A lot has changed in Tonya Phillips’ world.
A year ago, she was at the pinnacle of her career at Minnesota State University, running a program that gave underrepresented students an unlikely shot at higher education.
Today, she doesn’t even have an office on campus. In fact, she needs permission to come on to campus. And in a few months, her time at MSU will come to an end.
“I think the Master had had enough of the head Negro in the field,” she said, “and the only thing he could do was sell her off.”
Phillips has been the fiery leader of the College Access Program. CAP is a bridge program that identifies high school students who may not qualify for admission to MSU, but recognizes that, given the proper counseling and tools, they could succeed in college.
Phillips says the reason for her removal as head of the program is another act of revenge by MSU President Richard Davenport, whom she said has revamped the program, removed her and reassigned other CAP staff to get back at her. Her removal and the program’s changes will hurt students, she said.
“But this isn’t about me,” she said. “My concern is the students, and the 164 students we left behind.”
Davenport, however, said he has long wanted to revamp the program. He said he and his staff had researched many other similar programs to see how they were run.
His has installed new leadership. The new CAP format, which relies on CAP advisers working from within the university’s various colleges to have them more connected to academics, is an amalgam of “best practices” identified at other bridge programs. He said the program will be nothing like the previous program.
“It will be a very integrated college access program that will help them navigate the system. We’ll do everything possible to help them not just the first two years, but all the way to graduation,” he said. “Our concern is the third year where there’s a big drop in retention.”
Phillips disputes that, and said their program was successful. Under her leadership, she said CAP’s retention rate after one year was 95 percent. Overall, the rate was 81 percent. She said she was recently asked to present at a national conference earlier this month about how CAP was established and how it operates. After that, she was contacted by several people who wanted advice on setting up a similar program at their school.
She questions the new plan of placing CAP advisers within academic colleges. In the case of the College of Allied Health and Nursing, Phillips said only two CAP students since the program started wound up declaring a nursing major.
Davenport said he wants CAP students working with admissions office staff instead of CAP advisers because admissions staff are the most knowledgeable about how the financial aid system works. Financial aid problems were at the heart of the controversy surrounding the CAP program last fall.
“We didn’t want CAP advisers doing everything for them,” he said. “We have experts who are trained and do it day in and day out.”
Phillips, however, said no one knows or understands the students and families who come through the CAP program better than her and her staff.
“Admissions has a sheet of paper. I’m at your house having coffee with your mom and getting your family history,” she said.
Phillips said several students recruited by CAP staff have told her they plan to leave MSU because of the changes. And some prospective students are wavering now because of the departure of Jimmie Gunn, one of the program’s magnetic personalities and the driving force behind the summer boot camp, which all incoming CAP freshman attend.
She also claims the new leadership appears to not understand the challenge the CAP program presents.
As evidence, she points to an e-mail regarding preparations for the next CAP class. The e-mail questions whether the program still needs the boot camp component. Phillips maintains the physical demands of boot camp prepare the students for a day of academic rigor.
In that same e-mail, the new CAP leadership stresses the need to academically evaluate CAP students, and the need to bring in mentors and motivational speakers to work with and inspire the students.
And on Thursday, CAP advisers sent a letter to Provost and Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs Scott Olson and MnSCU Chancellor James McCormick outlining a host of concerns including: what they see as a lack of organization for the summer program; their displeasure over the people who have been put in charge of the summer program; that they are working, as they say, “under durress”; that the program is in disarray. They also request the program be put back the way it was.
In the end, Phillips said the matter simply comes down to a matter of racism. She said Davenport blames her for inciting students to protest about their tuition problems, and removing her from CAP and campus was his way of dealing with it.
Davenport said race has nothing to do with Phillips’ impending removal from CAP or campus.
Phillips’ tenure with MSU expires in October. Between now and then, she must get permission from Olson, the provost, to come onto campus.
Davenport said he expects a full CAP class to be on campus this summer. Phillips doubts they’ll be able to achieve the same numbers as last year.
CAP program being revamped
A lot has changed in Tonya Phillips’ world.
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