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The University of Connecticut announced last week that it is creating a living-learning community for African-American male students, drawing praise from researchers concerned with the low graduation rates of -- and racism against -- black men on college campuses, and criticism from those who view the plan as racial and gender segregation.

Freshmen and sophomores will begin living in the Scholastic House of Leaders who are African-American Researchers and Scholars -- or ScHOLA2RS House -- this fall. While male students of any race may apply to the program, it is designed to “support the scholastic efforts of male students who identify as African-American,” the university's description of the program says.

UConn's announcement of the new house comes at a time of heightened debate about race on campus, in the wake of protests at colleges nationwide in the fall. While many colleges over the years have had living spaces that were described primarily for those interested in African-American, Latino or Asian culture, and that have housed primarily or entirely groups of people who are black, Latino or Asian, those colleges have generally stressed that the key factor was the shared interest in a culture, not identity as a member of a group.

The UConn announcement, however, follows student protests that have demanded ethnic-based housing, citing hostile environments they face on campus. And UConn is not alone. Last month, the University of Iowa announced a similar living-learning community, and Princeton University has created several “affinity rooms” in its Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding, in which students of various races and ethnicities can gather.

“It’s a learning community based on bringing African-American males into a setting where not only will they be with like-minded students, but a setting that is focused on graduate school and professional school,” Erik Hines, the UConn program’s faculty director and an assistant professor at the university’s department of education psychology, said. “All students at the University of Connecticut are bright, exceptional and smart. These students come in here with that same potential with the ability to be successful, but there are also these transition issues.”

Researchers have found that black students face a number of barriers to finding college success on predominantly white campuses. They struggle with underrepresentation, social isolation, academic hurdles and racial stereotyping from both their peers and their professors.

African-American students report feeling less mentally prepared than white students do but are less likely to seek help for mental health concerns, according to a study released last month by the Jed Foundation, an organization that works with colleges to prevent campus suicides, and the Steve Fund, a new group dedicated to studying and improving the mental health of students of color.

At Connecticut, the six-year graduation rate for African-American male students is about 54 percent, while the rate of white male students is 80 percent.

“It’s important that people understand that black women also experience stereotypes and racism on campus, but there are certain experiences that are uniquely gendered,” said Shaun Harper, who, as founder and executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, studies the effects stereotyping can have on black students.

For a recent article published in Harvard Education Review, Harper interviewed nearly 150 black male students at 30 predominantly white public and private institutions. All but two of the students reported dealing with racist stereotypes on campus. The students frequently reported being asked by white students about their presumed dancing, rapping and athletic abilities. Many of the students, including prominent members of student governments, said they were sometimes mistaken for drug dealers by white students.

“One of the things that I consistently hear from people is they thought they were the only ones who were having these experiences,” Harper said. “Being the only one or one of the only few in every class you take is a common experience for black male students at predominantly white institutions. Having a deliberately crafted space like this is important. They can receive validation. It can make them feel like they’re not crazy or overreacting. They can learn strategies from each other about how to navigate the university.”

The creation of such spaces was a prominent theme in the protests against campus racism that swept across college campuses last semester, though the University of Connecticut began planning its new living-learning community prior to the height of last year’s demonstrations. The university received a $300,000 grant in June from the Booth Ferris Foundation to create the program.

Hines said the social component of ScHOLA2RS House is important, but there will be just as much focus on academic planning. The roughly 40 students in the program will receive intensive counseling, as well as mentoring from upperclassmen. “We’re also going to connect them with more African-American male faculty,” Hines said. “And we’ll help them with balancing their course loads.”

So far, 12 students have contacted the university about living in the ScHOLA2RS House.

Reaction on campus and elsewhere has been mixed. On social media, some students lamented the fact that the program is focused only on men. Others argued that the initiative is discriminatory and a form of racial segregation. "If there was a Caucasian learning community, it would be a national headline," a user on the popular website Reddit wrote. "But an all-black learning community is totally acceptable. That is racist. That is discrimination."

Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a group that opposes affirmative action, said if any student can participate in ScHOLA2RS House, the program is not illegal, though he is still not a fan of the concept’s focus on helping only black male students.

“Forget about this nonsense and just treat students without regard to skin color,” Clegg said. “If there are students of color who are at risk or who could use some access to special programs, that’s fine, but schools shouldn’t be using race as a proxy for who’s at risk and who’s going to have a hard time as a student. There are lots of African-American students who come from advantaged backgrounds. And lots of non-African-American students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Stephanie Reitz, a spokeswoman for the University of Connecticut, blamed much of the criticism this week on misconceptions about the program. For years, female Connecticut students have already lived and learned in the Women in Math, Science and Engineering House. Other colleges, such as California State University, offer race-specific learning communities, she noted.

ScHOLA2RS House will not be a segregated residence hall, Reitz said, but will be situated within a larger -- still under construction -- living-learning center that will include several programs and 700 other students.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel with this,” she said. “If other students are interested in a similar residential experience, we are always open to looking at more communities to add to those already on campus. In fact, we’ve made a commitment to expand our learning communities, so we encourage students to bring their ideas to us, and to help us develop the kinds of housing experiences they would find valuable.”

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