Hopkins blacks frustrated by slow change Yearlong protest stirred debate, but many problems remain

May 23, 1993|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

There were times when Henry Boateng didn't feel welcome at the Johns Hopkins University.

On several occasions, campus security officers interrupted his basketball games to see if he and the other players belonged in the gym.

Mr. Boateng sometimes felt that he was being followed by officers as he walked at night. Sometimes, people just stared, apparently wondering what this young black man was doing on campus.

Things like that happen to black students at Hopkins, where African-Americans account for only 4.5 percent of the undergraduate enrollment.

And such experiences are what drove Mr. Boateng, as head of the school's Black Student Union, to lead an unprecedented yearlong protest to improve the racial atmosphere at the prestigious North Baltimore university.

The protest began last fall when Mr. Boateng helped draft a list of 16 demands for campus change -- including more black faculty, greater sensitivity from campus police and a black studies program.

Later, there were confrontations with university officials, a sit-in at the library, and heated exchanges with white students over a controversial speaker sponsored by the black student group.

In response, the university has made some changes.

But two of the students' key concerns -- that there be more black faculty members and a black studies program -- will take more time, the administration says.

Mr. Boateng, who graduates tomorrow, says he believes the protests helped to raise consciousness on campus.

He is frustrated, however, by the slow pace of change.

"The best thing is that there was a lot of debate," said Mr. Boateng.

"Race issues have always been here, but the debate was always hidden."

On a campus known for academic intensity rather than political activism, the protests have been a yearlong anomaly.

And the fallout, some say, has been damaging.

"As the school year draws to a close . . . [Hopkins] is more than a campus divided," the student newspaper said in a farewell editorial this month.

"It's a campus fragmented and decimated, a campus that has lost hope in solutions to problems of racial integration and coexistence."

President William C. Richardson, who has been the target of much of the black students' anger, said he agrees with many of their goals.

"I think it's been a very productive year in terms of race relations," Dr. Richardson said.

"It's been a productive year for addressing issues that have been talked about and worked on for years."

As recently as 1965, Hopkins had no blacks in its freshman class.

The university didn't hire a full-time employee to assist minority students until 1988, well after many schools.

Today, the 330-member undergraduate faculty includes only two blacks.

The 4.5 percent black enrollment figure (149 blacks among the 3,297 full-time undergraduates) has held fairly steady the last decade.

That is smaller than the percentage at some other top-ranked urban universities.

Brown University in Providence, R.I., has a black enrollment of roughly 7 percent, for example. At the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, the figure is about 6 percent.

With their numbers so small, black Hopkins students say, the university's black community has trouble maintaining a "critical mass."

"When one of us leaves school, it's a big deal," said Nicole London, who will head the Black Student Union next year.

Problems for years

Black student leaders say this year's protests grew out of problems black students have faced for years.

Kobi Little, a junior from Baltimore who was active in the protests, said he has been stopped many times by security officers or other university employees asking, "Can I help you?" as if he didn't belong on campus.

Craig F. Warren, a graduating senior who edited the black student magazine, says he has sensed people wondering about how he managed to get admitted to Hopkins. One student asked him directly if he had been admitted because of his race, Mr. Warren said.

"It's not like they want to kill you, but there's an underlying hostility and ignorance," Mr. Warren said.

Dr. Richardson said Hopkins has been trying to bring more black students to campus. At the graduate level, the university used better recruiting and other programs to dramatically increase the number of black applicants this year.

At the undergraduate level, the school expects to have some 60 black freshmen next fall -- about 6.2 percent of the class and the largest number in Hopkins history.

Some swift responses

The university has responded quickly to some of the students' demands. An outdoor basketball court, for example, will be built on campus this summer. Black students wanted the basketball court -- as well as a children's playground and an exercise trail -- as a way to make the campus more inviting to people from the neighboring community, particularly blacks.

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