College of Engineering articulates its goal for 2015: becoming a diverse community

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Cornell's College of Engineering is widely recognized as one of the world's best research facilities, but equally important to the college's administrators is a vision it hopes to make a reality by 2015: to become "a diverse community of exceptional faculty, students and staff" -- words taken straight from the college's 10-year strategic plan.

Transforming the engineering college into a place where women and racial minorities are well represented among the traditionally white male majority has its challenges, say college leaders, who recently discussed the college's diversity plans with a Cornell Chronicle writer. But, they believe, the rewards of bringing about a better balance of underrepresented groups is well worth the effort.

"We've made progress, but we feel that there's so much more to be done," said Zellman Warhaft, the college's associate dean for diversity.

College of Engineering Dean Kent Fuchs, who recently was reappointed for a second five-year term, describes increasing diversity in the college as a "constant and growing priority." This priority takes up whole sections of the college's 2004 strategic plan. While the efforts around diversity stretch further back than the strategic plan, specific goals for increasing the number of women and minorities on the Engineering Quad are outlined plainly in the document.

Fuchs said his highest priority is bringing in faculty of color and women faculty, though changing the student body is important, too.

"We believe that the sustainable solution is to focus on the faculty," Fuchs said. "It is most challenging to change in terms of diversification because we don't hire as many new faculty as we have new entering students. It's easier to change the student population."

The strategic plan describes the following diversity goals:

  • Increase the percentage of undergraduate women to at least 35 percent, from 25 percent today, and of underrepresented minority students to at least 10 percent, from 6 percent;
  • Increase the percentage of women graduate students to at least 30 percent, from 7 percent, and of underrepresented minority graduate students to 7 percent, from 4 percent;
  • Increase the percentage of women faculty members to at least 20 percent, from 11 percent, and of underrepresented minority faculty members to at least 7 percent, from 4 percent.

The college recently received a large boost in its efforts to recruit women faculty with a National Science Foundation grant of $3.3 million for recruiting, retaining and promoting more women into leadership positions in engineering and the sciences. The grant also is funding a new center called ACCEL -- Advancing Cornell's Commitment to Excellence and Leadership.

Among ongoing efforts to increase faculty diversity is the two-year-old Faculty Recruiting Diversity Committee, which Warhaft heads. A small group of senior engineering faculty helps university search committees in the search process by advising on best practices in both hiring and mentoring new faculty, Warhaft explained.

The college administers a number of programs for diversity, many through DiOnetta Jones, director of diversity programs in the college since 2005. The position was created to support recruitment and retention of diverse students and faculty and to "enhance the climate" of a diverse campus community.

Jones' office offers academic advising, professional development workshops called Master Your Future, and seminars with speakers and networking opportunities.

In a push to reach the precollege population, the office also runs summer programs for high school girls (CURIE) and minority high school students (CATALYST).

Jones said the college is "very progressive" in its efforts around diversity, but that the road ahead is long.

"I think we've made great strides in a short amount of time," Jones said.

One of the most important steps to achieving diversity, in Warhaft's mind, is to make the concept a familiar one to the engineering community.

"I would regard one of the primary objectives is to make the faculty and the students conscious of the importance of diversity and make them sensitive to differences," Warhaft said.

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