Learning inclusiveness

August 22, was SUNY New Paltz Move-In Day. Pictured are freshman Joell Wilson of the Bronx with her family, from left, mom Abigail Mercer, brother Joseph Wilson Jr. and dad Joseph Wilson. (Photos by Lauren Thomas)

It was back-to-school in a big way in New Paltz last week with more than 2000 newly enrolled undergraduates, the largest number in SUNY New Paltz’s history, arriving on campus to begin their school year. A record number of new students (freshman and transfer students) enrolled in the local state university for the fall semester of 2019, the New Paltz institution said. It had reported on August 6 that nearly 1200 first-year students and 850 transfer students were scheduled to enroll.

SUNY New Paltz continued its Welcome Week tradition for new students with a moving-in day last Thursday and a convocation ceremony and picnic on Friday. Flocks of t-shirted, starry-eyed youngsters wandered the spruced-up campus hither and thither. On Friday, university president Donald Christian gave his annual state-of-the-college address in Lecture Center 100.
“It’s the people who make us special,” he told the hundreds of faculty and staff in attendance. The members of the audience seemed to accept with good grace their leader’s assessment of their role. 
Meanwhile, returning students continued to arrive on the campus throughout the weekend before classes began this Monday. Total undergraduate enrollment of New York State residents was tallied by the school at 6586. Of that number, 2667 undergraduates were from New York City and Long Island, while a slightly larger number, 2949, identified themselves as residents of the seven-county mid-Hudson region. Each of the 14 New York counties within those three regions contributed at least 100 new enrollees.

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Leading counties in terms of where the undergraduates came from were Suffolk County with 821 enrollees, Orange with 784 students, Dutchess with 684, Ulster with 606, and Nassau with 536. Rounding out the top ten in the county undergraduate census according to SUNY New Paltz data were Westchester (384), the Bronx (363), Brooklyn (306), Queens (292) and Manhattan (249). Estimates were for about 40 more graduate students this year as well as 120 more undergraduates

President Christian’s carefully prepared speech was prefaced by a self-effacing video that showed his morning routine starting with a physical workout and ending with an extensive campus walking tour greeting staff. Then, amid appreciative laughter directed at the screen during the video, he suddenly appeared in person and walked over to the podium.
He had a serious message to deliver, one of the major themes of his decade-long leadership.

SUNY New Paltz president Don Christian at this year’s graduation.

The school was changing, Christian said, and learning to change with it was the challenge facing the entire school community. He noted the increased racial and ethnic diversity of the SUNY New Paltz student population. This fall, he said, 48 percent of first-time new enrollees were from minority or disadvantaged groups — a new high. New Paltz was ahead of the country, which he said anticipated the same by 2040.

But diversity was not the same as inclusion, he said. Diversity simply meant more different kinds of people. Inclusion involved everyone at the institution developing new customs and finding new ways of dealing with each other. For SUNY New Paltz, he said, change would require a more diverse faculty and staff and better preparation of all students.
Christian advocated for increasing opportunities for student choice through more individualized instruction and closer faculty-student intellectual relationships. He called for deepening engagement with those that the school serves. He outlines an honorable road map for a very long path.

The SUNY New Paltz president implied but did not go so far as explicitly to say that the school, which provides higher education to a diverse metropolitan population from a nearby exurban location, had a special role to play in the current political environment. The teaching and learning of collective lessons has always been the heart of that quintessential New York experience, the melting pot. But these lessons may have taken on a new importance in an era in which some political leaders are making the dehumanization of immigrants their central message.
What is the school’s special role in this situation?

An ambitious institution on the ascendancy, SUNY New Paltz has struggled in recent years to maintain its standards for high-school grade point average and college admission test scores. Adjusted for race and other demographic factors, the data shows the school’s been doing well. Its students score increasingly well in ranking systems. To continue its upward trajectory, it doesn’t appear to need “environmental context dashboards,” quotas or other standards-boosting corrective devices.

Changing a culture toward greater inclusiveness requires qualities other than good test scores, however. It requires positive steps toward racial equity. Looking up Scholastic Aptitude Test scores for 2017-2018 by major racial groups, I developed rough approximations. Using national data, Asian students had median SAT scores of about 1150. Whites averaged about 1100, Latinos about 990, and blacks about 930.
Simplified data supplied by SUNY New Paltz provides numbers on the reported racial composition by year of new freshmen and transfers. By the categories used, the number of new white undergraduate students has not much changed: 1003 in 2001, 1199 in 2010 and 1034 this fall. The number of new students in the Hispanics category at the school increased every year: from 148 in 2001 to 236 in 2010 to 491 in 2019. Blacks were reported as 117 in 2001, 90 in 2010 and 157 this year. Asian students numbered 52 in 2001, 80 in 2010 and 120 in 2019.

The rise of the number of Hispanics among the new students to almost half the number of whites has not been widely commented upon. Why not? Many Hispanics identify themselves as white by race. New York City’s white population is 32 percent excluding all Hispanics and 43 percent white including Hispanics who identify themselves as white.

National analyses of growth in the non-white population, most experts in demographics agree, are flawed by changes in the national census race categories. Helped by these changes in category, the non-white population increased from twelve percent in 1960 to 37 percent in 2015. Using the 1960 categories, the change would have been from twelve percent to 18 percent.  

Applied locally, that same analysis would considerably lengthen the time period prior to racial minorities becoming the new majority. But most arguments for equity and social justice are not based on numbers. Equity is a moral argument. Inclusiveness is not a numbers game.

Christian, who said he detected “increasing support for inclusion and community-building” at the New Paltz school he heads, used the college’s widely praised theatre arts program as an example of what changes in culture could be achieved through the increased use of “the expression of non-dominant voices.” Said he, “People are paying attention.”
To be inclusive in filling faculty positions, the college president came out in favor not solely of universal open, competitive searches but of what he termed “targeted opportunity hires.”

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