By STEVEN NALLEY
Mississippi State University’s Colvard Student Union will host a conference Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in an effort to improve graduation rates and post-collegiate success among minority males at MSU and other universities across the country.
Titled “Human Capital: Enhancing the Academic Achievement of Men of Color,” the conference is free and open to the public, who can register at https://www.odep.msstate.edu/moc/index.php . Those who attend will have the opportunity to purchase discounted $20 tickets for MSU’s first football game of the season on Saturday.
MSU President Mark Keenum said the conference’s goal is to learn from successful minority graduates from MSU and other universities, using their insights to help the next generation succeed.
“African American men are proportionately under-represented in higher education across the country and tend to graduate at a lower rate than other groups, and those trends hold true at Mississippi State,” Keenum said, “but we realize that our university and our state cannot afford to neglect the vast amount of talent and leadership going untapped in this great reservoir of human capital.”
Jerry Gilbert, MSU provost and executive vice president, said his office has been working to put on the event with several others at MSU, including the office of the MSU president, MSU Diversity and Equity Programs, the MSU Division of Student Affairs, the MSU Alumni Association and the Bagley College of Engineering.
“We’ve opened it up to anyone who would like to attend, but we’ve particularly invited our African American students,” Gilbert said. “We’ve also reached out to Jackson State, (which) will be sending some students and some faculty.”
While the conference’s discussion points apply to several minorities, Gilbert said, the predominant minority at MSU and in Mississippi is African American, making that group the focus of the conference. African American males consistently have a 20 percent lower graduation rate at MSU than white peers, he said, and similar figures appear at universities across the country, creating a national discussion.
“The exact reasons for that are a matter of great debate across the country,” Gilbert said. “Nobody is exactly sure what factors come into play. We (believe) if we identify the factors at MSU, then it could have applications at other universities as well. (We are trying) to identify some of those steps we could take to create more success in that African American male group.”
Tommy Stevenson, director of the MSU Office of Diversity and Equality Programs, is one of the event’s lead organizers. Stevenson said the students themselves will play a critical role in identifying ways to raise MSU’s minority graduation rate.
“One of our main (elements of the conference) is our focus groups, (where we will) ask them specifically about what they need and what the university can be doing to enhance their academic tenure at Mississippi State,” Stevenson said. “It may be financial issues they may have, but we don’t know yet. I think research informs practice, so it would give us some indicators of what we need to address the needs of these students. When they’re telling us themselves, it makes a big difference. We want to empower them to take ownership of their academic careers.”
Stevenson said the “Human Capital” in the conference’s title refers to the potential employees that companies evaluate when they consider moving into Mississippi. To meet the state’s future needs, he said, Mississippi will need to maximize its human capital by maximizing its college graduation rates, especially among minorities where those rates are low.
“We want to have graduates who are ready to meet the challenges of future industries across the state (and) across the nation,” Stevenson said. “I think it’s a very important summit.”
To set examples for minority students in attendance, Gilbert said the conference will feature addresses from several successful African American men, including some MSU alumni, who will discuss challenges they have encountered and strategies they used to overcome them. These guests include Lorenzo L. Esters, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities’ vice president for access and advancement of public black universities; Oliver Myers, MSU assistant professor of mechanical engineering; and Fred Bonner, an endowed professor at Rutgers who has written books on the issue of low African American college graduation rates.
“I think seeing some role models and interacting with them in sessions throughout the day will be a great way to encourage our current students,” Gilbert said. “(This interaction will) let them see what’s possible and how they should model their college career with the idea that all of them can be successful. I just think it’s going to be a great day to interact with a lot of great people. I think we will learn a lot, and I think people that go will be glad that they did when it’s over.”
Gilbert said this is the first time MSU has hosted a “Men of Color” program, and whether it will become annual remains to be determined, but MSU is planning an analogous program targeting minority female students in the spring. He said he and his fellow organizers intend for the conference to be a springboard for more programs to promote African American student success.
“It won’t be the end of our efforts,” Gilbert said. “There will be other things we’ll be doing as a consequence of this meeting. It may be that it’s just the beginning of a dialogue.”