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U.Va. experts and scholars revisit University history, progress toward equity for BIPOC

The Office of African American Affairs and the Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion continue to work in their pursuits against complacency

<p>An emphasis on learning from our history and weaknesses, yet looking forward to correcting them without “sugar coating” is how Apprey and McDonald vision the steps to progress.&nbsp;</p>

An emphasis on learning from our history and weaknesses, yet looking forward to correcting them without “sugar coating” is how Apprey and McDonald vision the steps to progress. 

Amidst continuing racial conflicts and inequalities across the country, professors and scholars from across the University community reflect on the institution’s progress toward equity for Black, Indigenous and people of color over the past century.

The University has a “peculiar and complex history,” said Maurice Apprey, dean of African American Affairs. From the University’s founding until 1950, African Americans were excluded from studying or matriculating at the University, and the state of Virginia would instead pay for them to get their education from other institutions’ curricula, such as Columbia University and Morehouse College. In 1950, Gregory Swanson became the first black student to enroll at the University after winning a lawsuit allowing him to gain admittance into the School of Law. Afterwards, other African American students were able to enroll in the Schools of Medicine, Engineering, Law and Education, but the University did not accept black undergraduate students until 1955. .

By the 1960s, Black students made up only 0.4 percent of the University population, and shops and other places in Charlottesville refused to serve them.

However, in 1976, students from the graduating class staged a sit-in at former University President Frank Hereford’s house to demand that he relinquish his membership to the white-only Farmington Country Club and that the University establish an Office of African American Affairs. Hereford resigned from the club, and the OAAA came to fruition in 1976.

Now, with Apprey at the head of the OAAA — a position he has held since 2007 —  academic equity for BIPOC students on Grounds is a top priority.

According to data from Apprey and the OAAA aggregated over the past four years, 90 percent of Black students at the University graduate within six years, which is higher than any other flagship state university in the country. However, this is in comparison to the 95 percent of white students who graduate in that same amount of time.

Apprey’s main focus for the past decade has been to increase the number of Black students who average a GPA of 3.4 or higher. When Apprey first assumed the role of dean of African American Affairs, he conducted research into GPA disparities, dividing Black students into two composite groups — Black students that had a GPA from 3.0 to 3.39, and Black students that had a GPA from 3.4 to 4.0. From 2005 to 2009, he noticed that more students’ GPAs fell into the former group. 

To tackle this inequity, the OAAA created programs such as the GradSTAR program — which helps students balance academics — a counseling service called Project Rise and peer advisory programs to connect Black students with professors, administrators and student mentors to encourage their academic growth. The goal of these programs, he said, was for 70 percent of Black students in each graduating class to graduate with a GPA of 3.0 or higher.

From 2010, he saw the GPA of Black students grow to “exponential heights,” and since 2016, the group of students in the 3.4 to 4.0 range is now greater than that in the 3.0 to 3.39 range.

However, through looking at GPA data, transcripts and anticipated major declarations, Apprey reached another conclusion — Black students were not receiving the same quantitative skills needed to gain acceptance into the Frank Batten School of Leadership of Public Policy, McIntire School of Commerce and medical school. Using the programs he created, Apprey estimates that the gap in quantitative skills between white and Black students will be closed in around three years.

“If you're looking at everything, everybody's doing well — it's a damn good University, but you don't want to be complacent,” Apprey said. “You want to make sure that everybody really gets a good degree, with the promise for a good destination.”

Academic achievement is just one area of focus where experts in the community are seeking equity. Kevin McDonald, vice president for diversity, equity, inclusion and community partnerships, along with Ian Solomon, dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and Barbara Brown Wilson, assistant professor of urban and environmental planning and co-founder and faculty director of the Equity Center, are all members of the Racial Equity Task Force. President Jim Ryan established the task force in summer 2020, after police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others shook the community and the nation.

The task force attempts to address the negative impacts of systemic racism on the University community and provides recommendations to the University about how to improve racial equity. 

McDonald, along with other members of the Racial Equity Task Force, reviewed 50 years of the University’s history with BIPOC students with the goal of targeting the organizational and structural flaws embedded within the University community. 

The task force has worked since September 2020 to implement 12 resolutions brought before the Board of Visitors that are “critical,” he said, to further progression for the University BIPOC community. These include doubling the number of underrepresented faculty by 2030, ensuring that the Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion has sufficient resources to operate, developing and implementing racial equity and anti-racism programs and reviewing University Police Department practices. Currently, faculty members who identify as African American make up approximately 110 of the nearly 3,000 total faculty members at the University. 

According to the report, the concerns repeatedly raised by underrepresented minorities of the University community throughout the generations were consistent with current calls for change — they demanded “a welcoming climate, greater investment in relevant education and scholarship, a community-wide commitment to healing and repairing a painful history, and, ultimately, equal access and success.” 

“If fully implemented, I would say unequivocally that we’d be further along in terms of BIPOC equity compared to years past,” McDonald said. “As it stands, we are trending in that direction and need to carry these recommended actions and Board resolutions across the completion line and then sustain and continue building on them.”

The Board of Visitors voted to endorse the proposals outlined by the Racial Equity Task Force at a meeting in September. The University has already laid out plans to increase faculty focused on African American studies, according to an internal email to faculty and staff obtained by The Cavalier Daily from Ian Baucom, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. As part of the Race, Justice and Equity initiative, faculty in nine positions related to African and African American studies will be hired by fall 2021. 

The University has already begun progress on these initiatives, increasing funding for the Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, setting aside more positions to faculty working on issues of racial equity and securing a $5 million grant for a new academic program on race, place and equity. In December, the University also announced an investment of $16 million for the Carter G. Woodson Institute, with money going towards the Institute’s fellowship programs, professorships and new hires. 

Even as these departments strive for improvement, Apprey said that problems must be solved at their root.

Last semester, Black student organizations were not getting their fair share of Student Activities Fee funding because other established organizations have “better mentoring” for receiving funds and therefore pretty much “automatically” get it from year to year, Apprey said.

Since Black student groups on Grounds often lack the resources to pay for activities at the front end and then get reimbursed later by SAF, the OAAA collaborated with the Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’s financial staff to provide training and advertising to acquire such funding and foster more equitable outcomes. 

A common value between both Apprey and McDonald’s strategies for successful equity is to never be complacent. They emphasize learning from the University's history and weaknesses, yet looking forward to correcting them without “sugar coating” as steps to progress.

McDonald measures the University community’s progress through moments that cause people to come together and call for action, he said. One of those moments was created when community members marched through Grounds in February to demand that dashcam footage of the death of 18-year-old Charlottesville resident Xzavier Hill be released. Hill was shot and killed by Virginia State Police troopers, whose actions were determined to be justified by a grand jury in February. Since this ruling, community members have continued to seek justice. The Virginia NAACP and Attorney General Mark Herring recently launched a joint effort to address how law enforcement handle investigations of officer-involved shooting deaths. 

As students and community members reflect on moments like these, Apprey said that it causes them to want to be better.  

“Let’s continue to benchmark ourselves against transformative outcomes and not just serviceable ones,” McDonald said. “If we don’t continually hold ourselves accountable in this space and consistently assess our efforts to determine areas of affirmation and areas of opportunity for improvement, we’ll never realize what so many of us desire — the outcome of BIPOC equity.”

There are elements of history that are full of hate, Apprey said. However, despite any obstacles that stand between the OAAA and its strategies for success, Apprey and the OAAA will strive for their functions to remain the same even as procedures change.

As it has done that, the OAAA and its projects have facilitated the “best results” for a single year that they ever have, Apprey said.

“My sense of that [is] there isn't much that students want that I can't get for them,” Apprey said. “It is really on me and my staff under the leadership to ensure that the strategy works. It's working … You turn history on its head so that students can prosper.”