As a lifelong Philadelphian, I have always seen Temple University as part of my life. Growing up in West Philly, I passed through Temple’s campus every day as I rode the Broad Street subway to Central High School. Before that, I was one of the lucky few teenagers who attended summer school classes at Temple’s law school as part of the late Sam Evans’ AFNA (American Foundation for Negro Affairs) program. I live and die with the fortunes (and misfortunes) of Temple basketball every time March Madness rolls around.
But with all of that, my most lasting memory of Temple is when I was unceremoniously chased off the campus when I was a student.
It was the early 1980s, and I was taking a summer course in African American history to fulfill a class requirement as a journalism major at Duquesne University.
I would ride my bike from West Philly through Fairmount Park to Temple every day to get to class. On that day, as I was leaving to go home, one of the security guards thought I was trying to steal my own bike and chased me away. (I later returned to retrieve it.)
I was angry. I figured that the guard probably mistook me for one of the neighborhood kids and saw himself as “protecting” the institution from someone he thought didn’t belong there. What he didn’t see was my determination to come back the next day, and every day that summer, to get the education I deserved and paid for. More than 40 years later, I’m now both a professor and administrator responsible for diversity as part of Temple’s Klein College of Media and Communication.
I’ve been coming back to this youthful memory more and more as I reflect on a recent story about Temple’s declining share of Black students over the last 25 years. According to the article, Black students represented more than 28% of Temple undergraduates a quarter century ago, but by 2016-17, they were less than 13% of the student body.
But these and other statistics don’t address the broader context that provides a more accurate picture of the problem and more complicated (but necessary) solutions.
The challenges Temple faces in this regard are not unique; in fact, Temple remains among the most diverse universities in the region.
But while Temple has been called by some the “Diversity University,” such a label sends the wrong message about diversity as a destination to achieve rather than a journey to pursue. Regardless of the numbers, we work knowing that diversity is the goal that will always exceed our grasp. But we’re going to keep pushing — and welcome being pushed.
I know what it’s like to feel out of place at Temple because of the way I look. I never want another student to feel that way.
But making diversity happen over time is more than a one-time enrollment transaction. The worst thing we can do is try to boost enrollment without providing our students with the tools to stay, succeed, graduate, and make their impact on the world. In addition to focusing on who’s coming in the door, we have to focus on who is flying out of our nest, and how, as a truer measure of what it means to be “Temple Made.” For me, there were few persons of color (faculty or administrators) whom I could turn to when I was in college as a young undergrad. Now, from my perch inside academia’s walls, I and others at Temple actively seek out students whom we can nurture because we’ve been where they are and can steady them where we’ve stumbled.
“In addition to focusing on who’s coming in the door, we have to focus on who is flying out of our nest, and how, as a truer measure of what it means to be ‘Temple Made.’”
Finally, it would be arrogant (and inaccurate) on our part to think that any one institution has the solutions. Enrollment, retention, and graduation are all part of a complex continuum that requires partnerships with K-12 schools, community leaders, and elected officials. It requires adequately funded and innovative programs that wrap our students with the social services to navigate the demands of pursuing a degree at TU.
If we don’t continue to work better together, we’ll never achieve and sustain the type of diversity that will ultimately lift us all. Had it not been for loving parents who believed I belonged with the best and the brightest, and made sure I found programs like AFNA, Concerned Black Men, INROADS, and others to bring out that potential, I know I would have been shut out of my chosen path before ever stepping foot on a college campus.
The founder of Temple, Baptist minister Russell Conwell, built the institution around the belief that there were “acres of diamonds” in our midst that — if mined properly — could be a precious treasure whose value would exceed what others had already overlooked.
The diamonds already know their worth. It’s up to all of us to keep digging, polishing, and adding just the right amount of pressure to make those diamonds shine.
David W. Brown is an assistant professor of instruction and serves as the diversity adviser to the dean of Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University.