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Saturday, July 3, 2010


As I plunged ever deeper into the details of the admissions process at UMass, I discovered obstacles to minority students that I had never suspected. Two examples, one state wide, the other peculiar to the Springfield situation, will give some idea of the sorts of hindrances and disabilities built into the bureaucratic regulations of Massachusetts. I do not think any of the senior administrators had the slightest knowledge of these problems, because they looked only at system wide statistics and summary reports provided by their underlings. I am going on at such length about these matters, which cannot possibly be interesting to anyone not directly engaged in trying to increase the minority representation on a university campus, because I quickly realized that it is these details that shape the national figures about which high level government officials pontificate. There is a much larger lesson to be learned from my parochial experience.

First the local wrinkle. Massachusetts, like many states, mandates certain course requirements that must be fulfilled by any student seeking admission to the state university. One of the requirements -- the most difficult for many students to fulfill -- is satisfactory performance in two years of Mathematics. In all of the Springfield high schools but one, Math 1 and Math 2 fulfilled the state requirement, so guidance counselors helping a student plan his or her programs would make sure to put them into Math 1 and Math 2 if the student had any aspiration to go to college. But in one of the high schools, attended principally by Black and Hispanic students, Math 1 was divided into two parts, so that a student who had taken two years of Math had actually satisfied only one year of the state requirement. When we started working in that high school, we found student after student who came into the senior year thinking that he or she had satisfied all of the requirements for admission to UMass, only to discover that the transcript, as interpreted by the UMass Admissions Office, was one year of Math shy. Ben Rodriguez knew this, of course, and he had actually created a summer program for students with this defect in their transcripts. He got permission to offer these students provisional admission, and then put them through a summer program to bring them into compliance by the time the Fall semester rolled around.

The second problem concerned the formula, once again mandated by the State Legislature, by which the Admissions office converted the transcript of an applicant into a GPA. As part of its effort to upgrade the student body at the State colleges and university campuses, the legislature had ruled that in calculating a student's GPA, College Preparatory courses were to be automatically upped half a grade, and Advanced Placement courses a full grade. So a B+, or 3.5, in a College Prep science class became a 4.0 for purposes of calculating the student's GPA, and a 3.5 in an Advancement Placement math class became a 4.5. This is why some students actually came to college with a GPA higher than 4.0, which was supposedly a perfect score.

Not surprisingly, the high schools in Massachusetts with very high concentrations of Black and Latino students by and large offered many fewer College Prep and Advanced Placement courses. No matter how academically proficient a student at one of those high schools might be, he or she could not possibly rack up a GPA as impressive as even a less able students at one of the well-funded suburban schools where College Prep and Advanced Placement courses were readily available.

Eventually, I succeeded in getting supplementary funding for SUMMA from the NELLIE MAE Foundation and the Boston Globe Foundation, so that in all I raised close to $800,000 for the program. Operationally, it was a modified success. College became a believable option for a number of Springfield students who might otherwise never have considered post-secondary education, and a number of the SUMMA students actually won admission to UMass under the agreement I had worked out with my administration. I even managed to get the University to take ownership of the program after the outside funding ran out. But despite our efforts, we really did not make a noticeable change in the numbers of minority students attending UMass.

My grandiose dreams for the expansion of SUMMA, however, ran smack into the bureaucratic intransigence of the university administration, and the net result was that I was officially and very publicly rebuked. I conceived the idea of applying for a major grant from the U. S. Government under something called the Trio Programs. My idea was to expand SUMMA to all four undergraduate campuses of the University and to several additional Massachusetts cities, including Worcester and Boston. I spent endless hours meeting with the central school administrations of the cities, as well as with representatives from the UMass Lowell, UMass Boston, and UMass Dartmouth campuses. My big idea was that by integrating SUMMA into the entire state, we would be able to guarantee a student from any participating high school in Massachusetts admission to any one of the four campuses. At one of the many meetings I attended, I met the President of the UMass system, and won his approval for the idea.

All hell broke loose on the Amherst campus. I had violated the first and most fundamental rule of all bureaucracies. I had jumped the chain of command. I had spoken to the President without first speaking to the Chancellor. A solemn meeting was called in the Chancellor's Board Room in the Whitmore Administration Building. Everyone was there. The Chancellor, the Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs, Floyd Martin from CCEBMS, Ben Rodriguez from BCP, Lucy Nguyen from UALRC, and a bevy of Associate Provosts, Deputy Vice Chancellors, and Assistant Provosts. Even Esther was there as my Chair. I was publicly rebuked, and told in no uncertain terms that I must never do anything like that again.

Needless to say, no one mentioned the merits or demerits of my plan, nor was the subject of educational opportunity for minority students ever broached. No one at the meeting cared about that half so much as they cared that I had spoken to the President without first speaking to the Chancellor. I blush to admit that I was completely unfazed by the dressing down. You see, I knew that I was the only distinguished scholar in the room, and in my universe, that was all that mattered. There is nothing that protects you from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune quite so well as sheer intellectual arrogance.

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