University of Rochester

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A Message from the Director

In 1992, the McNair Program, whose goal is to encourage low-income, first-generation college, and under-represented minority undergraduates to pursue doctoral degrees, employed two people. When the Kearns Center was established in 2002, we had 2.5 full time employees (FTE), and two programs, both focused on college students, serving ~30 undergraduates a year. Today, just ten years later, the Kearns Center employs 16 FTEs, over 50 undergraduates, two dozen graduate students, and five AmeriCorps Members, all in the service of over 1,500 students a year, from elementary school through the doctorate.

The overarching mission of the Kearns Center is that students at every level: elementary, high school, college, and graduate, should be free to pursue their educational, intellectual and career interests in an environment that is free of bias and obstacles.  We focus our efforts on low-income, first-generation college, and underrepresented minority students, because at every point in the educational pipeline, students from these groups have worse educational outcomes than their majority and wealthier peers. The high school graduation, college enrollment, retention and graduation, and graduate enrollment, retention and graduation rates are substantially lower for students from these backgrounds than for others. We are here to change that, by focusing with a ferocity of purpose on issues of social justice, equity, and inclusion.

Our student outcome statistics far outpace national averages, and demonstrate that our approach works: the executive summary describes these results in detail, but let me share just a couple highlights. 

In the pre-college realm, 95% of our Upward Bound and Upward Bound Math/Science program participants graduate on time from high school, and over 92% enroll in college, compared to a Rochester City School District graduation rate of less than 50%.  In the undergraduate realm, our students’ four and five year graduation rates exceed the College’s averages, and 85% of our McNair scholars go to graduate school (compared to about 45% nationally). Among our McNair alumni are professors, researchers, clinicians, surgeons, attorneys, and professionals in a broad spectrum of endeavors, many of whom describe their experiences in the program as transformational.

And on the graduate level, within two years of the Center’s hiring a full time recruiter who focuses on diversity, our applications from URM students increased by over 100% and this year the number of students of color enrolled as first year doctoral students in Arts, Sciences and Engineering doubled.  While the raw numbers are still small, I think we can agree that the trend is moving in the right direction.

We often talk about the university as a sanctuary for scholarship, where we conserve, create, and disseminate knowledge in a variety of forms.  I feel very strongly about creating sanctuary in the Kearns Center.  For us, for me, the concept of sanctuary is both real and meaningful. We create the conditions in which we ourselves would have liked to be educated, and that our students tell us they need to succeed; we provide the encouragement that was perhaps not provided to us as we grew up or went through school, and that our students and the research convey to us is too often in short supply in their lives as well.

We want the Center, and all is locations and presences (in the RCSD, on campus, on-line) to be a place where it’s cool to be smart; where resources for success are the focus; where others share the same educational aspirations, and where everyone believes that by making informed choices, working hard, and not expecting anything to be easy, goals—even very difficult ones-- can be accomplished.
Our default answer to just about any request is “yes.”  Our response to any version of the phrase “I can’t” is “of course you can--let’s sit down and work out a plan.” We have open and frank conversations about difficult topics too often avoided.  We tell the truth, and validate what our students know to be reality: racism, sexism and classism still exist, life isn’t fair; textbooks are too damn expensive, and that exercising your intelligence and moral agency is hard, but you have to do it anyway, because courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s being afraid, and moving forward anyway.
We blow up myths, dispel urban legends, and say “no” when “no” is required. When we bring students into any of our programs, we tell them that they are acquiring a new family, and they will attest that this couldn’t be more true.  It means that we love each other through thick and thin, and that no one (no one) is invisible. 

Each professional in the Center comes to this work with an abiding belief in the power of education to change individuals and communities.

We aspire in our work to live up to the legacies of the leaders for whom our touchstone programs are named:  Ronald E McNair, the laser physicist who died in the Challenger disaster, and David T. Kearns, the former CEO of Xerox and chair of the UR Board of trustees. 

Dr. McNair grew up in Lake City South Carolina; he spent his first years in a house without running water; and yet he earned a doctorate in laser physics from MIT, and became the second African American to fly in NASA’s shuttle program. He gave his life pursuing the very reaches of scientific inquiry; yet he started this journey towards knowledge in a summer program very much like the upward bound math/science program in the Kearns Center.
Dr McNair once told a group of students: before you can make a dream come true, you must first have one. Many of us take dreams for granted.  Yet, as Dr. McNair acknowledged, and sadly, not everyone has, or can afford them.  Our work is to challenge our students at every level to dream big, and then work hard to fulfill those dreams.  That means helping parents, siblings, friends, teachers, policy makers and our elected officials to recognize the importance of aspirations as well as the need for dedicated support.

As CEO, David T. Kearns was responsible for diversifying the highest reaches of the Xerox corporation’s management structure; and after he left Xerox he went to Washington DC to serve the first President Bush as Deputy Secretary for Education, and spent the remainder of his lengthy and illustrious career involved in educational reform.

When the Kearns Center was established in his honor, David became intensely engaged in our goals, and deeply curious about our students.  He –and the students—and I—absolutely loved those meetings.  We’d schedule a 30-minute meeting, and actually be together for hours, with David passing along his wisdom, regaling us with stories from his life of service. Until his death last year, and despite the illness that marred his final decade, David truly believed in the work of the Kearns Center; he understood on a fundamental level that the way to social and economic prosperity and growth was through education and equal opportunity.  David’s life exemplified the best aspects of social justice:  “diversity,” in his mind, was not just about numbers; “affirmative action” was not a dirty word or an unfair practice, it was—and remained--a means to ensure that the educational enterprise, industry, government and America as a whole, didn’t lose out because it was missing the input of a whole swath of the American population.

There’s also good news to report with respect to overarching diversity efforts in Arts, Sciences and Engineering:

The undergraduate population of UR is perhaps the most diverse it has ever been, by measures that include domestic and international geography, race, socio-economic status, religious affiliation, and many others.

The Frederick Douglas Institute is a vibrant part of university and AS&E; this year, an anthropologist and a political scientist joined the faculty as Associates of the FDI, as part of a cluster hire, one strategy being deployed to increase the diversity of our faculty.
Our retention and graduation rates for minority and low-income students are increasing year over year; in fact, HEOP, McNair & Kearns Center programs have higher four and five year graduation rates than the average for the College overall.
And we are currently searching for a Director for a new Intercultural Center, which will encompass a set of new initiatives to engage students, faculty, staff, and community members in bridging cultural boundaries. The Kearns Center does not operate in a vacuum; our goals are aligned firmly with the institution’s educational mission, with President Seligman’s diversity goals and with the strategic plan for Arts Sciences and Engineering articulated by Dean and Provost Lennie, and Richard Feldman, Dean of the College.  Without their support, this work would not be possible.

Of course our students and our programs have stellar outcomes. “Meliora” requires us to improve the world we inherited, and to enable our students and alumni to live out the promise embedded in our mission: Learn. Create.  Heal.  Discover.  And Make the World Ever Better.