The Quest for Critical Mass

A small private college in Kentucky, almost entirely white, starts numerous efforts to recruit black students.
May 25, 2007

It’s the college that houses the Underground Railroad Research Institute. The one that offers scholarships to inner-city students and is preparing to host a reunion of a defunct historically black college. You know, Georgetown College, in Kentucky, whose undergraduate population is 94 percent white.

Come again?

William H. Crouch Jr., president of the small, Christian liberal arts college, has heard that response many times before. He's used to blank stares on the road when he states his goal of Georgetown's non-white student percentage shooting into the upper teens.

"The fact that I'm a white college president at a mostly white college in a predominantly white part of the country is getting a lot of people's attention," Crouch said. "I tell them, 'We're in a position to make a difference. It's the right thing to be doing.'"

To some, Georgetown is known as the college that recently severed ties with its Baptist convention or, simply, as the other Georgetown, not the university in Washington, D.C. Crouch wants to remake that image -- and the composition of the student body. In particular, Georgetown is seeking to significantly increase its black undergraduate population without growing its enrollment.

Four percent of the college's undergraduates are black; that's 50 out of about 1,400. Georgetown has seen a steady, albeit small, increase in black students over the last two decades but -- as the college has also grown in size -- not much change in the racial composition of the student body. The president's target is 12 percent black enrollment.

Crouch, who grew up in Jackson, Miss., during a time of racial tension, said his effort to diversify Georgetown is divinely inspired. It's a matter of helping an underserved group, exposing the majority group on campus to students of different backgrounds and keeping the initiative narrow enough in scope.

“My feeling is that one reason diversity initiatives don't work is that our definition has gotten so wide that we don’t get to understand well any one particular culture," Crouch said. "Therefore, we don’t create a welcoming environment for that particular culture. If we don't spread ourselves too thin, we will eventually become more welcoming over time [for other underserved groups]."

Georgetown is casting a wide net in recruiting students. The college has developed a pipeline with a program called The First Tee, which gives inner-city students across the country access to golf lessons and mentoring. Six years ago, while speaking at a program convention, Crouch said he was so impressed with one of the high school students, Steven Outlaw, who has since graduated from Georgetown, that he immediately offered him a scholarship.

Christopher Hawkins, who graduated Georgetown with Outlaw this spring, also received a scholarship to attend the college through the golf program.

"It was exciting to know someone offered me a scholarship, but it wasn't something I was sold on from the start," Hawkins said. "I'm coming from Atlanta, and this is a rural school in Kentucky. I was thinking of something more like a historically black college."

But Hawkins eventually enrolled, and so too have a handful of students who found out about Georgetown through the golf program. Crouch said it has helped the college increase its geographic diversity; almost all of the participants come from urban centers where Georgetown has not historically been successful, he said.

Another tactic is to get them early. Crouch is set to offer several high-achieving black male students in 5th, 6th and 7th grades who live in Lexington and Indianapolis (the two trial sites) full scholarships to come to Georgetown if they maintain their grades. The college will rely on churches in those cities to select and keep in contact with the students over the next few years.

Georgetown has also developed a partnership with Bishop College, a historically black Baptist college in Texas that closed in 1988 amid financial turmoil. Crouch said he was displeased to find that Bishop graduates had no place to house their archives and go for reunions. So Georgetown will do both, hosting Bishop graduates for the first time next year. Children and grandchildren of Bishop graduates will also be offered scholarships to attend Georgetown. Crouch says the college plans to use existing money and raise millions more to pay for these initiatives.

The eventual goal is for Georgetown to become a Phi Beta Kappa college, which means, among other things, a demonstrated commitment to diversity.

For more than a decade, Georgetown has had a standing offer to its black graduates they it will pay for their graduate educations if they return to teach for at least five years. A few students have accepted, including Alicestyne Adams, who returned to start the Underground Railroad Research Institute, which studies the network that helped slaves escape to freedom. (The majority of students who study at the center are white, Crouch said.)

Adams, a part-time instructor in Georgetown's sociology department, said the various scholarship offers to black students are a sign that Crouch is backing up rhetoric with action.

Still, overall progress has been slow. This fall, Georgetown is welcoming its first full-time tenured black faculty member. The college has several black adjuncts.

Ann Grundy, who co-founded the Black Student Union at nearby Berea College, said while it's "commendable" that Crouch is making up for lost time by recruiting black students, Georgetown needs to make an institution-wide commitment before the students can reap real benefits.

"It is very, very painful to have African American students on your campus but to not have a support system in place for them," Grundy said. "That's the challenge [Crouch] has had. In order for students to prosper, they need support that is not yet there."

Grundy said it's a matter of having more black faculty and students, making changes to the curriculum that emphasize diversity (which Crouch said is coming) and offering more cultural opportunities. Grundy, who is familiar with the campus, said she isn't sure if there is widespread support for the president's initiatives. "One never knows if he is out there by himself," she said.

Both Outlaw and Hawkins said that since they began at Georgetown, the college has taken strides to make them feel more welcome by adding events such as a retreat for black students.

“[Administrators] now understand what it takes for students who are from other backgrounds to come and be successful," he said. "At first, they just expected us to grow into the environment. The college isn't ever going to be the most diverse school in the nation, but it can do good things with what it has."


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