Leaders of Minority-Serving Institutions: Perspectives of Promises to Keep

March 18, 2015

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Brandon Daniels, associate director of ACE’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy, writes on the unique perspective Minority-Serving Institutions bring to the partnership between higher education institutions and public policymakers, a topic discussed at ACE’s Annual Meeting.

I have attended many conferences in my career as a student and as a professional, but I have to say “Leaders of Minority-Serving Institutions: Perspectives of Promises to Keep” had to be one of the top three sessions I have ever attended. As a person who has a passion for and studies Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), to hear the dedication these presidents have for leading their institutions was truly inspiring.

But first, let’s imagine you are the leader of an institution that has some or all of these demographics: 83 percent part-time students; the average age is 26; the average per capita income in your county is $7,900; two-thirds of your new students are transfer students; you have a large population of students who are homeless; and you serve a large population of students who are aging out of the foster care system. Is that a job you would want?

The panel, moderated by William B. Harvey (North Carolina A&T State University) examined the unique role of MSI’s in the ecosystem of higher education and how they serve a sector of the higher education population that many institutions forget.

The panel included Thomas Shortbull, president of Oglala Lakota College, a Tribal College in South Dakota; Adena Williams Loston, president of St. Phillips College (TX)—which has the unique distinction of being the only institution in American that is designated as an HSI and an HBCU—and Ricardo R. Fernandez, president of Lehman College, a Hispanic-Serving Institution located in the Bronx.

There were many topics discussed during the session, but a few rose to the top:

Degree of Difficulty. Dr. Fernandez had one of the most thought-provoking lines of the morning. He was asked about the Obama administration’s ratings plan and how it would impact his institution. He gave the analogy of a diver in the Olympics: Each person is required to perform a dive, but the type of dive is rated on a degree of difficulty—the more risk you take, the greater the reward. So, is it fair that an institution accepting “high-risk” students are rated the same as an institution that “hand picks” its incoming class?

Have we gotten away from our moral imperative? Loston discussed the idea that “some education” for the less fortunate is wrong. Simply teaching to entry-level workforce needs is simply not enough; students need an education to stay on top of the ever-changing and evolving technology needs of our economy. She also talked about needing to be aware of the “messenger”; that too many people advocating for giving individuals a certificate or a credential come from privileged backgrounds.

“Reaching the promised land.” Shortbull discussed the fact the MSI’s are the beacon of hope for people who want to change their lives. For example, his institution is located in two of the three poorest counties in the United States but has managed to provide higher education to 4,000 Native American residents in 40 years.

Caring vs. Knowing. Lastly, one person asked the panel whether or not people making decisions about higher education really understand the impact of their choices. Dr. Loston eloquently stated that “have I done the research?” and “do I care?” are two different questions. The panel went on to state there is a true disconnect between high school exit standards and college entrance standard—and this disconnect has the unintended consequence of widening the institutional divide.

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