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Oklahoma Voices: Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education (May 21, 2012)
Race relations have captured headlines in recent months in Oklahoma with the shooting deaths of three black residents in Tulsa, and the shooting death of a black Florida teenager by a member of a neighborhood watch. Dr. James Pappas, Rodney Bates, and Moira Ozias join us to discuss the matter of race, specifically in higher education. Dr. Pappas is the founder of the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education.

KURT GWARTNEY, HOST: You’re listening to Oklahoma Voices on KGOU, I’m Kurt Gwartney.  Race relations have captured headlines in recent months in Oklahoma, with the shooting deaths of three black residents in Tulsa, a city with an infamous race riot in its past.  And nationally, the conversation continues about the shooting death of a black Florida teenager by a member of a neighborhood watch.  On today’s program, Dr. James Pappas, Rodney Bates, and Moira Ozias join us to discuss the matter of race, specifically in higher education.  Dr. Pappas is the founder of the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education.  The event is in its 25th year.  Also, in the interest of full disclosure, Dr. Pappas is also the boss of my boss.  KGOU is a part of the University Outreach family at the University of Oklahoma.  Welcome, each of you, to KGOU.

MOIRA OZIAS: Thank you.

DR. JAMES PAPPAS: Thank you, good morning.

RODNEY BATES: Thank you, and good morning.

GWARTNEY: Now first I’d like everyone to take a turn at this question, and Moira we’ll start with you and work around the table.  Does race still matter?  We have a black president of the United States.  Doesn’t that signal the end of race as a concern in America?

OZIAS: I think it definitely still matters.  If we look at the numbers of students pursuing higher education degrees, if we look at the way resources are allocated amongst schools, I think we certainly see there are disparities in terms of race.  And that’s one reason I’m glad to be here today, glad to be attending the NCORE Conference in New York.

GWARTNEY: Dr. Pappas, how about you?

PAPPAS: There’s no question it still matters, and it matters a lot.  I think when we started the conference 25 years ago, the issues were somewhat different, but clearly the things that you mentioned as you made your opening comments are an indication of the kinds of issues that we still face.  I think the other thing that’s kind of interesting right now, as we look at the demographics nationally, one of the things we’re seeing is that very quickly, probably by the end of this decade, we’ll be in a situation where we have a minority majority in this country.  And yet in many ways, I don’t think we’ve resolved many of the issues we have.  So I think it still matters, and it’s still important for us to continue the dialogue about how we deal with issues around race and ethnicity.

GWARTNEY: Rodney, how about you?

BATES: Absolutely.  I think racism is not as overt as it was back in the 60s and 70s.  I think it’s more hidden, and I think it makes it very tough to have those conversations, because it’s not as openly as it was.  So yes, racism is very much alive.

GWARTNEY: Dr. Pappas, you kind of referenced this, but when you started the conference, did you foresee that it would still be needed in 2012, and how have those topics changed over the decades?

PAPPAS: I’m not sure that we could’ve seen that it would’ve been as successful in terms of participation as it is today, but I think there’s little or no question that we look forward to the conference being something where we could really dialogue among different levels of people in higher education, be it administrators, students, to continue to talk about those issues, and to create a forum where we could talk about best practices.  About how people could work better together, and I think that’s what the conference has become, and I candidly would not suggest that we could’ve foreseen that we would’ve had the kind of problems that you had talked about.

GWARTNEY: One of the issues coming up before Oklahoma voters in November is on Affirmative Action, and I know that sometimes when I think about race in higher education, I often automatically go to Affirmative Action, and those policies.  What role do Affirmative Action policies have in race for colleges and universities, and anyone who would like can take this one on?

BATES: Well, I think that Affirmative Action has its pros and its cons.  Is it still needed?  Probably not as much as it was when it was first instituted.  I think what’s most important is that people need to recognize that you still need to bring some minorities to the table when it comes to admissions, hiring, whatever the various things may be, to make it somewhat equal.  I don’t think that Affirmative Action should necessarily always say that just because you are this color, you get it.  But I do think they should be able to get to the table.

GWARTNEY: The incoming speaker of the Oklahoma House happens to be black, and also Native American, and he says Affirmative Action has failed.  Is he right?

PAPPAS: Well, I don’t think he’s right.  I think there are a couple of issues that you have to think about with Affirmative Action.  One of the positive things that’s emerged is that it has sort-of morphed into the idea that we want to give everyone equal access to the kinds of opportunities that we have in our society.  And it may be that he as an individual has had access, but I’m not sure that we can say that across the board.  As Rodney was talking about, there are many portions of our society that still don’t have that kind of access.  So having that access is important, and I think one of the issues, which makes it important, is that it suggests that there are portions of our society which basically have not had the relationships within the power centers of our society.  By having Affirmative Access, what we try to do is make sure that everybody is at that table, and has a chance.  Now I think the other thing that’s been critical is that we’ve changed that concept so that no one gets special entitlement by having access.  What we’re simply trying to do is ensure that access is available.

GWARTNEY: Moira, I saw you nodding your head.

OZIAS: Yes, well I was just thinking about the importance of access and Affirmative Action initiatives, not only in terms of equity, but as someone who’s both a student and an administrator at the University, I think that people coming from all different walks of life, with different experiences, experiences as white people, as Native people, as African-American, Latino/Latina people, bring a lot of strengths to the table.  I see in the organization I work with the value of having all of those perspectives in a place where decisions are being made, whether it be about pedagogy – I’m in a place where I get to work with students on a daily basis – or whether it’s about policies and procedures at the University.

GWARTNEY: That leads to my next question.  Information about the NCORE event says the event works to assist higher education in creating more inclusive environments, programs, and curriculum.  Can you explain what that means, or what you think that means, or what you hope as first-time attendees, especially our two students, what does that mean to have a more inclusive environment program and curriculum.

OZIAS: For me, it means getting to talk with other people who see that as their teachers and classrooms, or as their student affairs professionals, HR professionals, I think each of us see on a daily basis how some of the traditions we have in place in our institutions work better for some people than for other people.  And as someone who’s white myself, I know I benefit in some ways from growing up with a significant amount of race privilege, and it’s important for me to have colleagues like Rodney, like other students and administrators at the university to talk with about these issues, so that for myself, I can uncover the things that I might need to change as a teacher, or that I can change in the organization that I’m working in, to create more and better opportunities for all of us.

GWARTNEY: So Rodney, Dr. Pappas, is what we’re really talking about here, is it awareness?

PAPPAS: I think awareness is one step.  I think we have to go beyond awareness.  I think one of the things that was part of the activities in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement was sort-of a sensitivity; making people aware of what the issues are.  I think in the conference now - and I think Moira’s put it well – we’ve really gone beyond that.  One of the things we’re trying to do is talk about what are best practices?  What are ways that different institutions have sought to find activities, to find pedagogy, to find ways of making the students across the campus, of various race and ethnic backgrounds, understand what it means to live together in a fairly complex demographic society.

BATES: I would agree with Dr. Pappas, absolutely.  But it does need to go beyond awareness.  I think when we say “inclusive,” you’re bringing various different backgrounds to the table to have these conversations, and even in that, there’s some capital that can happen.  Social capital, cultural capital – there’s things that you learn; there are things that you didn’t consider that you will consider.  So as an institution that has higher education, it’s very important to have inclusive minds, so you can have the thought process, and to be critical, especially when you have so many different demographics coming to a university, or an institution.  It’s very important.

GWARTNEY: One of the phrases that jumped out at me as I was looking at the NCORE conference in some of the materials is “underrepresented populations.”  I’m curious what that means and then if we can name some of those.

BATES: Well, underrepresented populations speak to populations that are in the minority, such as African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and in some cases Asian-Americans.  It’s not just race.  It could be lower economic status.  These groups are underrepresented when they attend college.  They can go around the entire campus and maybe see one or two, or a handful.  These populations don’t have areas to identify with.  Everywhere they go, it’s a different face that doesn’t look them.  So they are underrepresented, and this could lead to a number of things.  If an African-American man can’t find someone on campus who looks like him, maybe he doesn’t feel like he belongs, and then there’s a sense of not feeling welcome.  So he’s not performing at the level he needs to perform, and he drops out.  These numbers are high, especially for African-American men.

GWARTNEY: Dr. Pappas, I want to tie this in earlier to something you said earlier.  You talked about us becoming a minority-majority, and I think that’s where we might see that underrepresentation, is that we have a growing number of certain populations, and yet we’re not seeing a similar percentage in our higher education institutions.

PAPPAS: I think that’s accurate.  I think, as Rodney has said, it’s hard for the minorities that he’s identified to really feel comfortable in an environment where they may be the only individual who’s a person of color.  So I think the ability for people to identify with, and feel comfortable, really starts to make the point.  The other thing, and I want to come back to the issue that I mentioned earlier, is that diversity now has been defined in a much broader way.  Two points relative to that: I was recently talking to an international student who’s of mixed race – both African and Anglo.  He’s here visiting from France, but it may be that he’ll be a person who’ll be working in a multinational company.  So our ability to work across borders and across countries really is enhanced by our ability to deal with diversity in our own country.  That becomes pretty critical.  And the other thing I think we’ve really missed lately, is even though the demographics are clear, that we will a minority majority, our corporations have not done much to prepare themselves for dealing with the fact that much of their workforce now may be what typically were considered minorities before.  So when we have a conference like this, we’re not only trying to strengthen higher education, but strengthen their approach to prepare students to be better in that workforce.

GWARTNEY: Moira, when I look at the presidents of Oklahoma’s higher education institutions, and I actually went online before our interview and made sure to look at the pictures, I see a lot of white men.  As a person who works in administration, and works in a higher education institution, do you see a racial and gender ceiling in this state?  What about nationally?  Maybe Dr. Pappas can talk about nationally, but I’m just curious how you see that when you look around.

OZIAS: It certainly would appear that way [laughs] if you survey the institutions of higher education.  For me, it’s interesting to think about why and how that happens.  What is that ceiling in reality?  It’s not literally glass above us that we can hit with a ball-peen hammer and shatter somehow, but it weaves itself into the tapestry of how we work, and how we go to school, and how we learn together.  I think networks have a lot to do with it.  I think there’s a lot to be said for the networks that people are sometimes born into, or get ushered into very early on.  I think those can be powerful.  I’m looking forward to learning more at NCORE about the other ways of working, the other dimensions of our institutions that support those glass ceilings.  I will say there are a number of people I’ve met even in my two years here at the University of Oklahoma who are actively thinking about these issues, and wanting to work on making change within academic departments, within the administration.  So I think there are allies all over, and I hope a conference like NCORE can bring people from around the country together.  I think there is also a need for people to come together on this campus, and on other campuses across the state to think about these issues.

GWARTNEY: So, Rodney, is university president a job you would aspire to, and what would make that difficult, in terms of race and gender issues?

BATES: You know, four years ago I was definitely interested in being a president, but, and I believe it was four years ago when I looked at the numbers, there were only three African-American presidents.  And they may have retired or something.  And two of them were female, so even less for African-American ends.  That might have jumped up.  Now, at historically black colleges and universities, those numbers go up.  But now, I don’t know if that’s something that I want to do.  But the other part of your question…what would make it hard?

GWARTNEY: Yeah, what would get in the way of that?

BATES: Not to be a conspiratist, but I think there are some institutional things that have to happen first before we can start upping those numbers for African-Americans.  There’s the “good ol’ boys club.”  My friend is your friend, and I know this friend, and he just happens to look like me, so he’s in.  And I think a lot of that goes on, especially when you move up in the ranks, and you want to put people that you trust around you, and most of the time you’re putting people that look like you around you.  But that doesn’t make an excuse.  I like the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule.”  They force teams to interview someone of color, and I think that should be instituted at universities if that’s not happening.  And I think that’s the wonderful thing about NCORE.  It’s my first time going, and I’m super-excited to see how such a huge conference can make some changes, and has made changes.

GWARTNEY: Dr. Pappas, how about that?  What have you seen in terms of the conferences, and maybe some stories of individuals who have gone, and how they’ve affected some of the changes that Moira and Rodney are looking for, or wanting to know more about?

PAPPAS: Well, I think one place that it’s changed dramatically, is that we’ve created a president’s forum, and the intent of that forum is to share with the people who are attending the conference, both the administrators that are there and the students, what are some of the activities that one can engage in to present themselves in a way that they might be considered a candidate for president.  And we’ve been very lucky to have people who are in positions of authority.  For example, we’ve had the woman who’s head of the Coastal Community College, and the American Association of Community Colleges, who happens to be Hispanic, talk about what are the things that she did to prepare herself.  We’ve had Richard Lariviere and Yolanda Moses, both of whom have been administrators in the California system, talk about what they can do.  Bob Suzuki, who has been the past president of California State Polytechnic, has talked about ways that people can prepare themselves.  And I think the important thing that we try to talk about in NCORE is not only the issue of maybe barriers, but how can, as Moira said, create those networks so that the individuals who are minorities can be perceived as friends.  Sometimes the barriers are not explicit in terms of “We want to stop that person,” but rather there are networks that say, “We want to advance this other person.”  So what we’re trying to say is how do you find your way into those tracks?

GWARTNEY: One of the issues that has been a concern in Oklahoma and across the nation is the cost of higher education.  That economic barrier to access is huge.  I want to discuss what the cost of higher education means in terms of underrepresented populations in higher education, and bringing a more diverse population into our colleges and universities.  How does the cost of higher ed. relate to that, and if it was more affordable, would these problems go away?  Where is money on the list of this?

OZIAS: I think money’s important.  Clearly, if you look at how wealth is accrued generationally, I think there are trends nationally that say in certain communities there is more wealth than others.  Historically, that’s just been the case.  I think that the cost of education keeps a lot of people away who might have grown up in communities or families where there’s not a history of knowing even what financial support there is for higher education.  So, the money matters, but so does even, and maybe this is coming back to issues of networks, but knowing how a higher ed. degree is even financed.  So I think that’s one answer to my questions.  The other part of your question – if higher education was more affordable, would these issues go away? – and I think the answer is no.  Maybe others can elaborate on that, I’d certainly be happy to.

PAPPAS: I’d agree.  I think there’s little more no question money counts, but at the same time, it’s not the only variable.  I thought the comment that you made regarding people understanding how to get into higher education is a critical one.  Invariably, when I talk to people of color, or even when I talk to immigrant groups, or when I talk to people of lower socioeconomic levels, one of the things that really strikes me is the fact that they often don’t even know the mechanics of how to approach a university, how to seek financial aid, and even to aspire to a degree, so those are all elements that are critical, but money counts.

GWARTNEY: And Rodney, what’s your experience with that?  What would you say about the role of money in terms of more or less diversity in higher education?

BATES: You know, as someone who definitely came from a background of not having a lot of money at all, it’s probably more important to me, simply because I see those that have, and say, “That’s where I want to be.”  I think in terms of access to education, that’s one issue.  To afford the education is another issue.  Access is really one of the main focuses of my study.  I think while affordable education, as has been said by others, is not the only answer, it does say something to at least get one, and to afford it.  I think that may place a disadvantaged group, and move them upward towards social mobility or cultural mobility.  So I think it’s not the only answer, but it’s really important.  It‘s important to me, because all my life, I was told, “Hey, you can make money.” and education is a good way to make that money.

GWARTNEY: Dr. Pappas, what initiatives have come out of the conferences past that you see as being the successes?   Whenever you talk with somebody about why they should go to NCORE, give me your pitch and your speech about why this is so important.

PAPPAS: Well, I think one of the issues is that it really has addressed the changing nature of race relations and ethnicity, and I think one of the difficulties we have in our society is we sometimes get locked into thinking about some things in certain ways.  So one of the successes is simply creating a forum for dialogue, and I think that’s been useful.  Another thing that’s been kind of exciting for me, is that we are now finding many schools with administrators and students coming together.   Iowa State University is a good example of that.  Those people come together to NCORE, they go to different sessions, and then they go back to their campuses and institute the things that they’ve seen.  So that’s been kind of fun, and in fact, some schools now are creating “mini-NCOREs” within the campus, trying to get the institution to look at many of those issues.  I think the other thing that’s kind of exciting is that, particularly with the students, and I’m glad to be at this table with these two, is to see the students that then go back and become passionate and excited, and have a sense of being able to make a difference on their campuses.  So I think probably in the end, that’s the most gratifying aspect of the conference, that these students, and many junior administrators, suddenly feel a sense of community that they may not have on their own campus.

GWARTNEY: Well, Moira and Rodney, with that difficult task in front of you now, I think I heard a challenge in what Dr. Pappas has said.  What’s your hope for this meeting?

OZIAS: Well, I saw us looking across the table at each other and at Dr. Pappas.  Well first, let me say that Rodney and I are colleagues in the College of Education as Ph. D. students in the adult and higher education program, and met each other early on, and wanted to attend this conference together in part because we have shared research interests, and shared commitments to making change where we are and where we can.  So, I’m looking forward to attending with Rodney and with other faculty I know from the University of Oklahoma who are going to be attending.  Also, building a network and a community of people from across the country who we can share support with, as well as ideas about best practices, about things that are going on at other institutions that might be beneficial for the University of Oklahoma.

GWARTNEY: Rodney, how about you?

BATES: Similar to what she said.  I know that I’m more of a historical context guy, so I want to know what’s been done, and what has happened.  So to go to this conference that’s in its 25th year, to see what has been done and what people are doing, and to talk about those, and to actually figure out ways to implement that, a) gets me super-excited, and b) allows me to build up my repertoire of information about how to be an agent of change.  Along with Moira, just having someone as an ally, having someone as a friend to go and have this experience, because we do share so much in common, I think it’s great to attend this conference and get that information, and dump it back when we come back, and say “This is what I learned, this is what we can change, and this is how we can make efforts.”

GWARTNEY: What do you think about hearing that, Dr. Pappas?

PAPPAS: Kind of exciting, isn’t it?  I’m really pleased to hear those kinds of comments here, and I’m also pleased that we have another 25 students besides these two that are going to be there, that are going to create that community and that network.

GWARTNEY: Dr. James Pappas, Moira Ozias, Rodney Bates, thank you so much for your time.

OZIAS: Thank you.

BATES: Thank you.

PAPPAS: Thank you.

Copyright © 2012 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

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