Research focuses on student affairs

Marlene Lacasse/Daily
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By Rachel Premack, Daily Staff Reporter
Published May 15, 2013

Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University — a historically black liberal arts college in New Orleans — quizzed the 200-plus attendees of the 10th annual Division of Student Affairs research symposium on the University of Michigan’s black male graduation rate.

Only one person in the cavernous room in the Union offered a number, but his guess of 80 percent was eight percentage points too high. Black males at the University have a 72.1 percent graduation rate, compared to 89 percent for their white peers.

Kimbrough, the keynote speaker, and other symposium participants discussed graduation rates and other topics in student life research during the Wednesday conference.

During the symposium, the speakers emphasized applying theory to practice and vice versa. Speakers discussed topics such as student mental health, sexual assault prevention and career exploration.

Malinda Matney, a senior research associate for the Division of Student Affairs, said student affairs practitioners have always created scholarship as they conduct their research. But prior to the symposium’s creation 10 years ago, University practitioners would rarely step back and evaluate the work they performed.

“When we started, we had a lot of people doing good work in the Division of Student Affairs but there wasn’t a lot of formal assessment or sharing of assessment,” Matney said. “What we wanted to do was bring together people to see how other people study their own work.”

Kimbrough reiterated in his speech the importance of evaluating one’s work.

“If we're doing something good, we should know what we’re doing,” Kimbrough said.

That “something good” in Kimbrough’s case was an initiative as former president of Philander Smith College, a historically black college in Arkansas that typically enrolls around 850 students. In 2006, 11 percent of black males were graduating within six years from the college, a significantly lower graduation rate than the national average for the demographic at 34 percent.

Kimbrough, after learning that black males lacked the social connections and role models needed to graduate, developed the Black Male Initiative Program. Under the program, students bowled with their professors, learned how to tie a tie from the vice president of a local bank and heard from influential speakers, including former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

One senior in BMI practiced public speaking for the first time.

“You could just see the satisfaction and confidence in his face when he was able to speak in front of 300 people,” Kimbrough said.

By 2011, the graduation rate for black males at Philander Smith increased by 25 percentage points. Black females’ graduate rates were also substantially higher as a result of Kimbrough’s work.

He advised the University to examine its black graduation rates, especially those of black male student-athletes. Black male student-athletes at the University have a 54 percent graduation rate — 13 points less than black males at the University and 35 points less than all University students. Those disparities are respectively the largest and third largest among Big Ten Conference schools.

Rollin Johnson, Jr., director of community partnerships at the Ginsberg Center, said Kimbrough’s suggestion to the University to consider these points was timely.

“It is always interesting to have somebody that has done this kind of work, that is looking at these issues and has a real salient understanding not only of just the body of work that’s out there, but also is creating that work and is addressing those challenges,” Kimbrough said. “It was a great way to bring attention to these challenges.”

Ten other sessions occurred prior to Kimbrough’s address. Michael Brown and Matt DeMonbrun, PhD students in the School of Education, delved into the theory side of the symposium’s itinerary, presenting their research of student affairs practitioners’ methods for gathering information through professional groups.

Brown said ensuring one’s professional circles includes multiple perspectives and demographics, especially when practitioners’ actions must address various student demographics.

Mary Jo Desprez, the health promotion and community relations director for University Health Systems, said research in sexual assault, student alcohol use and other areas is helping to create a more comprehensive AlcoholEdu program for freshmen. Such programs, she said, have to contend with a host of factors colleges cannot eliminate, like media influences.

“The students who come here are a subset of broader cultural issues,” Desprez said. “You’ve had (alcohol advertising) for 18 years before you ever set foot on a college campus.”

However, she said, with the nature of student affairs where one is always going back to the drawing board, no problem is unsolvable.

“It took Edison 2,000 tries to make a light bulb, so I think we’re in a continuous improvement,” she said.