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Minority Students : Alienation and Failure in Academia

January 06, 1988|LYNN SMITH | Times Staff Writer

During the last two years, UC Berkeley officials have identified black retention as a serious problem, and agreed to form a grievance board for allegations of racism. Chancellor Ira Michael Heyman has stated that improved opportunities for minority students is his highest priority this year.

In one private program at UC Berkeley, Latino alumni have sponsored a residential program which aims to strengthen Chicano identity as well as shore up academic and social skills.

Backers of Casa Joaquin Murrieta hope to develop leaders from selected low-income students with computer and study skills workshops, stress management seminars and a "supportive cultural environment." In the living room is a mural depicting the Chicano struggle. Richards are called Ricardos, Joes are called Joses.

Basis for Success

"By denying culture, you lose some of your best basis for success. That's what makes you who you are," said Ruelas, who directs the 40-student co-ed house. "I don't buy into having to abandon (ethnic) culture to succeed in American society."

Residents are allowed to stay two years. With that beginning, 90% graduate compared with 50% of the Latinos at UC Berkeley, Ruelas said.

"When you're in a situation that forces you to deny who you are, you have to wear who you are in defiance. It leads to violence. Whereas when you are accepted as you are, there's no problem."

The goal of assimilating into the mainstream of society for student minorities is a throwback to "the dark ages," he said.

Like most college administrators, Harvard officials said they believe they are morally obligated to offer minority students support. But--as at Stanford--they debate whether the forms of support foster integration or segregation.

At Harvard, students are required to live on campus in houses where employees are available to offer advice and guidance. A Bureau of Study Counsel also offers a range of services from academic support to personal counseling for all students.

Minority students are encouraged to use counseling centers but no special counseling is provided because "we don't want to start with the assumption that all minorities need it," said L. Fred Jewett, dean of students at Harvard College.

When he was a Harvard student, Sanchez lobbied for Chicano studies and a minority cultural center. He said he ran into "a fairly traditional attitude that students should come and work things out. . . . It partly comes from an attitude: Minority students are here to enrich the rest of the campus."

Alternative Project

Officials rejected student demands for the cultural center in favor of a Foundation on Race Relations that was to present minority culture as a whole, he said. "It's a fine idea, but it doesn't replace the need for a minority cultural center, which can give added support and provide a nucleus for interaction," he said.

"Harvard fears a certain amount of separatism," he said. At the same time, he said, "It's almost impossible to go to a place like Harvard and be a separatist. Why go to Harvard--the heart of Anglo-American power?"

Harvard in particular is known as an effective recruiter--cited as a model for minority admissions by the Supreme Court in the Bakke decision.

Like many colleges, Harvard does not necessarily waive standards for disadvantaged minorities but rather uses race and ethnic background (as well as special talents, alumni interests and achievements) as tipping factors for otherwise qualified students, officials said.

At least 75% of Harvard's under-represented minority students graduate, compared to an overall graduation rate "in the low to mid-90%," Jewett said.

Last fall, a new assistant dean for minority affairs, a Puerto Rican, started work at Harvard. "Clearly, we're trying to make up for the fact there are not as many (minority) people on the staff as we would like," Jewett said. But the decision to create the position was not made in reaction to the Razo case, he said.

Harvard officials wonder "whether there are things we might have done which would have prevented" Jose Razo's troubles, Jewett said. "We're not absolutely sure how much Harvard contributed or didn't contribute to it. . . . We haven't found readily identifiable cause-and-effect factors."

Razo may have sought counseling for academic problems, but his problem was not academic, he said. Razo had not developed the sort of personal relationships that most students need to ease their transition, Jewett said.

Drops Out of School

Razo has voluntarily withdrawn from Harvard, and a final decision on whether he may return will be made later, Jewett said. Razo, who is in the Orange County Jail, declined to be interviewed for this story.

"The thing we haven't done is indict a whole program of admissions and a whole group of people because of a single incident."

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