AASA: Policy changes on pause

Efforts to improve retention rates and student life for African-American students have been put on hold until at least April.

Northern Kentucky University is searching for a new director for the Office of African-American Student Affairs and has frozen policy changes until the position is filled. The search to fill the vacant position of assistant director for the office has also been put on hold.

Miya Simpson, associate dean and director of AASA, is stepping down Feb. 18 to return to her home in Virginia to deal with a family situation. Her departure will leave the office with only one full-time employee dedicated to student success and an administrative assistant. The office handles programming and events for students, student support and student retention.

The AASA office, which is largely responsible retaining black students, has been plagued with staff turnaround for more than a year. Students who need support from the office receive it without any consistency in who to reach out to or work with.

“It’s unfortunate we’ve had this turnover. [Simpson’s] plan was to be here long-term,” said Dean of Students Jeffrey Waple, who oversees AASA.

During the first few months of her tenure as AASA director, Simpson fired two employees who had worked in the office for several years. Blanche Pringle-Smith and Michael Griffin, coordinators in the office, were dismissed because they could not get along with new leadership, according to records obtained by The Northerner. Both employees contested their terminations and Simpson’s claims through grievances were ultimately denied by University President James Votruba.

The firings were controversial to students at the time, with several of them participating in protests and organizing support for the fired staff members. AASA also struggled to fill the positions vacated by the terminations.

It was not until Oct. 28, 2010, almost nine months after Pringle-Smith and Griffin were fired, that one of the two positions was filled by Deborah Strahorn. This is her first job after being a college student. When Simpson leaves, she and an administrative assistant will be the only full-time staff members in the office.

“Deb Strahorn has been holding that office together for a couple of months,” Waple said. “We are thankful that Deborah joined us and she’s really stepped up to the plate.”

However, Waple said he has responded to the issue by providing a “transition team” to help maintain a level of service to students.

Willa Green, who currently serves in the Student Achievement Center, will serve as acting director, but only part-time by giving 20 hours to the AASA office each week. Additionally, NKU Housing employees Arnie Slaughter and Destiny Harper will also work part-time in the office.

Harper previously filled in at the office on a part-time basis after Pringle-Smith and Griffin were dismissed.

“If anyone, perhaps, thought this was a Band-Aid solution, it isn’t,” Green said. “We are continuing to do programming.” She added that all events planned for Black History Month are moving forward as planned and work is continuing in the student support program, NKU R.O.C.K.S.

“The priority is to maintain consistency,” Green said. The search for a new permanent director is already underway and Waple said he expects to fill the position in April 2011.

Green said that while she will be working to plan more events for fall 2011, her work as interim director will not include examining or analyzing the way NKU’s policies may be negatively impacting black students.

“That would wait until a new director is named,” Green said. However, Green said she is willing to work with Waple if a policy affecting black students comes forward and needs to be addressed.

Waple echoed this sentiment, saying that long-term planning on how to increase retention rates for black will not be the focus during this interim period.

“There is a pause in the total vision — not a step back,” Waple said. He said that Simpson had only just begun to look at developing a long-term plan for retention rates before the family issues that led to her departure began.

The goal is to develop a four-year plan, one that looks not only at retaining students from their first to second years, but also up to graduation. However, Waple and Green both said they feel that the new full-time director should be the one leading that vision.

Waple also said that the search for the assistant director of the office has also been paused so that the incoming director can have input on the selection of that person. That position was only recently advertised to the public, despite being vacant for almost a year.

Part of the delay was attributed to Simpson’s desire to create the new position and make sure it had the job description she desired.

While students have indicated concern for the frequent turnover in the AASA office, many have expressed support for Simpson in her departure.

“It is unfortunate that Dr. Simpson has to leave us after spending such a short time in the Office of AASA,” said Black United Students President Nicole Jones. “She came in at a very challenging time for the office and handled herself respectfully. Dr. Simpson has a great spirit and I, personally, am disheartened to see her go.”

Jones is also hopeful that the “transition team” put in place by Waple will provide the right amount of support to NKU students.

“They have not failed yet in their attempts to get people in the office that are truly here for the students and this unforeseen circumstance was out of their control,” Jones said.

From the fall 2009 to fall 2010 semesters, nearly 40 percent of students identifying as African-Americans left the university. Retention rates for African-Americans have stayed about the same in the last three years and the university says it has a goal of improving that rate.

Story by Jesse Call