November 20, 2011

Obama Awards Engineering Diversity Program

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President Obama cited Cornell’s Diversity Programs in Engineering as one of five programs nationwide to receive the 2011 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring on Nov. 15.

The award “is a validation of the vision that Kent Fuchs and Zellman Warhaft had in 2004 when, as Dean and Associate Dean of Engineering, they designed a new structure for Diversity Programs in Engineering,” said Richard Allmendinger, associate dean of diversity, faculty development and mentoring in engineering.

The Presidential Award recognizes Cornell’s innovative approaches to increasing the diversity of the Engineering College. In recent years, DPE has implemented a series of programs, ranging from summer programs for minority students to minority faculty recruitment, to achieve its diversity goals.

“The structure of DPE is unique and it’s a strong arrangement,” Dean of Engineering Lance Collins said. Rather than separating female and underrepresented minority programs, DPE integrates them. It deals with all levels of diversity — from the undergraduate level to the faculty level — under one roof, according to Collins.

Rather than competing, Collins said, faculty diversity programs and student diversity programs complement each other. Allmendinger and Director of DPE Sara Xayarth Hernández, respectively, oversee the programs, according to Collins.

Although the award reflects DPE’s strides to bolster diversity in a historically white male-dominated discipline, “there is still work to be done, especially at the faculty level,” Collins said.

In the field of engineering, diversity is key, according to Allmendinger. “Without a diverse population, we won’t be as effective at problem solving because we won’t have access to as creative solutions,” he said.

At the undergraduate level, Cornell is ahead of national diversity statistics for women.

“At 35 percent women across all four undergraduate classes, Cornell has more than twice the national average of women in engineering,” Allmendinger said. In addition, he said that Cornell has the third highest percentage of women undergraduates among the top ten engineering schools.

Underrepresented minorities — African American, Hispanic, and Native American students — compose 12 percent of Cornell’s undergraduate population, only three percent lower than the national average for such students, according to Allmendinger.

In terms of faculty, Cornell “is comparable to other top ten engineering schools [all of which] are in the range of 15 to 17 percent women faculty and 5 to 7 percent URM,” Allmendinger said. He said that, of the 250 faculty in the engineering disciplines, which include Computer Science and Biological and Environmental Engineering, Cornell has 35 women and 17 minority faculty members.

Despite DPE’s success compared to peer institutions, Collins said that the college’s “faculty diversity goals are modest. Ideally, I would love to at least double diversity in the college.”

By 2018, the college plans to increase women to 20 percent and underrepresented minorities to 7 percent of the total faculty, according to Allmendinger.

“We are reasonably close to our goal for minority faculty, but these numbers only project a modest increase,” Allmendinger said.

According to Collins, Cornell’s diversity goals in engineering are “modest,” yet “realistic” due to a pipeline issue. Stunted diversity “starts all the way back in middle school and feeds into high school, college, graduate school,” he said.

Prof. Christopher Hernandez, mechanical and aerospace engineering, agreed.

“There are situations where people are discouraged to pursue math, science and engineering. It removes them at an early age and it’s hard to get them back on track,” he said.

To solve the pipeline problem, DPE works to increase diversity at all levels, according to Collins.

Bottom-up approaches involve summer programs orchestrated by Sara Hernandez, director of diversity programs in the engineering college, such as the Catalyst Program for underrepresented minorities and the Cornell University Research in Engineering Program for girls, which “encourage young local students to get interested in engineering,” Collins said.

Top-down approaches, which target faculty diversity, can create a trickle-down effect, according to Allmendinger.

“One benefit of diversifying the faculty is that the student body will have more role models,” he said. “Also, to attract the best students we need to have the best faculty.”

As an underrepresented minority faculty member, Prof. Christopher Hernandez said, “I like to do what I can to encourage students from different backgrounds who might not feel comfortable being at an Ivy League institution.”

Hernandez, a Mexican-American, said he identifies himself as Latino.

“I was fortunate that nobody ever discouraged me. I felt like I could do engineering the whole time,” he said.

Efforts to diversify the faculty have involved rethinking recruiting processes, according to Allmendinger.

“If we ignore women and underrepresented minorities, we ignore a huge pool of untapped talent,” he said.

According to Allmendinger, the Strategic Oversight Committee has worked to enhance faculty diversity through “proactive” and “aggressive” recruitment.

“Our search committees can’t wait for prospective faculty to come to us — we have to actively tap into women and underrepresented minorities’ networks if we want to find the best candidates,” said Allmendinger, who oversees the Strategic Oversight Committee.

Allmendinger explained that these revamped faculty recruitment processes do not unfairly favor underrepresented minorities or women over white males. “Our search committees are not changing our standards for faculty,” he said.

“Cornell will only advance if we hire the best people, period. If the best person is a white male, that’s fine,” Allmendinger said. “We just need to make sure that we’ve looked everywhere.”

So far, proactive recruitment has been successful: last year, half of the college’s new hires were women.

“We think it’s working because we did a better job of searching,” Allmendinger said.

Original Author: Erin Ellis