The university unveiled a new center to combat the chronic and systematic underrepresentation of minorities in higher education last Saturday as one of its highlights during Meliora Weekend. After the ceremony, Earl Graves, a noted black business leader, gave a keynote address on the state of leadership in the black community.

The center, named for Class of 1952 alumnus and former CEO of Xerox David Kearns, will create a framework of programs and support to recruit and retain underrepresented minorities on their way to achieving master’s and doctoral degrees in those fields. The center will admit its first class of scholars in the fall of 2003 but may begin operation as early as this spring.

“There is a systematic problem in society and education and one that we all believe that the University of Rochester will be able to uniquely address,” Jackson said during Saturday’s event.

Graves remarks

Graves, the founder and publisher of “Black Enterprize Magazine,” focused his remarks on the state of leadership in the black community. He said he’s often asked the question, “Where are today’s black leaders?” He told the audience, “Those are aggravating questions. There is no shortage of black leaders. They are in every field and every walk of life.”

And, while he recognized the contributions of Martin Luther King Jr. and many other famous historical black leaders, he said “the civil rights movement was populated by millions of others.”

He discussed the gains African- Americans have made in business and society as a whole. “The long-predicted browning of America has arrived,” he said.

He noted that black-owned businesses in the United States have more than doubled in the past 20 years, growing from seven to 15 percent of all businesses. In addition, growth rates for those businesses far outpace growth rates for all U.S. firms, 28 percent compared to 16 percent.

“All is not well in the African-American community,” he said. “And the truth of the matter is that we’ve never really had it that easy. There is a need for additional leadership and particpation.”

Graves stressed the importance of voting to the largely African-American crowd, relating a conversation he had several weeks earlier with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. He said Daschle had called the 2002 election “the most important for people of color since Reconstruction” as this will be “a watershed year for many key issues in Congress from health care to education benefits.”

He also emphasized the importance of making way for the generation below, calling them “the best qualified, most enthustiastic generation in our history.”

Graves made a point to tell his university-educated crowd not to forget those still left behind. “Just because some of us succeeded despite a lopsided playing field doesn’t mean the playing field isn’t lopsided. We must work to even the ground.”

The center

The center will function like an umbrella organization, supporting different programs that will support minorities who are seeking undergraduate and graduate degrees, administrative director of the new center and current director of the university’s McNair Program Beth Olivares said.

The center’s main goal will be to radically increase the numbers of underrepresented minority students who earn master’s and doctoral degrees in science and engineering at UR, she said.

The keystone aspect of the center will be the Kearns Fellows program, through which 10 students from their first year in college through the master’s degree program will be involved in an expansive network of academic, research and other programs. The center will actively recruit UR undergraduates as well as undergraduates at historically black colleges for graduate school here at UR.

The center’s many other initiatives will include increasing money for scholarships for minorities to attend UR and other colleges and universities, to create a network for faculty exchanges between UR and historical institutions of color including Florida A&M and North Carolina A&T and try to institute a program for professor monitoring of colored students who are part of graduate programs.

Olivaries cited statistics that over half of students that enter graduate programs leave without finishing their degree, which is substantially higher than the national average for high students.

The hope is that the new Kearns center will create change not just at UR but a “cultural transformation in higher education on a national scale,” Jackson said.

Dean of The College William Green, who will oversee the new center with Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science Kevin Parker, thinks the program highlights UR’s serious commitment to getting minorities diversity in higher education

“We understand that this is an area where Rochester can make a difference,” he said. “Full representation and full participation by a new generation of minority leaders in engineering in engineering and science is integral to the success of American education and to the research enterprise.

“If we’re going to solve these problems on a local and a national level,” Green continued, “there’s got to be a strong pipeline of people earning advanced degrees.”

Kearns is one of the university’s most influential alumni was the CEO of Xexox from 1982 to 1990. He was influential to of “cracking open Xerox to people of color,” Green said.

University Trustee and Class of 1974 alumnus Francis Price asked the audience the question, “Why Rochester?” to which he responded, “The university has a long history of reaching out to African Americans and people of color. We just aren’t that good at telling people about it… The one thing I do know is if [the center] wasn’t where David Kearns went to school it could never succeed.”

Graves agreed saying, “That David should be immortalized with this center named after him is particularly appropritate.”

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