Virginia Tech
vol. 1, no. 2 (Dec. 1978/ Jan. 1979): 3-5

Blacks at Virginia Tech
Proportioning the Ranks


by Tony Atwater

The "Virginia plan," Virginia's plan for equal opportunity in its state-supported colleges and universities, is a major item awaiting action by state legislators next year. Last March, Governor John Dalton announced agreement with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare on the plan, allaying fears of a cut-off of federal funding for the state's institutions of higher education. It is based on a good-faith effort to substantially increase black enrollments in predominantly white institutions, and similarly to increase white enrollments in predominantly black institutions. At that time the governor emphasized that "the state is in no way committed to racial quotas."

And, technically, the Virginia plan does not include quotas. What it does include, however, is a comprehensive scholarship program aimed at boosting minority enrollment in Virginia's predominantly white institutions, such as Virginia Tech. Governor Dalton will ask the 1979 General Assembly for funds to initiate a scholarship program designed to increase black admissions to predominantly white schools by at least 150 percent by 1982.

Virginia Tech's enrollment has now grown to nearly 20,000 students; of this figure, about 2 percent are black. Under the Virginia plan, seventy-six scholarships of $1,000 each would be available for black students at Tech next fall. By 1982, the number of scholarships would rise to over three hundred. The university's board of visitors has indicated "a strong commitment" to the plan in so far as it adheres to the policy and guidelines of Tech's admissions procedures. But what about the sentiments of the university's black students, faculty members, and administrators regarding the Virginia plan?

Overton R. Johnson, Tech's senior black administrator calls the Virginia plan "a good plan," adding, "it's very unfortunate that the commonwealth put itself in a position where the federal government had to tell it what it should have been doing all the time." Johnson, assistant dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, says that Virginia Tech and all other state universities have a moral responsibility to be responsive to the educational needs of blacks, and he adds, "it's unfortunate they have not lived up to the responsibility before now."

Johnson notes that it is doubtful that there will be "total honesty in all of our predominantly white institutions" in implementing the Virginia plan. "Some are going to do a good job, some are going to do a fair job, and some are going to do a darn poor job," he says.

He feels that Tech will do only a fair job in meeting the plan's objectives because of what he perceives to be biased attitudes held by some faculty members. Johnson concedes that these attitudes are contrary to those of the administration as a whole, but where they exist they will reduce Virginia Tech's chances of doing a good job in implementing the plan. "It's a case in which the chief is giving orders, but the Indians are not hearing them, and if they're hearing them, they're not interpreting the orders right." And some faculty members, Johnson asserts, do not believe in the plan to begin with. We're going to have people at this institution and at others in the state who are going to try to do all they can to circumvent the plan."

Successful implementation of the Virginia plan at Tech, notes Johnson, will require a unified and honest effort on the part of all administrators. And he says that the university will need to constantly evaluate progress being made in the area of affirmative action well in advance of the plan's 1982 deadline for compliance.

Johnson feels that there are other obstacles which may limit overall success of the plan at Tech. One of them, he explains, is an attitude of dissatisfaction among many of the university's black students and faculty members.

"The black faculty is concerned about upward mobility. We bring to this university some of the world's best qualified black professionals. But once they get here they stay right at the same level at which they came. The opportunities for blacks to move up to top positions at this institution seem to be extremely limited." And he feels the situation will cause many of Tech's black faculty members to eventually leave and accept higher administrative posts elsewhere unless this situation is corrected.

As for the concerns of black students, Johnson observes that many of them are not satisfied with how they are being treated within the classroom. "The attitude prevails - from what they tell me - that some professors assume that because a student is black, he or she isn't going to learn as well or as fast as white students." And as a result, Johnson finds some black students feel that they have been victims of grade discrimination.

"The Tech administration needs to listen a little more. They aren't as sensitive as they should be to the problems that exist among black students or with black faculty members." And he asks, "How can we convince blacks to come to Tech when blacks already here have found prevailing conditions to be most unsatisfactory? Somewhere down the line we've got to take steps at this institution to change the kind of atmosphere in which black students live, work, and play."

But change is often a very slow process and although black enrollment at Tech has remained rather modest over the years, the university continues its efforts to bring in more black students. One of these efforts has been the enlistment of two assistant directors of admissions, specifically charged with increasing minority recruitment at Tech. Former Tech graduate Calvin Jamison is one of those officers. Jamison feels that, "the Virginia plan is a positive thing, provided it is implemented correctly."

Jamison was hired, along with fellow alumnus Glenn Valentine, in 1977 to expedite recruitment of blacks at the university. According to Jamison, black enrollment at Virginia Tech during the 1977-78 session ranged between 250 and 270 students, slightly more than 1.5 percent of the student body. Jamison attributes the scarcity of black students at Tech to both geographic and social factors.

"There is no substantial black population in southwestern Virginia from which students can be drawn," declares Jamison. He adds, "the population of black residents in and around Montgomery County is relatively small to begin with." In addition, many black high-school seniors seem to prefer a more urban college environment, according to Jamison. Also, competition for the recruitment of gifted black students is keen not only throughout the state, but throughout the nation.

And Jamison adds that the social pressures an entering black freshman experiences at Tech are very real. "In the past, some blacks have enrolled at Tech but haven't finished because the atmosphere was not conducive to emphasizing black identity and learning at the same time." He observes that black students have been faced with an awkward choice of "whether or not they wanted to keep their racial identity and learn, or melt into a situation and give up everything they've grown up with and still try to learn. Consequently, there's a stigma that Virginia Tech is too white and too hard."

He has observed that some former black students who have had difficulties at Tech tell prospective students not to enroll, thus perpetuating the stigma. Underlying the social pressures of black students at Tech, Jamison says, is what he terms the university's lack of regard for the university's lack of regard for the realization that "you cannot divide social life from academic life; they're interchangeable."

Jamison also believes that Virginia Tech and other state universities will have to provide stronger support programs for blacks if the institutions are to meet guidelines of the Virginia plan and increase black enrollment. "Such programs are needed to provide black students with experiences they are accustomed to, whether they be social gatherings, plays, or black history courses," he says.

Jamison says that the university's counseling center offers some assistance to black students, but only at their request. Additional support programs, he maintains, might encourage more blacks to enroll at Tech. "Instituting remedial programs would be a good first step, tutorial services would also be helpful, and more peer counseling for black students in needed." Jamison believes goal of the Virginia plan are realistic for the most part, "but the key to the plan's success rests with college administrators who are genuinely concerned about improving the ration of blacks to whites, and vice versa, at state.

And how do black students at Tech view the Virginia plan? A sampling of their opinions indicate that they are in general agreement with objectives of the plan. However, most are convinced that the plan will have limited success at Virginia Tech. Consequently, many black students feel that the task of improving the academic and social atmosphere for blacks at Virginia Tech should be undertaken by those who are presently enrolled at the university.

Tech student Donald Brockett observes, "It's up to us, the ones who are here now to make the change." And to help bring about the change, Brockett encourages his fellow black students to become involved in all phases of university life, both on and off campus. By participating in a wide variety of activities, Brockett feels that the black students will benefit through mutual support and exchange of information. He believes that such involvement can benefit black students by making them feel they are an integral part of the university community.

Recent Tech graduate Randolph Schmidt agrees, "black students presently enrolled at Tech could hold the key to developing a larger black student body in the future." But he is not sure the goal can be achieved without some self-evaluation on their part. "the great majority of black students here are completely ignorant about politics, black history, and essentially who they are - in America, in Virginia, and at Virginia Tech." And, he says once black students become more aware of these elements, the atmosphere for change will prevail. "Then education of whites, as to the needs of blacks, will follow naturally."

While much attention has been given to the Virginia plan's goals for desegregating the state's traditionally white colleges, the plan has a second major objective. This objective is to increase the number of white students and faculty members at traditionally black colleges. The plan would give "priority consideration" at Norfolk State and Virginia State in the approval of new programs. the plan's scholarship program would provide grants to attract gifted white students to predominantly black campuses. And the plan proposes financing of an eminent scholars program to help attract more white faculty members to the two institutions.

State guidelines for administering the plan's scholarship program were recently submitted to HEW's Office of Civil Rights. The guidelines, developed by the State Council of Higher Education, were submitted along with revised student recruitment and affirmative action hiring plans for Virginia's four-year institutions. It would appear that Virginia college administrators are taking the Virginia plan seriously, and if some are not particularly supportive of the plan, they are concerned about the continued flow of federal dollars to state institutions of higher learning.

Meanwhile, Governor Dalton continues to express confidence about Virginia's ability to meet the plan's objectives. "The progress we have already made indicates that the objectives we have set for ourselves can be achieved within the schedules we have established and without undue hardship. The plan is simply an extension for the next five years of what we have been doing for the past four years to make equal opportunity in higher education a practical reality."

The realization of that "practical reality" depends heavily on the good faith and diligence of Virginia college administrators as they begin to implement the plan next year. Successful implementation of the Virginia plan will also require what Overton Johnson sees as an on-going critique of the plan's effectiveness, "We cannot dare wait. We've got to make constant evaluations as the Virginia plan unfolds.... Otherwise, we will be unable to determine whether we're making any progress."