Remarks as prepared for delivery by Elizabeth Davenport, NEA Higher Educator of the Year, to the 99th Representative Assembly

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you on this momentous occasion. I’ve been so excited that I have been soliciting friends and relatives about what I should share with you today. I got all sorts of advice. So if what I’m about to say to you is flat, you will know exactly who to blame.

The pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives—from our ability to gather as an association to the way we teach and learn at colleges and universities nationwide. Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t a good thing. Maybe this virus is forcing us to finally start thinking about how our higher education institutions operate.

Certainly, it’s a problem that insufficient federal support is causing higher ed institutions to suffer. I ask you to consider another problem: How are we going to convince students to enroll in our institutions this fall? In much the same way that George Floyd’s murder has caused the nation to finally address racism and reassess the concept of policing, the coronavirus may change higher education into the social mobility vehicle it was designed to be.

It was definitely that vehicle for me. I was born in Lansing, Michigan, into a world separated into two camps—one black, the other white.. As a young girl living with her parents and 11 siblings in a close-knit African American neighborhood where higher education was stressed, I did not really understand the effect or consequence of the existence of these “camps.”

I entered college in the 1970’s, and I am clear that affirmative action helped to shape my career. In fact, I jest that I have had the best education affirmative action could buy. I graduated from the University of Michigan College of Education, received a law degree from U of M, and obtained an LL.M from New York University while practicing in corporations. Later, I attempted to teach in law school, which proved to be a “back door” into education.

I have never had a clear path. I received a Ph.D. from Michigan State University, and have since taught at institutions that mainly serve students of color. Today, I worry that they will not have the diverse educational experiences I experienced more than four decades ago.

Here’s why. Recent statistics say that during the 2011-2012 school year, no U.S. public high school recorded a four-year graduation rate of 80 percent. For African American students, the number was 60 percent. Hispanics graduated at 73 percent. For white students, the rate was 86 percent. For colleges, the trend is similar. African American and Hispanic students graduate at a much lower rate from college than their white counterparts. The picture changes a bit for doctoral programs, which has seen a 31 percent graduation rate for students of color.

Here’s where the picture gets a little cloudy. A New York Times analysis says that even after decades of affirmative action, African American and Hispanic students are less likely than they were more than three decades ago to attend this nation’s top colleges and universities. Since 1980, the number of African American first-year students at elite schools has remained virtually unchanged.

African American students are 15 percent of college-age Americans, yet they represent just six percent of freshmen at elite schools. More Hispanics are attending elite schools, but the increase hasn’t kept pace with the growing number of the nation’s Hispanic population. The study concludes that African Americans and Hispanics have gained ground at less selective colleges and universities but not at highly selective institutions.

Diversity is a source of opportunity. We all know that. Diversity promotes personal growth and a psychologically healthy society. Diversity challenges stereotypes. It encourages critical thinking. Diversity helps students learn to communicate effectively with people of varied backgrounds, and it strengthens communities and workplaces.

When we talk about transforming higher education, we are not just talking about transforming the learning environment for college-age students. We are actually talking about transforming mindsets. We are talking about transforming the world.

As we look at our own nation, and around the world today, I would say that transformation is more needed than ever.

Thank you.

Speakers