Enrolling few minorities, a college wonders why

Diversity: With a student body that is 89 percent white, St. John's College in Annapolis pushes for a better racial mix on campus.

September 14, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

St. John's College has decided that its student body is, in one respect, a little too much like the authors on the school's vaunted "great books" list.

"Almost everyone is white," said Martin A. Dyer, a black alumnus who is part of a new campaign by St. John's to recruit more minorities.

There are just three black undergraduates at the 470-student school, and two are the sons of a professor. Overall, 89 percent of the student body is white, a number that has barely changed for the last five years.

The lack of diversity "raises a suspicion and a question about the college's intentions," said Christopher Nelson, the school's president.

"We want to make sure that our appearance matches the reality - that we are interested in having more minorities," he said.

The college has written alumni, asking them to help with recruiting and to suggest high schools with large minority populations where campus officials might make a pitch. St. John's also has formed a committee to examine minority recruitment and recommend further action.

Persuading more blacks to become "Johnnies," as students are known, could be difficult. Small liberal arts schools throughout the country are struggling to attract accomplished African-American students, who are often heavily recruited by elite Ivy League schools or large universities.

"Because colleges are working hard to enhance their diversity, many have experienced growing competition for these students," said David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

The shortage of minority applicants raises questions about how St. John's educational approach fits in today's market, where students might be less likely to appreciate the rhythms of The Odyssey and more inclined to ask how an intimate familiarity with the Trojan War will help them get a job.

"I think we as a college have a real difficulty," said George Russell, who has been a "tutor," or professor, at St. John's since 1995. "College education is very often a practical tool, if you will, a way of achieving some kind of upward financial and social mobility. I don't know how convinced people are that a school where they only read great books will help them."

St. John's officials already visit college fairs and high schools throughout the country, looking for minorities. The school also guarantees that any student who is accepted will receive enough financial aid to attend, no small task considering tuition and room and board is more than $30,000 annually.

But the recruiting trips and financial packages "have really produced nothing," said John Christensen, the school's director of admissions. In the early-1990s, St. John's regularly had eight or nine African-American students, but there were none in 1999 and the number has barely risen since.

In Maryland, many smaller schools have seen the number of black students level off or fall. St. Mary's College of Maryland, with a student body of 1,800, had 30 fewer full-time black undergraduates last year than in 1994, according to state figures. Goucher College had 70 full-time black students last year, the same number as in 1994.

Some schools have tried to increase diversity through financial aid packages.

St. John's was founded in 1784 by the banks of College Creek in downtown Annapolis. Since 1941, the school has devoted its curriculum to the study of classic texts of Western civilization.

There are no textbooks. Students instead must read a list of "great books," and much of their class time is spent debating the merits of Paradise Lost and War and Peace.

In recent interviews, several students and administrators said they did not think having more minorities in a classroom would have the same effect on a discussion about Plato or Marx as it would in a class about civil rights or sociology.

"It doesn't seem like race is a factor in how people think. Reason is color-blind," said Michael Bright, a white 20-year-old junior from Ann Arbor, Mich.

Dyer, who in 1948 became the school's first black student, disagrees.

"Even though the texts are classical, there's no question that many blacks would bring quite different life experiences to the table, which are vitally important to learning," he said.

Some on campus worry that minority students are shunning St. John's because they don't believe the education will be useful. "If you want your children to have more than you did and you heard about this college where they only read great books, you'd probably say: `Well, ... that sounds nice but I'd rather you go to a college where there are majors,'" Russell said.

School officials point out that most St. John's students get jobs in finance or law, and current Johnnies are confident their educations will serve them well in the long run.

"St. John's students are really appealing to graduate school programs because they know we can think," said Eric Lasiloo, an American Indian from New Mexico who is a junior. He transferred from St. John's satellite campus in Santa Fe.

School officials say St. John's will not change its approach. "We've made a choice and said that some things are better to study than others," Nelson said. "We're confident that if we reach the right people, regardless of race, they will agree with us."

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