Zakariya Abdullahi arrived at Augsburg University in fall 2017 — the first time students of color outnumbered whites in the incoming class, a milestone on the private campus founded by Norwegian Lutherans 150 years ago.
This academic year, the school has been forced to take an unflinching look at how it is adjusting to a rapid demographic shift that ushered in more students like Abdullahi, the first in his Somali-American family to go to college. The Minneapolis university has made diversity central in its pitch to prospective students and donors, drawing national recognition for its success in attracting students of color.
That has been the easier part.
In recent years, the campus redoubled efforts to narrow a graduation gap between its white and minority students and beef up support services. Now, an intense debate about race and inclusion is laying bare campus fault lines. A classroom discussion about the N-word this fall sidelined a renowned professor, sparked a debate about academic freedom and triggered a review of Augsburg’s predominantly white honors program, with the program’s future on the line.
“I came to Augsburg because it was a place where I could see more people who look like me,” Abdullahi said. “Now we’re trying to have healthier conversations about race.”
It’s the kind of soul-searching underway at campuses nationally, where racial protests have toppled university presidents and advocates have cautioned that broader access to campus can breed new inequities.
Before Abdullahi even started his studies, Augsburg signaled it would go to some lengths to welcome him. Freshmen are required to live in Urness Hall, one of two campus high-rises that give Augsburg its distinctive urban skyline.
But Abdullahi told officials he needed a spotless, more private space than the shared bathrooms at Urness for ritual washing before Muslim prayer. They let him move into Mortensen Hall, with private bathrooms, where he and his roommate hung the Somali and Mexican flags on the living room wall.
“This is a Christian school, but I have never felt uncomfortable as a Muslim student,” he said.
Augsburg’s diversity is more than an offshoot of its location, in one of Minnesota’s most diverse ZIP codes. With outreach to counselors and financial aid workshops, the university cultivated the metro’s most diverse high schools as feeder schools.
Augsburg partnered with programs such as College Possible; it’s often the only private school on low-income participants’ application lists. It has aggressively recruited community college grads, including with its Auggie Plan, a partnership with two-year schools that gives their students a shot at a full ride.
This quest for diversity honors the school’s founders, who sought out kids from rural Wisconsin and Minnesota, says Augsburg President Paul Pribbenow. But at a time of shrinking high school classes that have imperiled private campuses, it’s also about survival.
“We are tapping into the only growing part of the demographic,” Pribbenow said. “That was a good strategic move.”
For Bill Green, a history professor who took a leave to serve as Minneapolis superintendent in 2006, the change happened almost overnight. That year, 17 percent of freshmen and new transfer students were minority. When he returned four years later, that number had jumped to 38 percent. Today, students of color make up almost half the undergraduate student body.
“When I came back, students were more sophisticated and aware of the world,” Green said. “It made for a new vitality.”
Next fall, Augsburg will make standardized entrance tests optional — a move that officials say will further open up the university to diverse students.
During his freshman year, Abdullahi met with an academic counselor weekly. Once, he enrolled in a communication class to meet a general education requirement, but his counselor cautioned him he’d already met it — a misstep that could have delayed his graduation.
As more students from underrepresented backgrounds have arrived, Augsburg has focused on graduating them on time. It touts its average class size of 16 and its new “intrusive” advising model, in which counselors check in with students to keep them on track with credits and financial aid.
Pribbenow says the additional support services are expensive, but they have galvanized donors, who also chipped in for endowment funds for Muslim students and those without legal status. Still, this winter the college is taking a hard look at its budget amid a dip in enrollment and an unusually high number of students with unpaid bills, which blocks them from signing up for classes.
The school is making headway, says Katie Bishop, Augsburg’s chief student success officer. Its six-year graduation rate, which dipped a few years ago, went up to 64 percent in 2018. But disparities remain: Federal data show a 10 percent graduation rate gap between white and black students.
Robert Harper, a recent graduate pursing a master’s at the U’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, says Augsburg opened up a slew of opportunities for him: choir, the football team, programs that steer students toward business jobs and expose them to careers in politics. But he also saw fellow black athletes drop out after struggling financially or academically.
And alongside the academic push, the campus has strained to become comfortable in its new diversity.
In October, Phil Adamo, the honors program director, tackled author James Baldwin’s work in a freshman honors class. A student read aloud a passage that included the N-word, and Adamo, who is white, asked: Is it sometimes OK to use the racial slur in academic or other contexts?
Students had complained about a similar discussion in Adamo’s class the previous year, objecting to his use of the slur rather than the euphemism and saying the conversation brought up past racial trauma. This time, student complaints triggered an ongoing investigation. Adamo went on leave and was replaced at the helm of the honors program. He declined to comment but has pushed back against criticism.
Students note the program has failed to keep up with Augsburg’s growing diversity and struggled to retain minority students. In packed listening sessions, students of color questioned whether the campus has truly welcomed them. They have called on Augsburg to hire more diverse employees and make cultural competence training — now required of staff and encouraged for faculty — mandatory for all.
“You can’t just bring in diverse students and call it a day,” said Winston Heckt, an honors student leader, who is black. “You have to make sure it’s an environment where diverse students can thrive.”
Pribbenow has vowed to “respond with humility to the mistakes we make from our privileged positions.” The honors program is under review, and the provost has said the university might even consider doing away with it.
Meanwhile, some faculty have raised concerns about academic freedom. David Lapakko, a longtime communication professor, says he and other faculty feel under a scrutiny that has stifled free expression. Through Augsburg’s anonymous bias reporting system, he has been called out for citing research on gender differences and for supposedly endorsing the “storybook narrative” about Christopher Columbus, though he says his tone was openly sarcastic.
“The conversation here has become much more strained,” he said.
Students such as Abdullahi say even before the honors incident, a heightened touchiness about race and culture pervaded the campus. A staff member once complained after Abdullahi, a campus security dispatcher, inquired about the race of a man she reported was harassing students.
Recent efforts to encourage more open conversations in class have sometimes backfired, such as when Abdullahi clashed with a fellow student arguing that he feels under siege on campus as a conservative. But he and others say they hope the upheaval will foster more meaningful exchanges in the end.
“Augsburg is great about drawing diversity,” said Harper. “Now it needs to take the next step to encourage these students to intermingle.”