UofL President Neeli Bendapudi prepares for a news conference. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

Since coming to the University of Louisville in 2015, senior Mariana Juarez said, the campus of 22,000 has become more inclusive.

Minority students have more ways to share their culture, and the number of diversity events has increased, said Juarez, who as executive vice president of the student government oversees student-led diversity and inclusion initiatives.

For Juarez, UofL has “always been welcoming and open-minded.”  

Now researchers agree: specifically, when it comes to African-American students, UofL is one of the nation’s top public universities, according to a new report from the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center. UofL tied for the top ranking with the University of California-San Diego and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, according to the report released Tuesday. Each school scored a 3.5 out of 4.

Mariana Juarez

“We’re absolutely delighted that the University of Louisville ranks number one,” UofL President Neeli Bendapudi said in a news conference. “This is a tremendous recognition of all the good work that’s gone on at this university over many, many years.”

Researchers looked at four equity indicators — representation, gender equity, graduation rates and black student-to-black faculty ratio — over a period of four years to determine college access and success for black undergraduates.

UofL scored an A for representation equity, with African-American students making up 11.1 percent of the student body, compared 10.6 percent of the nation’s 18- to 24-year-olds. The school’s student-to-faculty ratio, around 12:1, also received an A.

The six-year graduation rate for African-American students at UofL is nearly 7 percentage points lower than the overall graduation rate, receiving a B, and gender equity between black women and men on campus also received a B, as the university has more African-American women than African-American men.

UofL led Kentucky to have the fifth highest statewide average equity score in the country, a 2.36 — around a C+. Murray State University was the second highest school in Kentucky, followed by the University of Kentucky.

Bendapudi has said diversity is a key component of her plan to make UofL a great place to study, work and invest. Notably, UofL also was named a top LGBTQ-friendly school in three separate lists earlier in the semester.

All minority students will feel a “greater sense of belonging” on campus thanks to the ranking, Juarez said.

“Being a Latina student, I believe this ranking reaffirms the commitment UofL has for diversity and inclusion,” she said. “Students can see the University is making progress and fulfilling the promise they made to us when we came to UofL, which is that we belong.”

Being recognized as an inclusive campus could have a positive impact on student and faculty recruitment as well.

“Those kinds of recognitions tell students that if they come here, they will be very, very welcome and might encourage more of them to come,” Bendapudi said. “I also think it is attractive to all students who want to come and be educated in a diverse environment that prepares them for the world.”

Incoming classes are growing in diversity, according to a UofL news release. This fall’s freshman class was 15 percent African American and 6 percent Hispanic/Latino. In comparison, 10.3 percent of UofL’s full student body was African American, and only 3 percent was Hispanic in fall 2013.

UofL is working on improving its retention and graduation rates overall, with a special focus on traditionally underrepresented groups including first-generation and low-income students. This year, as head of student government, Juarez said she is focusing a student retention plan for Latino students, including more mentorship and community engagement opportunities.

University officials also are working to further increase faculty diversity, not just student diversity, Vice Provost for Diversity Mordean Taylor-Archer said. Search committees now receive diversity and implicit bias training, and there is a greater emphasis on retaining faculty of color.

The number of African-American professors at UofL has increased slightly from 2013 to 2018, growing from 136 to 141, according to data shared a recent board of trustees meeting.

Mordean Taylor-Archer | Courtesy UofL

Faculty “want to be in environments that are textured and nuanced and complex and look like the world around them,” Bendapudi said.

Multiple UofL initiatives aim to improve African-American students’ success. Programs like CONECT and the African-American Male Initiative provide mentoring for African-American students, and the cultural center checks on incoming African-American freshmen a few times a semester.

Student government advocates for diversity and inclusion on campus through resolutions, like one supporting DACA students, Juarez said. The student activities arm hosts events highlighting cultures and increasing understanding, like the International Fashion Show and Pride Week.

Bendapudi doesn’t want UofL to stall in its diversity efforts after the ranking. “We don’t view it as any reason for being complacent,” she said.

UofL is working on a few diversity programs set to roll out in the spring and next fall, Bendapudi said, but did not share details.

Meanwhile, Juarez is planning a new diversity workshop series that will highlight marginalized groups on campus and help students learn how to be allies.

“We still have a long way to go,” Juarez said. “Being recognized for our efforts to be diverse and inclusive should only motivate us to keep working.”