Baltimore Sun

College's racial diversity starts with effort at top

LA JERNE CORNISH stood at the front of her class, rolling the chalk in her hands as she waited for her students to respond to questions.

The first order of business in this "Counseling Exceptional Students and Their Families" class on a Tuesday afternoon at Goucher College was the previous night's airing of Fox television's "Boston Public." In that episode, a male teacher who was fired for not revealing another male teacher had had an affair with a female student went to court seeking reinstatement.


One of Cornish's students, a senior elementary education major, said the female student on "Boston Public" was 18 and not a child. Nothing illegal had occurred.

"She was in a student setting," Cornish answered. "The teacher was entrusted with the care of that student. Teachers are entrusted with the care of students. We must never forget that."


Cornish hasn't forgotten it. This is her sixth semester teaching at Goucher. She arrived in the fall of 1998 as an educational psychology instructor after teaching English in Baltimore middle schools for 15 years.

It was a homecoming for her. A little more than 15 years earlier, Cornish - then La Jerne Terry - was one of nine black students to graduate from Goucher, for years one of the area's most white-bread colleges.

"Coming back was a tough decision," Cornish said. "I had just been promoted [to assistant principal at Canton Middle School]. My first dream was to be a principal of a middle school. But then I remembered coming here and knowing what it was like not to have a professor of color. When I returned in the fall of '98, I learned I was the only African-American female, full-time faculty member."

In addition to Cornish, the school has two other black visiting faculty members who are women, but it has no tenured black faculty members.

It's no small issue with Cornish, this matter of ethnic and racial diversity on campus.

"I don't think there's enough of a visible presence of African-Americans on this campus," she said. "We're making progress, [but] a student can go through four years here and not have a professor of color - depending on the major."

It's not that officials at Goucher aren't trying to make the campus more diverse.

Statistics show that of 226 black students who applied to Goucher for the semester starting in the fall, 112 - 49.5 percent - were accepted. The year before, 135 out of 211 black students who applied - 64 percent - were accepted. Had just half those students chosen to attend Goucher, the school would now have more than 100 black students in its freshman and sophomore classes. Goucher's total student body is 1,150.


But only 20 of the 112 black students accepted last year chose Goucher. Only 24 of the 135 accepted the year before matriculated. Cornish feels there may be something in the number of applications - a little more than 200 each year - that indicates Goucher may need to step up its recruiting efforts.

"We should be able to get 200 applicants from Western [High School] alone," Cornish observed, speaking of her alma mater. In the 1982-1983 school year, she faced a crisis. Her mother was gravely ill, dying. Cornish felt she was needed more at home. When a faculty member asked where she was going to college, Cornish said she wasn't. She explained the situation. The teacher, Goucher alumna Diana Miller, told her she could attend college and still help her mother. Miller arranged for Cornish to interview with the school's admission office. She was accepted and attended Goucher on a scholarship.

Denise Gantt, an African-American classmate of Cornish's at Goucher, arrived at the school via a different route.

"I was doing really badly in the second semester of my junior year in high school," Gantt recalled. "My counselor said I was bored and suggested I apply to college immediately. Back then, you could complete your senior year of high school in college."

She applied to Goucher and was accepted. But Gantt, who attended Joppatowne High School in Harford County, still bristles slightly at the thought of the Goucher English teacher who assumed that because she was black and had struggled with a couple of early essays, she came from one of Baltimore's high schools.

Gantt, who now runs educational programs for Center Stage, also is a Goucher visiting professor. She co-teaches a course called "Race and Racism." She and Cornish talked before Cornish's class about the need for diversity at Goucher.


"I don't believe diversity happens from the bottom up," Gantt said, noting the need for more leadership. Cornish said she believes Goucher's leadership is committed to diversity. The acceptance rate for black applicants bears her out. But how does Goucher get more of those students to matriculate? What would Cornish tell them?

"I would say to them that they would get an excellent education, that they would have a personal relationship with their professors," she said. "They wouldn't be a number. They would be encouraged to live by the Goucher motto of 'Prove all things and hold fast to that which is good.' They would be asked to confront injustices wherever they occur. I would tell them that their voice matters, and that if Goucher is to change, they play a tremendous role in insisting that it happen."