By Lynda L. Jones,
Dr. Arnold L. Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education in Washington, D.C. and founder of Marquette University’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), came to Milwaukee this week to serve as the master of ceremonies for a historic occasion, the presentation of the Pere Marquette Discovery Award to the Little Rock Nine.
Mitchem sat down with The Milwaukee Courier during his visit and shared his reflections on the Little Rock Nine receiving Marquette’s highest honor, and the influence that these nine courageous teenagers had and still have on the ongoing fight for equal educational opportunity in America.
Mitchem himself, a scholar and warrior for education says that he witnessed via television back in 1957, the courage of the Little Rock Nine who dared to challenge racial segregation in public schools. He says that the paramount contribution these individuals made was their understanding that inequality in American society was not an abstract problem that could be solved by intellectual prowess, innovation and good ideas alone. Rather, they knew that inequality served to benefi t certain groups and individuals and that efforts to redress this moral failure would meet with both overt and covert resistance.
Mitchem says that by witnessing courage like this, and others throughout the country at the time, Dr. King and countless other civil rights activists, he did not feel content just being a scholar who sought to write books, and teach. He felt that he had to do more to contribute, and thus his quest began.
He graduated from the University of Southern Colorado in 1965. And he later moved to Madison, WI to continue his studies. In 1968, after Dr. King was assassinated, he came to Milwaukee for a different atmosphere, and sort out some of the unsettling feelings he was experiencing after such a traumatic event in the country’s history.
He was hired later in 1968 by Marquette University as a member of its History faculty. It was 1969, when Marquette approached him on starting a new program, EOP. Marquette was the fi rst of a handful of universities that was courageous enough to start such a program, and in the beginning the university did it with its own funds.
“The Jesuits felt a moral responsibility to begin a program like EOP.” Mitchem said. Last year, Marquette’s EOP turned 40 years old. Mitchem ran it from 1969 to 1986. During his tenure at Marquette he also helped to launch the Council for Opportunity in Education program in Washington, D.C., and worked for the organization as a volunteer. Rather than leave Marquette at the time, he sent a trusted colleague who had worked under him at EOP.
Today, thanks to his work, the federally funded TRIO Programs (the largest discretionary program in the U.S. Department of Education) have expanded by nearly 400 percent and now serves students at 1,200 colleges and universities.
TRIO is a set of seven federally-funded educational opportunity outreach programs and one staff training program that seek to motivate and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, namely low-income, firstgeneration students. TRIO programs, currently serving nearly 850,000 students from middle school through post-graduate study across America, provide academic tutoring, personal counseling, mentoring, financial guidance, and other supports necessary for educational access and retention. TRIO programs provide direct support services for students, and relevant training for directors and staff.
The TRIO programs were the first national college access and retention programs to address the serious social and cultural barriers to education in America. (Previously only college financing had been on policymakers’ radar.) TRIO began as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. The Educational Opportunity Act of 1964 established an experimental program known as Upward Bound. Then, in 1965, the Higher Education Act created Talent Search. Finally, another program, Special Services for Disadvantaged Students (later known as Student Support Services), was launched in 1968. Together, this “trio” of federally-funded programs encouraged access to higher education for low-income students. By 1998, the TRIO programs had become a vital pipeline to opportunity, serving traditional students, displaced workers, and veterans. The original three programs had grown to eight, adding Educational Opportunity Centers in 1972, Training Program for Federal TRIO programs in 1976, the Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program in 1986, Upward Bound Math/Science in 1990, and the TRIO Dissemination Partnership in 1998.
Today, Mitchem feels that much of the hard work put into making these programs successful are being threatened by some of the Obama administration’s actions. Secretary Arne Duncan and the president himself have consistently underscored the economic consequences of failing to close the achievement gap between the affluent and the less privileged, between Whites and minorities.
According to Mitchem, many question the administration’s reality base-and their political will to increase real educational opportunities for poor and minority children. Some of the problematic issues surrounding the Obama education agenda include:
(1) Much of the Obama’s administration’s proposed “new investment” in education comes from one-time-only funds (totaling $19 billion). The belief that education of low-income youth can be substantially improved by data and innovation-without creating the political will and stable resources for such improvement-rings hollow in poor communities.
(2) The administration is almost completely reliant upon states to carry out needed reforms. Civil rights leaders turned to the federal government to protect nine vulnerable teenagers in Little Rock precisely because the power of state government was arrayed against them. Few African Americans or Latinos would argue that an activist federal role in passing for real economic and educational opportunity is not still needed today.
According to Mitchem, particularly troubling is the administration’s failure to invest new funds in existing programs such as TRIO and GEAR UP that are key to providing college opportunity for low-income youth and adults. Already, nationally 46,000 have lost TRIO services, and it is estimated that an additional 30,000 students will lose access to them this year if the president’s proposal is adopted.
In Wisconsin, lack of support for these programs would affect about 17,000 low-income youth and adults who aspire to be the first in their families to earn a college degree and who receive academic and personal support to fulfill their goal through TRIO.
So, as we celebrate Black History Month, and the honor of the Little Rock Nine, Dr. Mitchem wants us to keep our eyes open, and remember the sacrifices made and the continued fight ahead for equality education.