Chancellor Javier Reyes’ Remarks at Sept. 28, 2023, White House Meeting
UMass Amherst Chancellor Javier Reyes was a featured speaker at the White House as the U.S. Department of Education unveiled a new report, “Strategies for Increasing Diversity and Opportunity in Higher Education” on Sept. 28, 2023. The report outlines evidence-based strategies and answers President Biden’s charge to the department to elevate promising practices to build inclusive, diverse student bodies in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action.
Chancellor Reyes’ statement as prepared in advance of the event, hosted by Neera Tanden, White House domestic policy advisor, and Miguel Cardona, secretary of education, are below.
Thank you, Secretary Cardona, Director Tanden, and the Biden-Harris Administration for inviting me here today and for being at the forefront of this important issue. I am honored to join you and other higher education leaders in this conversation.
I am proud to lead the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s flagship campus and to live in a state that understands the vital role that higher education plays in advancing social mobility.
It is so important that students of color, including underrepresented minority students, see themselves in college and have the opportunity to realize the promise and possibilities of higher education. This is a shared belief by Governor Healey, UMass President Marty Meehan, and the leaders of each of our campuses.
As a land grant university, a fundamental part of our mission is ensuring access for underrepresented students. In doing so, we’ve made a number of changes over the years to build more equity in our admissions process and ensure that every qualified student has access to our educational opportunities.
UMass Amherst and our sister campuses in the UMass system are working to increase our visibility in underserved communities so that underrepresented minority students and their families can see pathways to higher education and to our campuses. In short, we go where the students are and show them they can thrive and belong on our campuses.
I want to speak more about one aspect of our efforts to promote racial and socioeconomic diversity. Nearly a decade ago, we moved to a holistic admissions approach that considers the entirety of an applicant’s life experiences. This model still includes traditional factors such as high school GPA but does not focus exclusively on them.
Each summer, our application readers participate in an intensive multi-day training during which they learn how to pay close attention to every component of a prospective student’s application and consider it in relation to their application in its entirety. This allows our readers to understand aspects of a student’s identity and life experience that may not have been possible in a more conventional admissions approach.
For example, an applicant may have a GPA of 3.7, versus an applicant that has a GPA 4.2, but this applicant also works 20 hours a week and does not have the luxury of a tutor. This student has figured out how to be successful in the face of adversity but may have had their application denied if we only compared GPA scores.
In conjunction with this, we also expanded our outreach to include a wider network of high schools, community colleges, and community-based organizations that serve underrepresented minority students.
We are proud of the results from these efforts. Since 2011, the percentage of underrepresented minorities in the incoming class has increased more than 70%.
Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, we worked with our legal team to add a new essay prompt that provides applicants with an additional opportunity to help the university understand a student’s background and experiences. This prompt recognizes that communities and groups often define and shape our individual worlds and asks applicants to choose one of their communities or groups and describe its significance. Community can refer to various aspects, including shared geography, religion, race/ethnicity, income, ideology, and more.
This prompt was integrated into our undergraduate application in August for spring admission and will be part of our admissions process for students applying in fall 2024. It is still new, so we are in early stages of evaluation. However, in looking at our most recent applications, our admissions team believes that it is working the way that we hope:
- Applicants are reflecting on their experiences as members of racial and ethnic groups, religious communities, and even athletic teams.
- Their reflections are a complement to other parts of the application that focus purely on academics.
- Importantly, applicants are reflecting on the positive influence they would have on our campus as a result of these experiences.
- This process allows for the evaluation of belonging from the perspective of the student and of the institution. Taking into consideration personal qualities, co-curricular activities, interests, and life context that has shaped the profile of the student… and … how the institution would continue to nurture, provide opportunities, and support for the student.
Having underrepresented students apply and be admitted to our university is just the beginning of this process. Once they are on our campus, do we see them engaging and having a sense of belonging? Are our support structures and programs -- such as success coaching, DEI inclusion programs, cultural centers, and affinity groups -- helping them to grow and develop on our campus? Are these supports helping with retention and graduation rates? This is how we will measure our success.
These efforts are paying off. At UMass Amherst, 83% of our undergraduate students earn their degrees within six years. And the Class of 2027 is one of the most diverse and academically accomplished group of students in our institution’s history.
While the court’s decision presents challenges for UMass Amherst and all of higher education, I am heartened by the resolve of everyone here today to continue advancing educational access for all deserving students. At this critical time, it is so important that we come together and reaffirm our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion as both a pathway of access for our students and a vehicle for social upward mobility.