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Chestnut Hill College faces its diversity problem

When Antoinette Ford attended Chestnut Hill College in the early 1960s, she didn't have one African American professor. Fifty-plus years later, not much has changed.

Kaileik Asbury (left), president of Chestnut Hill College's black student union, and Melissa Allen-Bey, its treasurer. They say they want to make their school better for future minority students.
Kaileik Asbury (left), president of Chestnut Hill College's black student union, and Melissa Allen-Bey, its treasurer. They say they want to make their school better for future minority students.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

When Antoinette Ford attended Chestnut Hill College in the early 1960s, she didn't have one African American professor. Fifty-plus years later, not much has changed.

Only two of the college's full-time professors - 2.2 percent - are black, despite a student body that is nearly one-third black. All 29 members of the college's board of directors are white. No deans or vice presidents are black.

"Institutions that are what they have always been are missing something," said Ford, an oceanographer with a Harvard MBA, and the first African American woman picked as a White House Fellow. "They're missing a lot."

Ford belongs to the Chestnut Hill College Alumni of Color Collective, a group that is pushing for more diversity at the Catholic college in Northwest Philadelphia. Their position was bolstered by a recent case before the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

The commission found probable cause that the college discriminated against a black student by expelling him after he was accused of stealing funds that he raised to stage A Raisin in the Sun, a 1959 Lorraine Hansberry play about a black family's experiences on the South Side of Chicago.

White students, the commission found, faced less severe punishments for disciplinary infractions than did black students. The commission also found no evidence that Allan-Michael Meads stole money.

College officials, in a 90-minute interview, vigorously denied discriminating against Meads, whom they expelled on the grounds of theft and dishonesty in March 2012, just weeks shy of his graduation. They also maintained that their disciplinary process is fair, calling some commission assertions "patently false." They said they will fight the allegation at a hearing.

But they conceded that critics' concerns about lack of diversity and sensitivity bear addressing. They said they are taking steps to improve the 91-year-old college that until the 1990s had an administration made up entirely of the Sisters of St. Joseph, the founding order, and that until 2003 had been a women's college.

"I do think there needs to be more people of color represented at every level of the administration, faculty and staff," said Sister Carol Jean Vale, president since 1992. "I understand young people of color need to see successful people who look like them. I think it is a totally legitimate desire."

The college has begun to identify alumni of color as possible candidates for the board of directors and could add as many as six new members next year, she said. The school also plans to bring in African American consulting firms.

The college, Vale said, will hold conversations "so we can really listen and learn about the experiences that our African Americans are having."

Last month, the school created a new position - officer of unity and inclusion - and appointed Sister Cecelia J. Cavanaugh, a white nun who has served as dean of the school of undergraduate studies since 2002 and whose specialty is Spanish literature.

Her appointment further inflamed critics.

"It's a complete joke," said Quincy Inman, a 2015 graduate and cast member in Meads' play. "All you did is simply shuffle around the chairs."

Cavanaugh's appointment, Vale noted, is temporary and she will be supported by a diverse advisory group. A permanent officer will be hired for next fall.

Also frustrating to collective members was the college's decision to hire an all-white public relations firm to represent it in addressing questions about the commission report.

"Really tone deaf," said Shanee Garner, 30, a 2007 graduate who will be director of legislation for incoming City Councilwoman Helen Gym.

Vale said Bellevue Communications is working pro bono and that its leader, Kevin Feeley, is the husband of an alum.

National controversy

The controversy at Chestnut Hill comes as campuses nationally face mounting protests over the treatment of minority students, lack of staff diversity, and insensitivity to historical figures who had mistreated blacks.

Names that have stood for decades are being called into question.

At Princeton, students pushed to no longer call the school of public and international affairs after Woodrow Wilson, contending that the former president left a legacy of racism.

Just last week, the University of Pennsylvania - following both Princeton and Harvard - renamed its "faculty masters," concerned about the racial connotation of "master." The full-time professors who live in student dorms will be called directors.

At the University of Missouri, the president and chancellor resigned last month following complaints that they failed to deal with concerns about racism.

About a dozen Chestnut Hill students, alumni and faculty spoke to The Inquirer about what they see as the college's lack of respect for diversity.

Ford, who had been the sole black member of the board of directors, resigned earlier this year in frustration. She had joined the board in 2013, hoping to get the college to become more inclusive.

"I got lots of smiles and patronizing comments, but nothing happened," said Ford, a native Philadelphian who runs a theater company in Washington.

Members of the collective see the college's inaction as "institutional racism." Administrators aren't using racial slurs, they said, but their policies and practices are keeping minority students down.

In its probable-cause document, the state commission said that 100 percent of African American students charged with violations were expelled or suspended, according to records reviewed from 2006 to 2012.

"Many white students that were found liable for violating student codes of conduct," commission lawyer Jelani Cooper wrote, "either received no discipline, warnings, mediation, reflection papers, fines, or probation."

Krista Bailey Murphy, dean of student life, said that's wrong. Less than 1 percent of both black and white students charged with violations during that period were suspended or expelled, she said.

Of the 14 students who were suspended or expelled, eight were white and three black, she said.

Cooper was critical of the college.

"I don't think the college administrators understand what diversity or what discrimination is," he said. "They are just in complete denial."

Vale retorted: "That's nonsense."

Susan Magee, an assistant professor of communications and supporter of Meads', said she doesn't think administrators are racist as individuals.

"I do really see it as institutional racism at work," she said. "I just don't think white people always understand."

Mixed reactions

Some current and former students said they had experienced what felt like discrimination.

Ariama Long, 24, a 2013 graduate who majored in English and communications, said some teachers early on questioned whether she belonged in some of her classes and one accused her of plagiarism.

"They had this assumption that I couldn't speak or write with a certain ability," said Long, who works in technical support for Comcast and is a freelance writer.

Inman, 24, a recruitment specialist for a foster home program and resident of East Falls, recalls how a college official asked him how long his bus ride was when he arrived on campus as a freshman with his sister from Rochester, N.Y. "Would you think a white student would catch a bus?" he said his sister asked.

But several other African American students, said they sensed no bias.

"I just love the atmosphere," said Erica McIntosh, 20, of Waldorf, Md.

Leaders of the black student union said the college has supported their efforts. They started the group in April, they said, because some students were uncomfortable.

Melissa Allen-Bey, 20, a junior from the Bronx and group treasurer, described it as "a general feeling of not belonging. We wanted to break down those barriers and make sure everybody feels included."

They want more black studies classes and African American teachers.

But they emphasized that they are not trying to put down Chestnut Hill.

"We're going to graduate from Chestnut Hill," said Kaileik Asbury, 20, also a junior from the Bronx and group president. "So the point is to make Chestnut Hill a better place for future black students and future Latino students who come here."