Letter to the Editor: Topping leadership reorganization will detract from student success

On Jan. 5, the Provost’s office published a letter announcing the reorganization of the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund. The letter’s primary point was the removal of the Fund’s program director, a role that Christina Yokoyama has served for the past 11 years.

We, the collective, represent over 40 years of leadership within the NTSAF. In each of our respective tenures we occupied the role of governing board chair. As a nominated position, we had the distinct responsibility of being  conduits between the student body and the administration. We were responsible for maintaining the integrity of the student voice — a voice that developed at the very origins of the scholarship in 1972.

In evaluating the core mission of the NTSAF, which is to diversify the once homogenous student body, there is a narrative that speaks to more than just changing student demographics. The central tenet of the fund, as outlined in the original constitution, is to select scholars not only based on their demographic indicators but because they have demonstrated a high level of community awareness, often in spite of extraordinary circumstances.

This selection criteria serves as a unique marker that distinguishes Topping Scholars from the larger group of first-generation low-income students. The result is a highly capable, but volatile, cohort of at-risk students. Historically and statistically, these students have beat the odds to even be eligible for consideration. To believe the NTSAF’s primary responsibility is to provide tuition support is to severely underestimate the implications of being a first-generation low-income student pursuing a post-secondary education.

In singling out just one class of scholars, the NTSAF boasts  graduated students who have now become doctors, lawyers, politicians and community leaders; the result is a homegrown team of advocates who not only have the insights of their diverse early experiences, experiences often marked by trauma and unmeasurable persistence, but who also have the polished degrees of a globally recognized University. As an institution, these students are the best you can hope to produce. But they did not start that way. These are the same students each of us have seen stumble into Yokoyama’s office unable to find their footing on campus. As a first-generation student, it is easy to believe you do not belong in the classrooms you find yourself in. It is easy to convince yourself that the specific details of your story somehow rule you out.

We sat in the Topping Office on countless occasions, listening to students process the loss of family members to violence or the struggle to be the primary provider for their household. Not only were these students expected to successfully process these experiences, but at the same time they were also adjusting to the rigors of college coursework, creating an entirely new social network and learning how to navigate a foreign system.

In light of all of this, it should not be surprising that Topping Scholars often walk into the office exhausted. But Yokoyama has always been ready to receive them. Had she not had a chair in front of her desk that students could collapse into, they likely would not have found a safe place to collapse at all. This is the heart of the NTSAF and this is what is at stake with the proposed reorganization.

Beyond the anecdotal evidence this group can document, the landmark research in the area of student success clearly points out the defining features of student-centered programming for first-generation low-income students. Although financial resources are necessary, they are not paramount to the social and emotional support needed to build the fundamental belief that a student can both attend and thrive in college. The post-secondary experience for many first-generation students is marked by feelings of doubt and rejection, and an inability to find their place on campus. But the NTSAF has served as home base for hundreds of scholars, allowing them to effectively overcome the feelings of displacement that consume so many non-graduates.

As the University continues to reflect on its changing demographics, its leadership team should think critically about both the civil and social responsibilities inherent in this conversation. A meaningful invitation to prospective students requires anticipating their full set of needs. It means providing both the financial resources to make a degree accessible and a chair in which they can collapse to make a degree attainable.

Beyond the ethical implications, the structure of the fund was established to put the student body at the center of operations. As such, the NTSAF has always reported directly to the nominated Governing Board. The decision to remove the role of Program Director, without the explicit involvement of the governing board, violates the documented agreement.

Student success is neither a coincidence nor an accident. It is the strategic alignment of resources and support held together by a shared vision. And, as with all visions that come to fruition, it needs a visionary at its helm to lead and direct. Removing the program director position from the NTSAF guts the heart of the program, a program that has accumulated five decades worth of degrees. Yokoyama has not only fulfilled the mission of the scholarship, but has also contributed to the central mission of any post-secondary institution: to produce active scholars that can go forth and meaningfully contribute to the world around them.

In each of our terms as governing board chair, our primary responsibility has been to protect the integrity of the fund by adhering to its origins as a student-led initiative. We ask that the Provost operate with the same sense of integrity. The NTSAF is a student-funded, student-administered and student-led initiative, yet the decision to reorganize was devoid of any student voice.

We are requesting a reversal on the decision to remove the program director position, and that senior administration begins to work collaboratively with instead of against the governing board. Jointly, we can create alignment between the historic mission of the scholarship and the current needs of the University without sacrificing the students or program structure we were all put in place to serve.