The university’s NAACP chapter hosted the Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, Leo E. Strine Jr., on Thursday night to discuss state education policy and efforts to increase diversity on campus.
The event covered the university’s issues with diversity, inclusivity and community outreach.
“Diversity is an interesting word,” Strine said. “[It] has become a word to dilute the focus on overcoming the real barriers in society.”
Michael Mossessian: In its current state the Delaware school system appears underfunded and under resourced. Is this the product of a history of segregation and racial discrimination?
Leo E. Strine Jr.: In reality it’s far sadder than that. The statistics on Black poverty in Delaware are tragic. More than 60 percent of Black families in Delaware live at 200 percent of poverty. At 200 poverty you’re living on the edge. We have issues as a state [but] we can always do better.
The kids in the city of Wilmington are representative of a bubble; they go to segregated elementary schools simply because they can’t get to other school districts. The lines need to be changed. The two richest school districts in Delaware are Red Clay and Brandywine. If you want to care about kids, you put those two districts together with all the kids in Wilmington.
Although the university is surrounded by schools with more diverse populations, only four percent of students here are Black. And if you take away the athletes you lose a lot of diversity. Many schools claim they give opportunity to minority students, but they just end up as a sports team. The smallest school in Delaware has a men’s and women’s basketball team that looks nothing like the rest of the student population.
Athletics doesn’t make money for [the university]. I’m not saying to cut sports at all, but the most expensive program here is the football team, which plays at the lowest level. Four percent Black is inadequate, it’s representative of just having the bare minimum to say ‘look at us, we’re diverse.’ Athletes are put in way over their heads in college. They are expected to play sports at a high level and graduate with merit. You have set reasonable goals.
MM: What role does the university’s in-state and out-of-state admissions policy play in the issue of diversity?
LES: The in-state, out-of-state debate is ignoring our history. One of the most farcical things is that every white student in the suburbs of Delaware believes they have a right to go to [the university]. The reality is, the value of the degree is much higher than it was before, and not everyone [who wants to] can get in anymore because of that. Others say it’s not race, it’s poverty.
Well, race and poverty go hand-in-hand because it’s not coincidental that there were 400 years of racial discrimination and oppression. Those kids who could get in but don’t apply are the poorest. They shouldn’t [need] to question the affordability of coming to [UD].
MM: So how do we get those top minority students that the state invests so much money into to stay in-state and come to UD?
LES: At a local level, the university needs to be in the local schools more, telling students about their opportunities and telling those students that they should never have to question affordability. It’s an issue of community engagement, doing research and outreach, making sure those people know they can come here affordably.
MM: In regards to standardized testing, do you believe that students need to be given more opportunities outside of the classroom to expand their education? If so, is Delaware providing its students with opportunities in their environment that give them the chance to improve?
LES: Standardized testing can be a good measure for certain things, but it is not an end all be all. You have to look at the person’s background, which may have a degree of impact. But look at the underlying talent. Let’s provide people with the opportunities to get better.
Here’s the reality. If you’re a Black student with great grades, there’s going to be a lot of opportunity for you. But what we aren’t doing is doing a better job all around of improving education. I’m a passionate believer in longer school years, longer school days. [Academic success] is a combination of work and time exposed. If we really want to focus on improving it, we need to focus on kids who have less, because they need more. They need more educational preparation to catch up.
If you’re poor, you have to work. More time in school gives you more time to learn, but these kids are not given those opportunities. Wealthier families give their kids more time to task; they get the tutors, send them to summer academies, because they know that is beneficial, that generates results. But schools with educational deficits need a longer school day, because those kids parents won’t be home after school. We have never matched the school year in this country to the evolving reality of the American family. The wealthiest families fill their kids’ year with educational nutrition. But those who need it the most can’t afford to do so. So on a structural level, we need to continue to desegregate, reduce poverty in our schools and give these kids the time they need to learn.
MM: Finally, what role should affirmative action have at UD? Do you believe that Black students should be given preference in a program that is meant to give equal opportunity to all minorities?
LES: In the case of Delaware, yes. We have to acknowledge our history — the history of discrimination in this state. We should not confuse the issue of diversity to dilute the focus on what our real objective should be. Do I think UD has a special responsibility to focus on overcoming our history of racial discrimination? Yes, absolutely yes.
This Q&A was edited for clarity and brevity.