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Mason stresses importance of aiding underrepresented groups to university retention

BY ASMAA ELKEURTI | APRIL 10, 2012 6:30 AM

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University of Iowa President Sally Mason has pointed recruitment and retainment as university priorities.

"We're always looking for ways to help students who need particular kinds of help, whether it's financial aid, whether it's just finding a way around the institution, whether it's providing academic help because they're struggling," she said. "I don't think we have any programs that are exclusively for minority students, but many of these programs happen to help students from underrepresented groups."

Affirmative-action policies have gained national attention following recent court cases. A February California Circuit Court ruling upheld Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action in 1996, and the University of Texas has been bought before the Supreme Court after a student alleged denial to the school based on being white.

Horace Cooper, senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research, said state-funded institutions cannot allocate state money for programs that exclusively target minority groups.

"If you are a government organization and you're using government dollars, you are not allowed to simply say, 'Here's money for just being white or here's money for just being black,' " Cooper said.

Roughly 12 percent of the UI's 2011 fall enrollment were minority students; that figure was roughly 9 percent in fall of 2001.

But Cooper said diversity should still remain a goal for higher-education institutions.

"The concept of diversity is not bad; the concept of encouraging it is not bad. If the only real test of who gets the benefit is the color of their skin or their chromosomal makeup, then that's not legal," said the former George Mason University Constitutional-law professor.

Affirmative action is not currently in violation of any national laws, said UI Chief Diversity Officer Georgina Dodge. The Department of Education is encouraging the use of programming geared toward economically and historically disadvantaged students, she noted.

"People want to think of affirmative action in providing equality, when that's not what affirmative action actually addresses. It addresses inequity. Equality assumes we're starting from the same place," she said. "When you look at equity, that means you have no apples and I already have four. So if we're both treated equally and given two apples, you now have two and I have six."

Brooke Paulsen, a UI assistant director of student-success initiatives, pointed to the success of the Iowa Edge program — which aims to familiarize first-generation students and students of color with the UI campus. The program began with around 36 students in 2006, peaking at around 120, then dropping to about 90 students for the past two years.

"The world is becoming a more global place," she said. "Interacting with those who have a different worldview from them is an important thing."

Mason said the program has been successful in terms of UI retention.

"The Iowa Edge program brings students in — many of whom are first generation or from underrepresented groups — and I think that it gives them a really good sense of how to take advantage of all the things the university has to offer," she said.

Dodge said UI programming toward underrepresented groups also looks to each individual's credentials.

"To provide somebody that has the intellect and the capability of succeeding in college to provide them with the logistical tools they need … seems to be the least we can do if we want a truly equitable society," she said.


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