Standing Alert: Defending Our Legacy Programs in Higher Education


Standing Alert: Defending Our Legacy Programs in Higher Education

There is a longstanding cautionary bit of wisdom oft whispered in the halls of academe,
“Beware the program evaluation.” All too frequently, administrative assessments are used to advance policy agendas that otherwise might meet significant resistance. Several Latino-focused initiatives in Illinois are currently undergoing or will soon undergo such a process, including the Latin American Recruitment and Educational Services program at the University of Illinois at Chicago (a program I directed for thirty odd years).

This should be cause for concern if not quite yet full mobilization. The few Latino programs in existence are a legacy worth preserving. Through programs like Proyecto Pa’Lante at NEIU and LARES, thousands of Latino students have obtained college access and have gone on to launch successful professional and public careers while enriching Latino communities, the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois. These programs were given birth through community concern and constitute an educational legacy that has been passed from the activist generation of the 1960s and 1970s to today’s Latino students and families.


LARES’ previous evaluation in the 1980s was witness to an attempt to place it under the auspices of Student Affairs. Many years ago community activists and their faculty allies wisely insisted that LARES’ reporting lines be to the chief academic officers of the campus. Being under Academic Affairs has paid major dividends. Having the opportunity to discuss access and student retention with faculty and college level deans and administrators has given the program a voice at the table where academic policy is made. Sitting in the chain of command whose priority is research and education and not grounds and buildings, sports and student housing, provides the greatest access to policy as well as resources for academic program development. Fortunately, this attempt was scrapped after it became evident that the recommendation to move LARES was not proposed by the review committee but imposed by an administrative loyalist who dutifully attempted to insert this agenda item quietly into the final report. 


It is no secret that LARES is one of the most successful higher education access and support programs in the country. What is less known is that UIC support programs including African American initiatives have not only benefitted historically underrepresented students but students as a whole (for some of the history of Black and Latino college access see the Illinois African American and Latino Higher Education Alliance video, Storming the Gates). UIC underrepresented support units spearheaded innovative programs that have been duplicated throughout the nation such as dual enrollment and special admissions programs, early intervention strategies, and targeted assistance for students undergoing academic difficulties. At UIC, LARES established one of the first freshmen summer “bridge” programs on the campus, created special extended college orientation programs, founded parent support groups, utilized intrusive advising strategies, and adopted holistic counseling strategies among other support program initiatives. These efforts have not all stayed within support units but have been the models that the University eventually adopted for undergraduates.


Perhaps the major contribution of UIC college support programs has been motivating a tectonic ideological shift from the standard college model that has traditionally viewed higher education as a hurdles race, where the “truly gifted” demonstrate their prowess by overcoming the obstacles placed in front of them. Many years before student-focused models obtained some traction, UIC was attempting, at least to some degree-albeit often reluctantly--to address institutional responsibility for college student retention and success. Despite advances, the college survivalist model is still with us though often wrapped in somewhat more gilded packaging. Because of the educational civil rights agenda of the ‘70s that sought to increase Black and Latino college access and degree completion, student support perspectives are today more widespread although by no means predominant on college campuses.


Despite LARES’ contributions, it has been compelled to weather various Hurricane Sandy type policy storms such as attempts to collapse ethnic-racial programs into a homogenizing mega structure that most assuredly would have hindered targeted interventions and diminished the program’s innovative impulses. Thankfully, support programs pushed back against the then rising tide of college-based efforts in the ‘90s that claimed supreme legitimacy and the sole right to marshal university resources to address minority student academic success. At UIC this option was abandoned once a new generation of deans showed little interest in using their resources to enhance student support, especially in light of state budget shortfalls. UIC student support staff also witnessed a jaw dropping million-dollar giveaway to finance a newly-hired friend of a public official’s pet project while programs such as LARES that have consistently labored to address community needs and meet institutional goals on bare budgets were left to tread water.


More recently, a special initiative to better fund advising was quickly rerouted to establish a new Undergraduate Success Center with anticipated staff salaries higher than those in Black and Latino support programs whose wages have traditionally been comparatively meager. This latest case of what appears to be another example of institutional racism demonstrates how little things have changed despite the passing of time and the public adoption of “diversity priorities.” We must all be vigilant and follow the developments at UIC, not because we doubt that LARES should be found to be anything but a stellar program, a valuable institutional resource, and a model to emulate as it has been for over the past thirty or more years, but because what really is at stake is the soundness of the trust that this state has bestowed on the leadership of the University of Illinois, and its ability to move beyond petty institutional politics and finally do the right thing.