Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Friday, September 26, 2014

"Recruiting More Students and Colleagues of Color at Liberal Arts Colleges: The Ten Essentials," by Hans Ostrom




(These are some remarks I'll give today for a panel on institutional change at the 3rd national Race and Pedagogy Conference, which is happening now where I teach, at the University of Puget Sound.  This successful conference is the brain-child of Professor Dexter Gordon, Director of African American Studies and the Race and Pedagogy Initiative,  and Professor Grace Livingston, who teaches in the program (as do I) and many, many collaborators.)

My main point of reference for this discussion is the University of Puget Sound, where I’ve taught for many years, but the discussion is really about the liberal arts college, as a model of higher education in general, and diversity, not about Puget Sound per se. 

I think that over the past decade and especially in recent years, the discussion about liberal arts colleges and diversity has shifted.  I’ve observed a change in the terms of the argument for diversity, from a kind of “it’s something we ought to do/it’s our obligation” to “it’s a matter of survival.”  In other words, the demographics have caught up with liberal arts colleges, which haven’t adjusted quickly enough.

So one organizing principle of my ten essentials, which I’ll distribute in a moment, is that a sense of obligation, progressive notions, public relations, and so on, aren’t enough to push the change that needs to occur.

A second organizing principle is that liberal arts colleges probably have to be more self-critical as they re-examine their assumptions, their ways of doing things, how they are perceived, and the rhetoric they use to describe themselves.  [refer to the Whitman example].

Third and last, I’d like to say that some good things came of the old model, which by and large sprang from a sense of noblesse oblige.  Real changes in co-curricular programs, curricula, defining academic and administrative positions, supporting conferences like this have occurred over the last few decades at many if not most liberal arts colleges. But that way of doing things has probably yielded all it can yield, so that now some long-delayed fundamental change must occur.  With that, . . . here is the list:

1.            Think of diversity as a necessity, not just  “a good thing.”

2.            The Board of Trustees/Regents (etc.) must regard diversity as a necessity.

3.            Find out who in the institution opposes diversity, and why, and be prepared to persuade them otherwise or move ahead without them.

4.            Find out what students and parents of color, colleagues of color, and the local community really think about your college and diversity.

5.            Spend the money.

6.            Consider the degree to which the college’s rhetoric about itself is exclusive or insular.

7.            Stop rejecting “vocation-speak”; employment after college should be of primary concern to liberal arts colleges, and it's connected to the concerns of all prospective college-students and it's of special concern arguably, to students from a variety of ethnic minorities.  (Recall that at least 5 of the original 7 liberal arts were what we might call vocational: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, and geometry, the other 2 being music and astronomy.)

8.            Achieve  a critical mass of students and colleagues of color ASAP.  What constitutes a critical mass? The students and colleagues of color, among others, will let you know. Until then, carry on.

9.            Find out in what venues and circumstances students and colleagues of color are most likely to be alienated and respond accordingly.

10.          What are you willing to change about the “liberal arts college” paradigm?

Hans Ostrom, Professor of African American Studies and English, University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, Washington USA


Some Sources:

[the list of the original 7 liberal arts can be found on numerous sites online]

“The Most Economically Diverse Liberal Arts Colleges,” The Upshot, New York Times, Sept. 8, 2014.

David Leonhardt, “Top Colleges That Enroll Rich, Middle Class, Poor,” New York Times,  Sept. 8, 2014.


Katherine McClelland and Carol J. Auster, “Public Platitudes and Hidden Tensions: Racial Climates at Predominantly White Liberal Arts Colleges,”  Journal of Higher Education Vol. 61, No. 6, Nov. - Dec., 1990. 607-642.

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