Can the “Obama Effect” Help Eliminate the Black-White Scoring Gap on Standardized Tests?

Obviously, the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States was a source of tremendous pride for the nation’s 38 million African Americans. But researchers have found that Obama’s success may also produce concrete advances in black academic progress.

The study involved the administering of a 20-question test given to black and white college students. The questions were taken from the verbal section of the Graduate Record Examination. The results showed the usual black-white scoring gap when the test was given prior to Obama’s nomination. But when the test was given right after Obama’s nomination and immediately after the presidential election, the racial scoring gap disappeared. The authors of the study concluded that Obama’s success helped blacks overcome anxieties about racial stereotypes that had lowered their test-taking proficiency. Ray Friedman, professor at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University and lead author of the study, stated, “Our results document compelling evidence of the power that real-world, in-group role models like Obama can have on members of their racial or ethnic community.”

The results of the study are intriguing and we at JBHE hope that indeed President Obama will inspire the young generation of African Americans to academic achievement. But the sample size of this study is so small (a total of 84 black test takers) that the results must be viewed with skepticism.

Also, a reduction in racial stereotype text anxiety can only do so much. The vast racial differences in educational preparation, access to coaching and tutoring services, and other factors will still produce a standardized test scoring gap for many years to come, regardless of the level of success of an Obama presidency.



Two African-American Scholars Nominated for National Book Critics Award in Biography

Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of law at New York University and a professor of history at Rutgers University, and Paula J. Giddings, the Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 Professor in Afro-American Studies at Smith College, are both finalists for the National Book Critics Award for biography.

Professor Gordon-Reed was nominated for her book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. The book traces the origins of the Hemings family of slaves from seventeenth-century Virginia to their sale after the death of Thomas Jefferson. The biography previously won the 2008 National Book Award.

Professor Giddings was nominated for her highly acclaimed biography Ida, a Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching.

The winner of the award will be announced in New York City on March 12.


Trustees of Queen’s University Decline to Honor the Black Man Who, in 1878, Saved the Institution From Insolvency

The board of trustees at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, has denied a motion made by a student group to name a building on campus after Robert Sutherland.

Robert Sutherland was the first black graduate of the university, and a $13,000 contribution he made to the university in 1878 kept the university from closing or merging with another educational institution due to financial difficulties.

Sutherland was born in Jamaica in 1830. His father was Scottish and his mother was a black Jamaican. Not much is known about how Sutherland made his way to Queen’s University, but it is thought that he may have been educated in Scotland before coming to Canada. He graduated from Queen’s University in 1852 with awards in mathematics and Latin. He is believed to be the first black person to receive a degree from a university in Northern America. Earlier black graduates in the United States were all from liberal arts colleges.

Sutherland went on to study law at Osgoode Hall in Toronto. He later established a successful law practice in Ontario. He died in 1878, leaving his entire estate to Queen’s University.

Queen’s University has not totally ignored Sutherland’s contribution. A room in the student center is named in his honor. A scholarship fund and a lecture series at the university also bear his name.

The board’s decision not to name a building in his honor was held behind closed doors so there is no public record on why the decision was made.


Northwestern Reports Surge in Black Applicants

In recent years Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, has been a laggard in black enrollments. In the current academic year Northwestern ranks 26th in percentage of black enrollments among the nation’s 30 highest-ranked universities. The number of black freshmen in the current year is down 17 percent from a year ago.

But the future looks brighter. Michael Mills, associate provost for university enrollments at Northwestern, reports that the number of black applicants is up 22 percent compared to last year. When all the dust settles, it might be the largest black applicant pool in the university’s history.

After last year’s disappointing results, Northwestern waived the application fee for any student in the predominantly black Chicago public school system. Current black students at Northwestern were used to attract other black students to campus. The black students wrote letters and e-mail messages to prospective black students, went back to their own high schools to recruit other students, participated in phone-a-thons, and hosted black students who visited campus.

Mills cautions that a large applicant pool does not insure a major increase in black students this fall. A major effort must be made to convince black students who are accepted to the university to enroll. Last year, less than one quarter of all accepted black students decided to enroll.


Black Colleges Lag in Producing Peace Corps Volunteers

The Peace Corps released its list of the colleges and universities that produce the most graduates serving as volunteers in the organization. The University of Washington leads all American educational institutions with 104 graduates currently serving in the Peace Corps. The University of Colorado finished a close second with 102 alumni now serving in the Peace Corps. Michigan State University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Michigan round out the top five educational institutions with the most Peace Corps volunteers.

The Peace Corps has three different categories for schools: those with more than 15,000 undergraduates, those with 5,000 to 15,000 students, and schools with fewer than 5,000 students. There are no historically black colleges or universities among the top 25 producers of Peace Corps volunteers in any of the three categories.


MIT Debuts New Diversity Website

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has debuted a new website to promote diversity and inclusion at the university. The offerings at the site are not yet that extensive. But visitors to the site can access reports from the MIT administration and view Webcasts of a diversity congress held at MIT last fall. Additional resources will be coming to the site in the near future.



In Memoriam

Elizabeth Pegues-Smart (1931-2009)

Elizabeth Pegues-Smart, former president of the Minnesota State University system, died of congestive heart failure in Port St. Lucie, Florida. She was 77 years old.

Growing up in Iowa, she was one of six African Americans at an 800-student high school. There, her guidance counselor refused to let her enroll in college preparatory classes because he believed it was pointless for a black girl to do so.

She married an Air Force man and the couple was stationed in Europe. During this time Pegues-Smart enrolled in the Sorbonne and the Liverpool Conservatory of Music.

Returning to the states, she was hired as a clerical worker and eventually worked her way up to an executive position. She was elected to the board governing Minnesota state universities in 1981 and served until 1995. She was the board’s president from 1991 to 1995.

Charles Pickett Sr. (1938-2009)

Charles Pickett Sr., who had a 45-year career in higher education, was killed in an automobile crash in Copiah County, Mississippi, after celebrating his 71st birthday with friends and family.

Dr. Pickett taught at several colleges and universities, most recently at Mississippi Valley State University, where he chaired the department of chemistry and physics. He had served as the commissioner of academic affairs for the Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning.

Professor Pickett held a doctorate in physics education from the University of Southern Mississippi.


Honors and Awards

• William Massey, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Operations Research and Financial Engineering at Princeton University, received the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Journey Award from the university. The award is given to individuals whose efforts help to achieve Dr. King’s vision for America.

Dr. Massey is a graduate of Princeton University and holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University.

• Michael “Doc” Woods, a professor of music at Hamilton College, received the Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Outstanding Community Service from the Mohawk Valley Frontiers Club.

• Cherif Keita, professor of French and Francophone studies at Carleton College in Minnesota, received the 2009 Human Rights Award from the Northfield Human Rights Commission.


Harvard and ETS Team Up to Examine the Experiences of Black Students on Predominantly White Campuses

The Educational Testing Service and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University are teaming up to explore the experiences of black students on predominantly white college campuses. The study, funded by a $400,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, will explore black students’ academic, extracurricular, and social life on these differing campuses. Students will be asked what has made them feel welcome, respected, supported, and encouraged and what has made them feel unwelcome, disrespected, unsupported, and discouraged.

The ETS staff will work with Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Du Bois Institute at Harvard, and Paula J. Caplan, a research associate at the institute and former professor of applied psychology at the University of Toronto.


“You don’t want to be against Pell Grants. But the question is, how many people go to work on Pell Grants? Should it be in this legislation?”

— Democratic senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, questioning a $15 billion appropriation for the Pell Grant program in the president’s economic stimulus package


Flagship State Universities Showing the Greatest Progress in Improving Their Black Student Graduation Rates

Nationwide, blacks are making tremendous progress in improving their graduation rates at flagship state universities, which, combined, educate tens of thousands of black students. Some of the gains by black students have been spectacular. For example, over a decade the black student graduation rate at the University of Florida has improved from 45 percent to 69 percent. At the University of Texas, the University of Georgia, and the University of Maryland, the black student graduation rate has increased by 20 percentage points or more since 1998. At the University of Connecticut, the University of Tennessee, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Arkansas, the black student graduation rate has improved by at least 17 percentage points. At 14 flagship state universities with large numbers of African-American students, the black student graduation rate has improved by more than 10 percentage points since 1998.


The Widening Racial Scoring Gap in SAT II Subject Tests

Over the past nine years the racial scoring gap has increased on 10 of the 11 most widely taken SAT subject tests. The only exception is the physics test where the racial gap over the past nine years has remained the same at 80 points.

The largest unfavorable increase in the racial scoring gap has been on the biology SAT II subject test. On this test in 1999 the racial gap was 67 points. It has now opened up to 101 points. The racial scoring gaps have also opened significantly on the Spanish, French, and Latin foreign language tests. The racial gap has also increased on tests for mathematics, chemistry, and American history.

One reason for the widening racial gaps on these tests may be that a broader cross-section of black high school students now take the SAT II tests than was the case nine years ago. As the pool expands to a greater number of students who traditionally have not taken these tests, it is expected that the mean score will decline, and this will result in a widening of the racial scoring gap.


Special Commemorative Cognac to Provide Funds for College Scholarships

Hennessy Cognac is selling a limited edition of its cognac to commemorate the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. Hennessy 44 is sold in a special bottle. Only 180,000 bottles of the special edition cognac will be sold.

A portion of the proceeds from each bottle sold will be donated to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. The funds from the cognac sales will enable the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to give out four-year scholarships to students enrolled at its member institutions.



Indiana University Funds 12 Programs to Increase Racial Diversity

Indiana University has issued 12 grants totaling $1 million for programs seeking to increase racial diversity in the student body, faculty, and professional staff. Among the programs funded under the grants are an expansion of a mentoring program for minority students, the establishment of a freshman seminar that will train peer mentors, and a program to increase the number of minority students pursuing a degree in chemistry.

Systemwide, blacks make up 6.8 percent of all students at the university’s six campuses. Blacks are 4 percent of the student body at the flagship campus at Bloomington, whereas African Americans are about 9 percent of the college-age population in Indiana.


Admissions Officials at the University of Kansas Take Their Show on the Road in Order to Boost Black Enrollments

Admissions officials at the University of Kansas recently completed what they call the “Multicultural Roadshow” in an effort to enhance the racial diversity of the student body. The admissions staff visited churches, high schools, and community centers in Wichita, Topeka, and Kansas City, distributing information on admissions, financial aid, and student activities on the University of Kansas campus. The admissions officers returned to these cities one week later to hold evening receptions for prospective students and their parents.

Last year’s Multicultural Roadshow was a dramatic success. Black freshman enrollments at the University of Kansas this year increased nearly 28 percent compared to a year ago.


Professor at Goucher College Accused of Participation in the Rwandan Genocide

Leopold Munyakazi, a visiting professor of French at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, was suspended from teaching duties this semester after it was alleged that he had participated in the Rwandan genocide. In a letter to the Goucher College community, President Sanford J. Unger said the facts in the case are “murky.”

The Rwanda embassy in Washington requested that the U.S. government arrest Professor Munyakazi and extradite him to Rwanda to face charges. He was taken into custody this past Thursday.

Professor Munyakazi is accused of revealing the location of Tutsi tribe members to marauding bands of Hutu militias. These militias murdered hundreds of thousands of Rwandans in the mid-1990s. Professor Munyakazi denies all charges.

Professor Munyakazi is a 1981 graduate of the University of Nice in southern France. He holds master’s degrees from the National University of Rwanda and the University of Rouen in France. He earned a Ph.D. in linguistics and phonetics from the University of Nice.


Obama Nominates Nonprofit Executive as Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights

President Obama has nominated Russlynn Ali as the new assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education. Ali is expected to drastically alter the focus of the Office for Civil Rights, which under the Bush administration was obsessed with eliminating affirmative action in college and university admissions.

Ali has been serving as vice president of the Education Trust and as founding director of Education Trust-West. She attended Spelman College but transferred to American University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in law and society. She is also a graduate of the Northwestern University School of Law.



• Damien Ejigiri was appointed dean of the graduate school at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Since 1997 Dr. Ejigiri was dean of the Nelson Mandela School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at the university.

Dr. Ejigiri holds a master’s degree from Virginia Tech and a Ph.D. in economics from Texas A&M University.

• Katherine Antwi Green was named director of equal opportunity services at the University of Texas at Austin. She was an attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the university.

Green is a graduate of the University of Texas and the Gonzaga University School of Law.

• Zerihun Assefa, an associate professor of chemistry at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, was named to serve on the editorial board of The Open Crystallography Journal.

Dr. Assefa is a graduate of Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia and holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Maine.


19.9%  Percentage of all African Americans ages 18 to 24 who were enrolled in college in 1981.

32.6%  Percentage of all African Americans ages 18 to 24 who were enrolled in college a quarter-century later in 2006.

source: U.S. Department of Education


The Fedex Foundation made a $331,800 grant to the United Negro College Fund to establish a scholarship program for students at historically black colleges and universities.

The Leadership Alliance received a $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a summer undergraduate research program for minority students who plan to pursue doctoral level training in the social sciences or humanities.

The Leadership Alliance is based at Brown University. Additional members are Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Tufts, Yale, the University of Chicago, and the University of Virginia.

Copyright © 2009. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. All rights reserved.