Black studies professors say no one should have been surprised by an embarrassing report on UMKC’s racial climate.

Invisible Men 

Black studies professors say no one should have been surprised by an embarrassing report on UMKC’s racial climate.

Donald Matthews got the news while standing at a urinal.

Matthews is director of the black studies program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The way he tells the story, he was in a men's room on campus in late May when a colleague standing beside him told him about a new black professor who would be starting in the fall. The new hire, Matthews learned, was interested in teaching a class in black studies.

Matthews, a history professor, heads that program. It offers a minor, with an interdisciplinary curriculum including sociology, literature, religion and history courses focusing on black culture. The program is taught by professors in departments such as sociology, economics and history. But school administrators never called to ask Matthews' opinion before hiring a new political science professor who was interested in teaching classes in black studies, Matthews says. Nor did they officially notify him after making the hire. Instead, he says, he heard it while taking a leak.

What's more frustrating for Matthews is that the chat at the urinal came after school administrators had endured a month of heat about the racial climate at UMKC and after the university's new chancellor, Guy Bailey, who was hired to oversee all campus affairs, had publicly promised change.

In late April, university officials were embarrassed when an auditor released his findings about racial issues on campus. University administrators had hired Shaun Harper, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University, to study how UMKC could improve its minority recruitment and retention.

Harper asked minority students about their satisfaction with campus life. He concluded that they felt isolated and believed they lacked mentors or advisers on the predominantly white campus.

Talking about the diversity of the faculty, Harper told The Kansas City Star, "UMKC is the worst compared with any other school I have visited in the country."

The most racist place at the UMKC, he said, is the classroom.

Graduation numbers for black men were a key to Harper's conclusions. He found that only 17.2 percent of black men graduated from UMKC within six years.

Harper did not, however, provide much documentation to back up his work. Instead, he illustrated his findings with a PowerPoint presentation, which is now posted on the university's Web site (www.umkc.edu). Harper's slides cite shocking figures and make damning accusations but offer little written analysis of why problems exist.

Harper declined to provide the Pitch with additional details about his study. "I must honor the commitment I have made to administrators (and colleagues of mine) at the university," he wrote in an e-mail. "I voluntarily agreed that I wouldn't offer additional comments to the press, as the intended outcome of the audit was to bring about institutional transformation from within — not to create a media frenzy."

But his audit generated plenty of publicity anyway.

The week before the audit was released, Bailey had appointed a new provost, Bruce Bubacz, to be UMKC's second-in-command. Bubacz told reporters he was surprised at the allegation that blacks didn't feel comfortable in the classroom. He'd been working at the school in various administrative roles for 33 years, Bubacz said, so he knew his colleagues. According to the Star, he said, "If there are things interpreted as racist, I don't believe they are deliberate."

That did little to calm Matthews and other professors from the black studies program who say the university has a long history of failure when it comes to maintaining a diverse faculty — a faculty, that is, that would encourage minority students to succeed.

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