Pipeline to college under construction at U of M

Enrollment extended to local students of color 8th grade and up

Dr. Shakeer Abdullah
Dr. Shakeer Abdullah

Dr. Shakeer Abdullah, since coming to the University of Minnesota over two years ago, fully recognizes the importance of connecting with the off-campus Black community.

“This is a state university, and it means we need everyone here,” declares Abdullah, the school’s assistant vice president for equity and diversity since December 2013. “Part of my work and my job is to be engaged in the community,” he said in a recent MSR interview at his office.

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Last May his office co-sponsored a “Men of Color Think Tank,” and it has initiated a new program — Community Outreach Retention and Engagement (CORE) 2025 — “to build a pipeline” with eighth graders and first-generation college students of color.

Abdullah says the program’s goal is to enroll 500 students each year in each cohort, “supporting them through graduation [from high school].” He expects the first group to be in place by April, with the program up and running for the upcoming school year this fall. “We’re looking at the cities and the surrounding suburbs.”

The U of M administrator is keenly aware of the historical disconnect between the university and the surrounding Black communities. “The challenge that we are running into is that the expectation is low here,” as the Minnesota African American community expects little from the university, he admitted.

“We are working on raising the community expectation to make sure that people have the access to the resources here at the University of Minnesota. We know that the University of Minnesota is an economic driver for the state.”

Abdullah, who holds a Ph. D in higher education administration, previously served as an admissions counselor at Wittenberg (Ohio) University, a diversity program coordinator at Ohio State, student affairs and multicultural affairs director at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, and in 2008 the multicultural center director at Auburn University.

While at Auburn, he presented a paper at a national conference on race and ethnicity in New Orleans in 2013. “I paid my own way to the conference, and while I was there I met Dr. [Katrice] Albert, who also happens to be an Auburn graduate and got her Ph. D. there as well,” he recalled. Albert is the current U of M vice president for equity and diversity.

“About four months later, she reached out to me about this job opportunity at the University of Minnesota that [she thought I] might be interested in. I’d never been to Minnesota prior to my job interview. I knew Minnesota from afar through Prince, Kirby Puckett and the Twins, the Timberwolves and Kevin Garnett, as well as the school’s athletic success through former coaches Clem Haskins and Glen Mason.

Abdullah soon realized that with its corporate presence, the Twin Cities is “a hidden gem,” but he learned about its shortcomings as well. “I also didn’t know about the achievement gap and the disparities, challenges and history,” admitted Abdullah, adding that he learned plenty from watching a TPT documentary on Minnesota’s Black history “and talked to people who are from here.

“They’ve given history and tours [on] the impact of [Interstate] 94 and 35 not only on the Rondo community in St. Paul but also in Minneapolis,” continued Abdullah. “It helped me get a better sense, understanding and appreciation for the Minnesota experience.”

Supporting students and community “and being a voice at the table” is also important, said Abdullah. “Sometimes tables aren’t open to us. I try to learn from other folk and make sure their voice is at the table.”

He said he also understands as well as empathizes with many students at the university who have expressed concerns, especially Blacks and other students of color, through demonstrations and protests. Abdullah, a member of Albert’s senior executive team, said he regularly meets with students and admits that some meetings “aren’t satisfying to them.

“I think it has been interesting for me, learning and seeing…a lot of the students, their beef in some cases is with me. Some of it is for the staff changes that I made here in the multicultural center. Some of it certainly is based on the lack of interaction with higher-level administrators.

“A lot of students want to go and talk to Dr. Albert every day. They want that direct contact with the president on a regular basis to tell the president how they feel,” said Abdullah, pointing out that the U is “a big ship” to navigate through.

“We all got to work together to make change. You can’t dictate change from the top, but I think there is an expectation that change can be dictated from the top.”

As a student, he often participated in campus protests, including going to the first Million Man March when he was a freshman. As an administrator at Ohio State, he took students to protest in D.C. “I remember creating a campus unity march and asking for change in our administration.

“I do recognize that this is a different era — every generation has their own way. But I think it is critical that you always have an understanding of the predecessors and what they’ve gone through before you.”

Abdullah’s work continues both on campus and off. “I think it is really critical to continue to have conversations,” he says. “I am grateful to be in this space and for the opportunity this role affords me.”

However, he says, “It’s not just me.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.