James Baugh led change by example

An early director of a program to increase diversity on campus reflects on his work in the 1960s and ’70s.

October 31st 2016 | Katie Vaughn
Diversity and Culture
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baugh-feature_210x300.jpg#asset:3442On July 7, 1968, a young James Baugh arrived at UW-Madison to jumpstart much-needed change on campus. His new role was assistant director of the Five Year Program, started just two years earlier to increase the number of students of color at the university. 

“My job was to beef up the academic support part of the program — recruiting, admissions, retention,” says the now-74-year-old Baugh from his home in Virginia. 

Twenty-six years old and newly married, Baugh brought experience from teaching in Milwaukee’s public schools in the years following his graduation from Western Michigan University. In Milwaukee, Baugh learned to identify the type of students the Five Year Program aimed to attract: young men and women from low-income families who embodied qualities like leadership and resilience and were ready to be pushed academically.

Baugh also had a knack for connecting with students, in part because he came from a similar background. Raised by a single mother in northwest Ohio, Baugh found academic and athletic success at his predominately white high school.

“These were things I could identify so closely with the students,” he says. “And I knew you could rise above your circumstances.”

After becoming director of the Five Year Program just six months into his job, Baugh worked to expand its reach. He found allies across campus, and particularly in the College of Letters & Science, who supported the program’s mission, and he traveled the state and country to recruit more underrepresented students. In 1969, he brought nearly 200 students to campus.

All the while, Baugh never stopped working directly with students. He “made them grow up quickly” but helped them feel supported and part of an environment that didn’t always seem particularly welcoming.

“These kids became our family,” he says. “There was so much love there. I believed in them and they knew I believed in them.”

He also believed in his mission to make the program a longstanding part of the university, knowing that its graduates would go on to impact their families and communities. “These students were change agents,” he says.

While running the Five Year Program, Baugh also pursued a master’s degree and Ph.D., writing his dissertation on African American students at predominately white universities, turning classrooms and residence halls at UW-Madison into case studies.

Baugh left the Five Year Program after earning his Ph.D. in 1973. He went on to serve as the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Development at UW-Oshkosh, Senior Academic Planner in Academic Affairs for the University of Wisconsin System and Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council on Criminal Justice, and was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as the Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In 1981, the city of Madison honored him with the Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award for his work in civic and community affairs.

Yet when Baugh reflects on his career, his time with the Five Year Program stands out.

“I’ve had a lot of different jobs, but the most fulfilling was when I worked with the Program,” he says. “I saw how you can take student and provide academic support, give them encouragement, and they become successful, they get confidence and they soar. I saw that up close and I had a hand in it.”

Read more about the history and impact of the Five Year Program here.