NU’s racially skewed rosters

Michael Gsovski

Sterling Williams, a guard on Northwestern’s basketball team, came to NU for the same reason as everyone else: a good education.

“I first visited at age 10 or 11,” the Weinberg senior said. “My mom always talked about it, and the expectation was I would go to college and graduate.”

Yet Williams and the other black male athletes at NU are at the center of a recent article by Inside Higher Education magazine, which found that athletes are a high proportion of black males on campus.

At Northwestern, during the 2005-06 academic year, 43black male athletes made up 26 percent of the 163 total black male undergraduate students.

NU’s 124 white male athletes made up 5 percent of the 2,741 white male undergraduates.

NU officials and students spoke to the complexity of the issue, saying that though athletics offers opportunities to minority students, the disproportionate percentage of black male athletes at NU remains troubling.

NU’s percentages are high, but within the range of other academically comparable universities, Vice President for University Relations Al Cubbage said.

“We’re all in the same range of 18 to 25 percent,” Cubbage said. “We were on the high end and other schools are on the lower end.”

The numbers are indicative of the stalled level of black enrollment at NU, in turn driven by demographic trends, NU President Henry Bienen said. Proportional enrollment of black students has halved since 1976.

“It’s no secret that the number of folks out there has not been growing, which says something about the public education system in the United States,” Bienen said. “Athletics has been … something that has been attractive to a certain number of African-American males, but beyond that I don’t know what to say.”

Associate Provost Michael Mills said he feels the numbers, taken from the National Collegiate Athletic Association survey of graduation rates, might not be accurate. The survey only listed athletes who were receiving “athletics aid,” and Mills said he was not sure whether the category included need-based aid.

Many African-American athletes would qualify for need-based aid even without participating in athletics, he said.

The NCAA did not return repeated requests for clarification.

If the statistics did exclude students otherwise receiving aid, Mills said he “didn’t know what was at work.”

As for the stubbornly stagnant proportion of black undergraduates on campus, which for the 2005-06 academic year ranked at 5 percent of undergraduates, Mills said that NU is making a concerted effort to recruit minority students.

“There’s a very finite number of strategies you can employ to get any type of student cohort,” Mills said. “On the other hand, you can infer that we could do a better job of recruiting African-American non-athletic males, and I would agree with you. “

Associate Admissions Director Onis Cheathams, who leads a four-person unit in the Admissions Office focusing on minority recruitment, said the main problem lies in name recognition.

“We need to get our name out in those communities that only know us for our athletics, not for the fact that we have a strong program or strong alumni strategies,” Cheathams said. “A lot of times, I sit down with students and they say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that Northwestern had that, I didn’t know you guys had that. I can do that.’ ”

NU athletics faces the same problem in its recruitment efforts of black athletes, assistant basketball coach Tavaras Hardy said.

“I think the majority of the Northwestern student body would be surprised at how many basketball players had no idea what Northwestern means,” Hardy said. “A lot of these kids’ parents and grandparents never had the opportunity to go to a school like this.”

Hardy said he had to maintain active relationships with high school coaches and prospective students because of the NU’s unflinchingly high academic standards.

“We want those kids to come on campus, and we try and drill it into their heads, ‘If you want to come to Northwestern and you haven’t taken care of your business in the classroom, it’s not even an option,'” Hardy said. “That’s our biggest problem, that a lot of inner-city kids haven’t had that message delivered to them.”

But Hardy also said that in his time as assistant coach, there has been progress, including more work with Chicago communities.

Among the athletes from Chicago schools on Hardy’s team is Sterling Williams.

NU had a presence at Whitney Young High School and “seven or eight” students from his class came to NU, Williams said. His mother had attended NU for law school and he already wanted to enroll.

“Recruitment by Northwestern started July before my senior year,” Williams said. “Talks centered on basketball, what I wanted to do in life, stuff like that, and then in November was when they offered.”

Williams’ teammate Tonjua Jones’s recruitment was different.

He originally wasn’t set on NU, but was spotted in a football recruiting tape for one of his high school teammates.

“They offered him his junior year, they looked at his tape and saw me,” the School of Continuing Studies student said. “They asked me what my grades were like. My grades were good, so I came to visit.”

Jones came to visit on Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. Before coming, he was taken aback by NU’s policy of having a half-day for the holiday.

“I’m like, ‘That’s almost an insult, better to not have it at all than celebrate it as a half day, ‘” Jones said. “But what I remember about my visit is that there were a lot of ceremonies going on.”

An undergraduate sociology major, Jones said he thought that his experience and opinions on college were a good example of typical black attitudes on the subject.

“I think a big part of that is the socioeconomic situation in general and specifically with African-American families,” Jones said. “You have a lot of situations where you can’t go to some of the elite schools unless you receive a scholarship. “

“For me, I know my parents weren’t willing and didn’t believe in paying out of pocket for me to go to school,” he said. “Athletics was a means to an end. It was something I was good at and it facilitated me getting somewhere like Northwestern.”

Reach Michael Gsovski at [email protected]