Motlow State Community College President Dr. Michael Torrence and Gov. Bill Haslam share a moment during the Biennial Conference on Diversity, Equality and Completion. Photos by Clint Confehr

By Clint Confehr

FRANKLIN, TN — There’s a college graduation rate equity gap between white students and students of color, Gov. Bill Haslam told a conference on diversity, asking educators to close that gap.

Winding up for that pitch, Haslam compared education policies of “a white Republican president, George W. Bush” and “a black Democrat president,” Barack Obama, who “kept three main tenants” of Bush’s No Child Left Behind program.

Obama’s “controversial” tenants were: “to raise the standard on what we expect everybody to know; have a year-end assessment to measure what that child knows;” and have “teacher evaluations tied to that assessment. That was really brave, courageous policy,” he said. “I can’t remember a Democratic president who went against one of his biggest bases.”

Eight years ago, 70 percent of high school graduates needed remedial work when entering community colleges. Federal policy addressed that. Haslam made post secondary education tuition free.

“Our challenge now is making sure they finish when they get there,” he said, having heard Tennessee Regent Joseph Hatch report white college students’ graduation rate is 27 percent. It’s 10.5 percent for blacks. Those rates are “not that great” and “unacceptable,” respectively.

Noma Anderson, the University of Tennessee president’s advisor on diversity and inclusion,

Noma Anderson, center, special advisor to UT’s president on diversity and inclusion, recognizes Tennessee’s tremendous headway addressing needs for employees with post secondary education.

sought Haslam’s reaction to minority students who “don’t see faculty that look like them.”

Faculty diversity is “the right thing to do,” Haslam said. The motive with “lasting impact” is “it makes us better … The businesses I know incorporating diversity … do it because, if we had more people of color and women in high positions, it would … be better.”

Derek Young, a corporate cultural consultant and diversity trainer for the Tennessee Board of Regents, said diversity should be “a way of life, starting with senior leadership to get them to model it, teach it, promote it. Where we’ve seen colleges and schools do that, we’ve seen progress.” Young led a seminar on leveraging diversity and inclusion.

Hindering minority recruiting, conference speaker Estela Mara Bensimon of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California says is a “culture of niceness.” Black and Latino faculty see discrimination but don’t complain about practices undermining diversity because conflict avoidance was valued, Bensimon says in an essay. To stop bias in

Kenyatta Lovett leads a non-profit for college completion, and works with Gov. Bill Haslam on what makes a difference for low income students to close equity gaps in college education.

hiring procedures, put “equity agents” on search committees. Recruiting ads should request: applicants with success in multicultural communities; and essays on mentoring underrepresented students telling how to engage them.

To increase college graduation rates, Youlanda Jones, president of Tennessee’s College of Applied Technology, recommends working one-on-one with students where they are. Students who’ve never been at a college may not have relatives saying ‘You can do this,’ because they may not be college educated.

Motlow State Community College President Dr. Michael Torrence spoke of leveraging technology to increase equity. That prompted discussion on the availability of high speed Internet.

Tennessee Board of Regents Vice Chancellor Wendy Thompson said “We All Rise, the Biennial Conference on Diversity, Equity and Completion” Oct. 1-2, was “an opportunity for

Mae Perry, left, president of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Hartsville, greets Gov. Bill Haslam at the We All Rise conference sponsored by the Tennessee Board of Regents and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

people from the Tennessee Board of Regents system of colleges, the independent universities, the staffs of the higher education policy agencies to hear about the work that’s yet to be done and to hear from people who are doing great work” to increase college graduates. “There’s no silver bullet.” Faculty, community, administrators and policy makers must be involved. “It’s all hands on deck.”

Employers, Haslam said, “hire a lot fewer people to do the same work than they used to. Workers have to be better trained. It takes fewer people to serve a hamburger or to build a car. The folks who are going to win … are going to be the people who are better trained.”

Workforce “investment dollars to support students” are important, says Complete Tennessee Executive Director Dr. Kenyatta Lovett, adding Haslam created “Drive to 55 and other great programs around post secondary access.”

Clint Confehr

Clint Confehr — an American journalist since 1972 — first wrote for The Tennessee Tribune in 1999. His news writing and photography in South Central Tennessee and the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical...