Taking the Lead on Ethnic, Minority Conferences: Organizers Find. Successful Niches
by Joan Morgan
The key to success for major conferences focusing on minority issues in higher education has been recognizing a need and filling it, say some of the organizers.
And if you give people what they want, they will come, these organizers say.
Dr. Clinita Ford directs and coordinates the National Higher Education Conference on Black Student Retention, one of the most successful conferences dealing with minority issues in the nation. The conference now attracts 350 to 500 participants a year, Ford said, but at the time it was first discussed, there was no national forum where people who were actively working on Black student retention could share and discuss their ideas.
"From my work as director of Title III at Florida A&M University (FAMU), I recognized that the retention problems I was dealing with were not unique to FAMU or historically Black colleges, and that everybody was doing something. That's when the idea for bringing them all together at a conference came to me," Ford said.
"In 1985, after people kept encouraging me to go forward with the idea, I put together the first conference in Orlando. I would have felt it was a success with at least 75 participants, but 125 came. And at the end, they were asking me where we were going to meet next year.
"The president at FAMU [Dr. Frederick Humphries] heard how well it went and called me in to say that we really had something going that people needed and wanted, and we couldn't let it die," Ford said. And with that, the National Conference on Black Student Retention became an annual meeting.
Although the conference had support from the top, FAMU does not finance the annual parley, Ford said. "Except for staff salaries, the conference is totally paid for by participant fees. What the state does do is advance us money, based on a budget we submit, that we reimburse after the conference is over."
But money has never been a problem, Ford said, because the conference always seems to attract enough participants to cover expenses, even though registration fees can be high. The average has run about $300.
Ford has discovered that two secrets to good attendance are close proximity to as many colleges and universities as possible and the planning of good workshop topics. Cities such as New York and Las Vegas, she has found, attract the largest numbers of participants.
Ford said that unlike some higher education meetings, a good workshop or presentation is not judged by what journal has accepted its papers for publication, but by whether it has some substance for her audience. She also made the decision at the inception to keep the conference narrowly focused on the needs of Black students, because while some of the other minority groups have problems, the highest dropout rates are among African Americans.
Pari Nabavi, program coordinator with Dr. Maggie Abudu, executive director at the Southwest Center for Human Relations Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said that their conference, the Annual National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education, "has become a leading national forum on race and ethnicity in higher education because of targeting certain groups and responding to their needs."
Abudu, who came up with the idea of a race and ethnicity conference, launched her first one in April 1988, Nabavi recalled.
"We sent out surveys on multicultural issues to all the higher education institutions in the nation. From the approximately 2,000 that were sent back, we got an idea of what people wanted and what the problems were. …