Some students at Northern Kentucky University are upset by turmoil in the school’s Office of African American Student Affairs (AASA), including the firings of top personnel. Combined with NKU’s low rate for retaining black students, they question the institution’s commitment to diversity.
But the dismissals of the two AASA coordinators won’t affect that office’s programming and student retention initiatives, according to the university.
“The first week of February, we did have to cancel one program,” says Jeffrey Waple, NKU’s dean of students, “but that was because the speaker was in Pittsburgh and was stuck in the snow.”
The firings of Blanche Pringle-Smith on Feb. 3 and Michael Griffin on Feb. 17 occured as the institution lags behind other local universities in its track record of retaining African American students beyond their first year in college.
Their dismissals follow the departures of former AASA Director Cynthia Pinchback-Hines, who Griffin alleges was forced to resign.
NKU, the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University all track the retention rate of students returning after their first year. For the school year starting in 2009, UC reports that 77 percent of its African American students returned. That’s close behind XU’s report of 78 percent of the same ethnic group returning to its campus.
By comparison, NKU reports that only 56.8 percent of its African American students returned for their second year of college in 2009.
NKU’s overall retention rate of 67 percent lags behind UC and XU as well, with their rates of 77 percent and 84 percent, respectively.
The statistics raise concerns among some students and faculty about NKU’s ability to support African American students, a group traditionally at higher risk for dropping out before graduation.
Pringle-Smith’s termination form indicates she was let go due to “ongoing demonstrations of unwillingness to work cooperatively with new leadership.”
Meanwhile, Griffin’s form states that he was dismissed due to “unwillingness to perform assigned duties.”
Many African American students at NKU question the vagueness of the statements and allege campus leaders are motivated by university politics rather than what’s in the best interests of students.
Pringle-Smith’s and Griffin’s dismissals have caused a great deal of controversy on NKU’s campus. While campus officials have so far declined to comment on the issue, citing the privacy of personnel matters, students held silent protests in February and a forum Feb. 17 to discuss the issue.
Griffin declined to comment for this story, citing impending action to protest his dismissal. But NKU’s The Northerner student newspaper previously reported both Griffin and Pringle-Smith expressing their displeasure with the situation.
“The black student population, to be even more (precise) the white student population, at Northern Kentucky University is being used as cannon fodder and collateral damage for folks to move in their professional careers,” Griffin is reported to have said Feb. 27 when addressing students who had gathered to prevent him from clearing out his office.
“Always do the right thing,” Pringle- Smith is reported to have said to students, “because your integrity and reputation are all you have to stand on. Never be afraid to stand up when it is your turn to represent your principles. Constantly being aware of your political landscape, because even doing an exemplary job does not assure that you will not be attacked by disingenuous individuals only dedicated to their own enlightened self interest.”
The controversy looks set to continue, as both Pringle-Smith and Griffin have taken steps to formally contest their dismissals through the administrative process.
But where does this leave the AASA, now short-staffed and facing a noticeable lag behind other local universities?
According to Waple, NKU is taking active steps to keep the office running.
“We’re moving forward,” he says. “We’re still doing all of the programming that was originally scheduled.”
The AASA Web site lists events on April 13 and May 7, along with a note: “We are currently re-structuring our program offerings but invite you to call or visit our office if you have any immediate questions, needs or concerns.”
Waple notes that housing coordinator Destiny Harper, who had formerly worked with AASA, has shifted her job to include 20 hours per week of work for AASA. And he added that the office is not handling the staffing issue alone.
“We’re still meeting those needs, and a lot of the campus community is rallying around the AASA,” he says.
The organizations Waple specified — the Black Men’s Organization, Black Women’s Organization, Black United Students and Students Together Against Racism — didn’t return telephone calls for comment on their work with AASA.
Waple also spoke highly of new AASA Director Miya Simpson, pointing out the $500,000 McNair Diversity Grant she earned for Virginia Tech. Simpson is working on a similar grant proposal for NKU, he says.
“That will help with retention efforts holistically,” Waple adds.
Simpson was out of town and couldn’t be contacted for this story, but Waple says the AASA is moving swiftly to redefine its job descriptions and find new staff members.
“Our hope is … next week getting the job descriptions out so we can do hiring here by the end of the school year, maybe push into May,” Waple said on March 11.
And in a nod to students who raised their voices over the dismissals, Waple says the hiring process will involve a significant amount of student input.
“That’s not a change in what we do,” he says, explaining that all such postings are open for student input. But he adds that, in this case, student review is taking place in a more formal process.
“We’ve engaged the students and asked them to be in on the search process,” he says. “The students will get the chance to review the job descriptions and give feedback.”
Also, students will be invited to meet the eventual candidates for the positions, although Waple believes this extra level of oversight could slow the process of replacing the two officials.
“I hope to have the position out to the students some time by the end of March (or) beginning of April,” he says. “We’ll see how much time it takes.”