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Making Diversity a Value, and Not an Event

• May 10, 2009 • 10:50 PM

Tom Price is blogging for Miller-McCune.com from the 3rd annual Conference on Understanding Interventions That Broaden Participation in Research Careers.

Creating an academic diversity program is one thing. But how do you institutionalize it as an integral part of the university, so that it will thrive over the long term?

Three long-standing diversity programs share a large number of attributes that provide clues to their success, three speakers revealed at a conference on diversity in science which ended Saturday.

They include strong support from top campus leadership, a good fit with the university’s overall mission, constant evaluation with wide dissemination of results, campus-wide acceptance, support from beyond the campus, and a willingness to evolve.

Freeman Hrabowski III, a Ph.D. mathematician, founded the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in 1988, with financial support from Baltimore County philanthropists Robert and Jane Meyerhoff. Four years later, Hrabowski became university president, a post he still holds.

Hrabowski’s role as the Meyerhoff Scholars’ champion has been enormously important to the program’s continuing success, said Kenneth Maton, a UMBC psychology professor who studies minority student achievement.

The program, created to prepare young African American men for scientific research careers, fits perfectly with the mission of the university, which was established in 1966 to be a diverse institution, Maton said. (Hrabowski himself is African American.)

Need for the program was demonstrated by data that showed minority students tended to perform poorly in scientific studies, he said. When large proportions of Meyerhoff scholars went on to earn Ph.D.s, support for the program was solidified.

The program expanded over time, so it now admits male and female science and engineering students of any race who express interest in the advancement of minorities in those fields. Admitting whites helped to deflect challenges to the program amid what Maton termed the “anti-affirmative-action climate” in the 1990s.

The University of Michigan’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program enrolled 14 minority students in 1989, later added women and now is open to all students, said Cinda-Sue Davis, director of the university’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Program. Most of the students are in science, technology, engineering or math.

The program garners support on and off campus because the state is trying to transform its struggling manufacturing economy into a “knowledge economy,” she said. Google co-founder Larry Page, a Michigan alumnus, is a vocal proponent of improving education in the state, she said.

Evaluation has been the most important component of the program’s success, she added.

“It’s important to document success,” agreed Michael Leibowitz, director of graduate academic diversity for the biomedical sciences graduate school at New Jersey’s University of Medicine and Dentistry. “Assessment, monitoring and evaluation are critical to establishing the program as a national model and providing feedback to staff.

Leibowitz’s school offers a growing suite of support services to students, he said. Initially aimed at minorities, the services now are open to all students, which helped build campus-wide support for diversity efforts, he added.

Tom Price
Tom Price is a Washington-based freelance writer who focuses on public affairs, business, technology and education. Previously he was a correspondent in the Cox Newspapers Washington bureau and chief politics writer for the Cox papers in Dayton. He is author or co-author of five books, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Rolling Stone, CQ Researcher and other publications.

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