UConn's 'Scholars House' Effort To Keep Black Men On Campus Causing Some Controversy About half of all black male students leave the University of Connecticut before graduation. School officials have created a living space to help these students, but the move has sparked controversy.

University of Connecticut Creates 'Scholars House' To Keep Black Men In School

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We're going to turn now to a story about keeping kids in school - specifically, college-age black men who don't feel welcome on mostly white campuses. The University of Connecticut has been trying to fix this, but its efforts have drawn attention to long-standing racial tensions on campus that have some students wondering if this new program might do more harm than good. David DesRoches of member station WNPR has the story.

DAVID DESROCHES, BYLINE: Reuben Pierre-Louis was inches away from leaving UConn. As one of only 600 or so black male students at a college of 20,000, he found himself lost in a sea of white faces.

REUBEN PIERRE-LOUIS: Wow, it's been a struggle. I'll be perfectly honest. It's been a real struggle. Everything was just like a blur. I didn't know anybody. Everybody was just, like - it's like being dropped in the middle of nowhere. I was like - OK, I'm here. Here I am. I don't know anybody.

DESROCHES: There were subtle insults and sideways glances. White students would often refer to him when they needed the, quote, "black perspective."

PIERRE-LOUIS: To be honest, if I didn't get that initial support, I probably wouldn't be here right now.

DESROCHES: UConn professors noticed a struggle and reached out to him and offered some guidance. That kind of supper is what the university wants to provide by creating the Scholars House. It's a living and learning community that will be a section of a dorm and house about 50 students. It aims to help black males with class work and provide them with mentorship, counseling and prepare them for graduate school.

ERIK HINES: This space is really about community, and it's about validating their experiences.

DESROCHES: That's UConn professor Erik Hines, director of the Scholars House, a name that's short for Scholastic House of Leaders who are African-American Researchers and Scholars. Any male student can apply to live at Scholars House. But because its main goal is to help black men, there's been debate about whether this is some form of sanctioned segregation.

UConn student Kailey Townsend comes from a mixed family, but she identifies as African-American.

KAILEY TOWNSEND: This is a time to unite the campus. This is not a time to say - hey, let's bring up this great idea that could be great, but this could be something that could potentially be harmful.

DESROCHES: She says she doesn't want to see racial tensions get worse on campus. There have been several hate crimes reported at UConn over the years. Racist graffiti and vandalism incidents happen just about every year.

Ashley Woodson is the treasurer of the Critical Race Studies and Education Association. It's a collective of professors seeking racial justice in schools. Woodson says UConn is doing the right thing with Scholars House, but these kinds of living situations can sometimes reinforce racial stereotypes.

ASHLEY WOODSON: In some instances, we see that it does perpetuate this idea that all black people invariably have the same cultural experience, that they should or do have the same political commitments, that they have the same academic needs. And we just know that that's not true.

DESROCHES: UConn's professor Hines says the Scholars House has been modeled on other successful programs across the country.

HINES: We're bringing the community together to have the conversations about men of color and about all of our other student groups on campus who may experience marginalization.

DESROCHES: When black males get additional support, research shows that they more frequently reach out to students of other races. And this, more often than not, tends to improve race relations. Both professors say the goal is to work toward an education system where programs like the Scholars House are not needed at all.

For NPR News, I'm David DesRoches in Hartford.

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