University of Delaware officials came to Dover seeking green, but they were met with a conversation about black and white.
In his annual appearance before the General Assembly’s Joint Finance Committee–a meeting typically reserved for talk of dollars and cents–University President Patrick Harker faced questions from lawmakers about UD’s efforts to attract African-American and other minority students.
Representative James Johnson, D-Wilmington, asked Harker to respond to criticism from the Delaware NAACP that the university’s attempt at diversity has resulted in “little or no progress.”
Harker said UD is on the right path, pointing to a recent uptick in the number of black undergraduates as well as a newly established summer program for low-income freshmen who are the first in their families to attend college. There were 518 African-Americans in UD’s freshman class this year, up from 399 the year prior, according to provost Domenico Grasso
“We’ve been chipping away at this,” Harker said. “We’re not where we need to be and we know this.”
Senator Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington North, co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, challenged Harker’s narrative, noting that while the total number of African American undergraduates rose in 2014, their numbers as a percentage of the incoming class fell. Harker attributed that drop off to a larger-than-expected freshman class.
“At the very least, we’ve got some work to do,” McDowell responded.
African Americans made up 4.9 percent of the undergraduate enrollment at the university’s Newark campus in fall 2013, down from 5.3 percent in 2009.
The committee also heard from Richard Smith, president of the NAACP’s Delaware chapter. Smith harangued UD for its lack of diversity, and accused lawmakers of treating the state’s flagship university with undue deference. “The University of Delaware is the big monster that nobody wants to touch,” Smith said. “We’ve been fighting for years for UD to look at our race and our culture, but it ain’t happening.”
Smith pointed in particular to the University of Mississippi, which once fought a bloody struggle to preserve segregation but now has an African American enrollment of 14.3 percent. Mississippi, however, has a greater proportion of black residents than Delaware–37.4 percent to Delaware’s 22.1.
Harker acknowledged the criticism, as well as UD’s historic absence of diversity. He insisted, however, that his university was making strides, and reaffirmed his commitment to the cause.
“If we’re going to fulfill our mission of serving the entire state, we need to literally serve the entire state,” Harker said.
In comments after the hearing, Harker also spoke to the perception that Delaware’s African-American students feel more comfortable at Delaware State University, a historically black college that is the state’s only other public, four-year institution of higher learning.
“Imaginary barriers are real,” Harker said. “If I think there’s a barrier, there’s a barrier.”
On the financial side, the University of Delaware asked for $117.04 million in state funding, the same amount Governor Jack Markell earmarked for UD in his budget proposal. The university received $115.6 million from the state in FY 2015.
In his presentation to the Joint Finance Committee, Harker stressed the university’s need to update its research labs. He noted that just 20 percent of UD grads get degrees in STEM fields, a number that falls below most regional competitors.
“We want and we need to do more,” Harker said.