into the school, but it’s not just race that comes into play.

“We’re much more diverse by class,” Johnson suggested.

Much of USA’s larger representation of different socioeconomic backgrounds is can be attributed to its cost of tuition and admission requirements differing from that of other state schools. The average cost of tuition at USA is about $1,000 less per semester than at schools like Auburn and Alabama. USA also accepts lower scores on admission tests like the ACT, which can help students who might not have had the financial advantage of being tutored for entrance exams.

A broader socioeconomic representation is further evidenced by the number of USA students receiving aid through federal Pell Grants. Recent government data shows 4,616 USA students, or around 30 percent, received some form of federal aid. Auburn, meanwhile, had 3,573 aid recipients, or about 14 percent of its total student body.

Johnson said an important part of USA’s mission is encouraging potential students to seek federal aid if they don’t qualify for scholarships or can’t afford to pay tuition outright. The university wants “to provide that foot up to individuals in our society who have been disadvantaged,” he said, “providing access to students of color, to students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, to students whose parents did not go to college.”

Most everyone interviewed agreed there are still many steps to take in order to have a higher education system that is equitable for both students and employees, and it often involves more than just diversity.

“The truth of the matter is that there are a lot of competing priorities,” Coleman explained. “But I think there will be more diversity simply because demographics will demand it.”

John Kelsey contributed this article as a candidate for the Master of Arts in Communication program at the University of South Alabama in spring 2015. All interviews were conducted earlier this year.

This is part of a series of stories examining race data in Mobile and Baldwin counties, for more, visit lagniappemobile.com/series/DiverseCity.