Five Reasons White People Could Never Have Turned Around Simmons College of Kentucky

Dr. Chris Caldwell, Professor and Vice-President for Academic Affairs, Simmons College of Kentucky

This piece was written in an effort to educate my fellow white sisters and brothers, but both the Courier Journal and LEO chose not to publish it. I am submitting it to The LENS so that my black brothers and sisters can read what some whites apparently don’t want to hear.

Over the past nine years, Simmons College of Kentucky has grown from 27 full-time equivalent students to 165. Over the past six years our first to second year retention rate has gone from 25% to 71%. In ten years we have gone from one academic major to five, and we have gained historically black college (HBCU) status, as well as accreditation from a federally recognized accrediting body. Two years ago I came on board as a part of the minority of whites who serve at Simmons, and it has become clear to me that white leaders and academics never could have pulled this off. 

Why is this?

  1. We white people aren’t smart enough. Simmons has had to make challenging and risky strategic decisions, and the leaders of our black led and black controlled college have made them well. At any number of points the ship could have crashed on the rocks, but smart people have steered courageously through risky waters. Furthermore, most of our students do not come highly prepared for college. I sailed into Rhodes College as a student with a 4.0 and a 30 on the ACT. Educating me was a piece of cake. We do the harder work at Simmons, where 67% of our students are first generation college students, and where 78% of our students live in poverty. We specialize in motivating and guiding students who are learning what academic success looks like, and we work smart to do it well.
  2. White people aren’t hard-working enough. Not having a history of Pharaoh’s funding, we, like the Ancient Israelites in Egypt, have too often been forced to make bricks without straw. One person at Simmons does the work three people would do at a school with adequate funding. I have Simmons colleagues who have done this for many years, and as someone who has always worked in predominantly white institutions, I marvel at how my colleagues hold up under the strain of being a poor school serving students who need extra support as they face academic and life challenges. I also listen admiringly as they tell of how Dr. Ron Sams battled terminal cancer yet completed Simmons’ application for accreditation in 2013. Black parents have always told their kids, “You’ve got to to work twice as hard as white folks to get what you want in this world.” That ethic is infused in our school.
  3. White people aren’t resourceful enough. There are not yet any smart-boards here, where we have to pass around a few multimedia projectors from classroom to classroom, but we have dynamic lecturers who use creative pedagogy to engage the best thinking of our students. Necessity is the mother of invention, and we lack neither. Black people have always had to make do with less, and we white folks likewise learn how to make do when we come to work here.
  4. White people aren’t humble enough. We get that many people think what we do is quaint, or that we are a lesser school. But we don’t require status to motivate us. We know who we are and we know what happens in our classrooms. We just keep our shoulders to the wheel and keep watching our students go on to careers and graduate schools. If, on the other hand, you’re a status conscious academic, please don’t come to work at Simmons; we can’t afford the dead weight.
  5. White people aren’t selfless enough. We at Simmons are followers of Jesus, a non-white man from a hard-scrabble community who advised people to gain their lives by giving them away. The $40,000 a year we pay our department chairs (all African Americans who hold earned doctoral degrees) doesn’t put any new Priuses in the crumbling campus parking lot, but we lay up some tidy treasures in other ways as we serve our beloved academic dynamo.

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