Education Desk: A Conversation With The Student Trustee Who Persuaded UI To Ditch "Diversity"

May 23, 2016

For more than a year, officials at the University of Illinois have been creating and polishing up a strategic plan meant to guide the institution for the next decade. And just as it was about to be approved last week, a student spoke up asking for a significant change.

“First, I really should say, I really don’t like the word diversity, and I don’t think we need to diversify.”

That’s how Jauwan Hall, one of three student representatives elected to the U of I Board of Trustees, introduced board members to a different perspective on race. He shaved a little edge off of his plea by citing the TV producer behind hits like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal.

“I’m a borrower from Shonda Rhimes and I think we really need to move toward normalizing our institution, because that’s really what it’s about. Having more African-American students, having more Latino students, that’s a normalization of our institution, because historically we haven’t given access to those students,” Hall said. “I mean, the fact is that black and Latino students specifically are hurting at the university.”

Hall is black, as are the other two student reps — Jaylin McClinton and Dominique Wilson. They’ve made a bit of history together, because an all-black slate of student trustees has simply never happened at Illinois before. Hall reminded the board who gets credit for that.

“But the fact of the matter is, students like you know myself, Jaylin and Dominique, we’re here in spite of the policies that exist at the institution, not as a result of them. And I think that this plan presents an opportunity for us to make a statement, to address historical inequity. It has to be the number one priority in our institution, not only because it’s the right thing to do from a social justice perspective, but because it’s the right thing to do from an economic perspective,” Hall said. “In 15 years, the state of Illinois will be a majority minority state. African-Americans and Latinos will make up the majority of the state. And if we don’t make ourselves accessible to these students, what’s that going to look like for Illinois’ economy in the future?”

Just in case you’re wondering how a student mustered the courage to say these things to the doctors, lawyers and business chiefs who sit on the board of trustees.  After the meeting, I grabbed Hall afterwards, and found out he’s not exactly a typical student. He was a few days away from turning 30. He has two children, and served in the U. S. Marine Corps before entering the University of Illinois Chicago. Still, when asked to rate his nervousness on a scale of 1 to 10, he said, “Eleven.”

When I asked him to explain which U of I policies prevented blacks and Latinos from attending school, he pointed to reliance on ACT scores for admissions.

“The ACT is really an indicator of socio-economic status. It’s not really a predictor of how well you’re going to do in college,” Hall said. “We know from the research that GPA is a much better indicator of college students’ success. So for us, being a research institution, that’s a policy that we should think about changing, or maybe there’s a policy that we should think about implementing.” He pointed to states like Texas, where students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class get automatic acceptance to state schools.

At the meeting, he proposed amending the school’s strategic plan to “enhance the university system by normalizing the representation of historically underrepresented people throughout the university system.” Even after his lengthy and impassioned speech, his proposal almost died in a voice vote that combined the strategic plan with 23 other items. The board’s legal counsel, Thomas Bearrows, resuscitated it by reminding board chair Edward McMillan that the plan could be reconsidered. It passed unanimously.

It sounds like a small change to a big plan. But the students at the University of Illinois in Chicago have re-elected Jauwan Hall to serve as their representative for another year, so that he can continue his efforts to normalize the university system.