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College Rethinks Its Commitment to Serving Poor

April 13, 1998|RICHARD T. COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — In 1884, when a Baptist minister named Russell H. Conwell founded Temple University amid the gritty factories of North Philadelphia, he looked upon the poor, untutored children of its black and immigrant workers as "acres of diamonds," rough gems needing only education to become valuable citizens.

Ever since, though it lacked the prestige and financial resources of more favored schools, "Temple has always been about that, a poor school for poor students," Robert S. Schneider, a university administrator, says with deep-felt satisfaction.

Given that dedication to diversity, Temple might have hoped for relatively smooth sailing last week when it joined colleges from coast to coast in taking up President Clinton's national dialogue on race.

Instead, during four days of campus forums, the school found itself the target of protesters hurling such terms as "racist' and "apartheid."

The forums designed to bring diverse groups closer together became a graphic illustration of just how deep the chasm of race remains, even at a school where 40% of the students are minorities.

More specifically, the debate at Temple illuminated one of the deepening questions in America's racial evolution: Can an institution simultaneously undertake twin tasks of seeking excellence and boot-strapping those left behind without pulling itself apart? Temple is embarked on just such a journey, and the answer last week was far from clear.

The White House call for colleges and universities to devote a week to the initiative on race came at a time when the Temple community--students, faculty, administrators and leaders from the surrounding area--were locked in controversy over a highly concrete

blueprint for change that the university had recently adopted.

Never mind that Temple's record of service to students who lacked the advantages of Ivy League lineage is as old as the school itself. Never mind that university officials insist the plan, known as the Strategic Initiative, is necessary to assure Temple's survival as a first-class university. Never mind that the initiative is little different from strategies being adopted by schools across the country as competition in higher education grows fiercer.

Nothing, the discussions here made clear, would be taken on faith. Old wounds, continuing grievances, conflicting agendas, mistrust and skepticism that had been ingrained in many from childhood--all these and more boiled to the surface, barriers to understanding.

"We should have known better," university Provost Corrinne Caldwell says ruefully. "We assumed that people knew our record, and we were surprised when that did not carry us through."

Among the school's almost 30,000 students, 58% are white, 22% are African American, 11% are Asian and 3% are Latino. The remainder includes Native Americans and students from other countries. So diverse is the population at Temple's main campus that some white freshmen say that when they first arrived, they thought they had inadvertently chosen a predominantly black college.

Against such a background, says Marcie Mackin, assistant to the director of enrollment services, "this university has a really terrific record on diversity, yet every single thing it does is examined under the microscope of racism."

Plan Addresses Declining Fortunes

The decision to make changes at Temple, a part of Pennsylvania's state-supported system of higher education, was a response to years of declining fortunes.

Like many other universities serving urban populations, Temple has struggled with declining numbers of applicants, lower academic quality among students from city high schools, increasing difficulty seeing such students through to graduation (attrition rates from freshman year to graduation had reached 40%) and an ominous tendency for good students in the region to look elsewhere.

The driving source behind those trends is plain to see all along North Broad Street, the wide, once-handsome avenue that runs in front of the main campus that used to serve the working-class heart of a great industrial city, home to Nabisco, for example, and the Flexible Flyer sled.

Today, most of the factories are gone, along with the jobs and more than half a million people who have left Philadelphia since 1950.

Left behind is the familiar landscape of urban poverty.

"The whole area has just changed," laments Bernadette Norton, who grew up in North Philadelphia and now works at Temple. "There is not that backbone of working-class families."

Academically, inner-city blight translates into high schools that turn out graduates staggeringly unprepared to meet even the most rudimentary college standards.

For example, consider a case that was on the tips of Temple administrators' tongues last week. One member of next fall's freshman class was valedictorian at a large Philadelphia high school, had a near-perfect grade-point average and excelled in extracurricular activities.

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