Nearly four decades after Larry Gossett led a successful push to recruit more Black students to the University of Washington, African Americans account for less than 3 percent of the overall student body.
This academic year, there are just 118 Black freshmen in a class of nearly 5,000, the lowest number since 1999 and fewer even than when Gossett — then a student leader, now a King County Councilor — was recruiting.
The UW is keeping pace with Black enrollment rates at Washington State University and Eastern Washington University, but has fallen behind the rate at The Evergreen State College, a liberal arts school in Olympia.
Yet Seattle is home to nearly 10 times the number of Black citizens as Olympia, Ellensburg and Spokane combined. UW faculty numbers are even lower: Just 1.7 percent of tenure-track faculty members are Black.
"We thought we had the potential and we were audacious enough to believe that we could humanize, democratize and make the university more accountable to all the citizens of Washington. But it appears we did not," Gossett told a local paper.
UW administrators say the fall 2005 freshman numbers represent one unusually bad year, yet they acknowledge a broader problem.
"No one at the UW would say, 'Hey, we've arrived, and this is where we want things,"' said Philip Ballinger, the school's admissions director. "Clearly, our students, our faculty, we all recognize it's an area we need to make improvements to."
Some administrators think UW's low Black enrollment rate could be tied to the 1998 passage of Initiative 200, which prohibits the use of race as an admissions factor. The number of Black freshmen plunged in 1999 but had been increasing until 2005.
Black students at the UW say they often feel like objects of curiosity. But David Monroe, 20, a sophomore from Tacoma, said he liked his freshman dorm experience because it exposed him to new types of people — and them to him.
"For my friends from Eastern Washington, I'm the first Black person they've ever known," he said. "Everything they knew was based on what they'd seen on TV or in the news."
Washington's population is 3.2 percent Black, but in Seattle the figure is 8.4 percent. In Seattle Public Schools, about 22 percent of students are Black. Many who grew up in the area are shocked when they walk into a freshman UW class with hundreds of students but only a few African Americans.
Tonya Bryant, 19-year-old freshman from Bothell, was surprised to find her African American studies lecturer was White. The class was apologetically told that a lot of Black faculty members were leaving.
"We lost two (Black) senior professors last year, and when we lose two, it's a lot," said Rusty Barceló, the UW's vice president for minority affairs. "We find we retain assistant professors but sometimes lose them when they're promoted to associate professors. They're often lured away."
Barceló said recruiters did a good job last year finding Black students, but she and others were "stunned" when only half of those offered slots accepted.
Part of the reason, she said, is the UW cannot compete with scholarships offered at places likeStanford University and the University of Michigan.
"In all honesty, it was my last choice of college to go to," said Asiha Grigsby, 20, a junior from Graham,who came to the UW on an athletic scholarship and has become a rowing-team star.
Grigsby said she would have preferred to go to a college with a much stronger Black presence but has enjoyed her time at the UW. She said many people tend to assume that Black students are athletes. While it's true in her case, people constantly mistake a friend of hers who's a math major for a football player.
Overall, about 12 percent of the UW's 662 athletes are Black, and about 7 percent of all Black students are athletes. Blacks account for 2.8 percent of the student body as a whole.
Under a new "holistic" admissions system, the UW plans to comprehensively review all 16,000 freshman applications to assess each candidate on a range of factors, including whether they have overcome personal or social adversity. The current system automatically admits top students based on grades.
UW President Mark A. Emmert said he's been making significant investments in recruitment and retention efforts and in the campus Office of Minority Affairs. He and other senior staff members are trying to figure out what caused the dip in 2005 Black freshman numbers and make improvements this year.
And the Provost's Office is adding a staff position to try to increase minority faculty numbers.
"Over the years we have come a long way," said Gossett, who helps advise the university on minority issues. "But the enrollment this fall shows how much further we still need to go at the state's paramount institution."
— The Associated Press