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Panel discusses blacks in education

Katie Laird | Friday, March 26, 2004

Members of the Erskine Peters Fellowship Symposium met Thursday night in the Eck Visitors’ Center to discuss the role of blacks in higher education and the nature of the relationship to bridge a stronger connection between black academia and the community surrounding it.

The discussion consisted of seven panelists from a variety of fields and universities. Participants from Notre Dame included Richard Pierce, assistant professor of history and associate director of African and African-American studies, Rhonda Brown, director of the Office of Institutional Equality and Donald Pope-Davis, professor of psychology and associate vice president.

Also included were the 2003-04 Erskine Peters Fellows, Jessica Wormley of Fordham University, Brandi Brimmer of the University of California at Los Angeles, Sherwin Bryant of Ohio State University, Paul Minifee of the University of Texas, Austin and Dorian Warren of Yale University.

Mindful that only 6.1 percent of blacks making up the faculty at universities nationwide, panel members discussed how to build bridges between the field of learning and the community that many black live.

“We have to form a connection between what we do in the academy and what we do in the community,” Pope-Davis said.

Panelists discussed personal experiences and hardships that they faced to climb the academic ladder due to their race and other personal obstacles.

Wormley gave advice for high school students on graduate life.

“Read broadly … reading broadly is the key,” she said.

Brown said that children of color need to also be aware of the other important things in life besides studying and academics.

“These are things we have to do better. Be clear on who you are … know yourself and know your value. When you question worth, you lose the game,” Brown said.

Pope-Davis urged the engagement of both students and faculty into the community, and discussed the importance of mentoring. Blacks need to have mentors and role models that they can turn to for advice, assistance and guidance, she said.

“It is very natural for students of color to seek out faculty of color,” Pope-Davis said. “This is more than a professional commitment, it’s a personal commitment.”

Panelists also discussed the extra burden that is placed on black faculty members to reach certain goals and perform a certain amount of service and research in order to reach tenure or full-time professor.

“African-American students want to be taken seriously, to be engaged, to be motivated in some way,” Bryant said, adding that mentors have helped them to make those type pf connections.

Wormley also emphasized the importance of black representation in faculties.

“I have never had a black teacher of a black professor … I would have liked to see myself represented. I think black students need black mentors because there are issues that are really relevant,” Wormley said.

The discussion was also opened up for the audience, in which two professors voiced their experiences and opinions

Paulinus Odozor, a theology professor at Notre Dame from Nigeria, explained that professors sometimes concentrate too much on publishing books and journals when in reality they should be aiding students.

“The greatest commitment you can make is in human beings … push aside whatever you’re doing. That is the greatest book you can write,” Odozor said.

Johnnie Griffin, Ph.D., a Sociology professor at Indiana University in South Bend, said that she hears certain themes over and over again from students, whether they be black or not. These themes include the attitude that “college is not for everybody.”

“We talk as though this is a black problem,” Griffin said. “This is a people problem. There is something universal.”

With Notre Dame’s desire to commit to diversity, Pope-Davis said that it can be very difficult.

“When institutions talk about diversifying, they don’t always get it. They invite you to the table without knowing what you like to eat … it’s not ignorance, it’s just they don’t have experience,” Pope-Davis said. “We are all engaged in a process of renewal … I think this is a good place to have this kind of dialogue.”

The Erskine Peters Dissertation Year Fellowship was established in 1999 to enable outstanding black doctoral candidates in the humanities, social sciences and theological disciplines to experience life at Notre Dame while devoting their full energies to the completion of their dissertations.