March 19, 2012

Letter to the Editor: Diversity in the College of Engineering

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Expanding on the strides the College of Engineering has taken in recent years.

To the Editor:

Re: “Engineering College Trails in Minority Enrollment,” News, April 16

The front page story in the April 16 edition of The Sun highlights a critical issue, both for Cornell as an institution and for our nation: the underrepresentation of certain demographic groups in engineering and science. The article performs a service by highlighting some of the challenges that minority students face, things that more traditional engineering students don’t even have to consider. The College of Engineering recognized these challenges more than eight years ago and invested in an infrastructure to enable the success of these students by appointing an Associate Dean for Diversity and creating a nationally recognized Diversity Programs in Engineering office.

These investments have paid off in many ways that are not reflected in The Sun article. The college is richly multiethnic and multiracial, with a vibrant mix of women, Asian, Hispanic, African and Native Americans that is the envy of many of our peers. The five-year graduation rates of our underrepresented minority students are far above the national average. At Cornell, 75 percent of our URM student earn an engineering bachelor’s degree in five years. Nationwide, just 52 percent of Hispanic Americans and 31 percent of African Americans receive an engineering bachelor’s degree within five years. It is true that enrollments of URM students in engineering at Cornell slightly lag the national average (by about 3 percent), but we would prioritize graduation rate over enrollment any day! Diversity Programs in Engineering supports all of these undergraduate groups with a suite of events that are open to all students who wish to participate. For these accomplishments and others, Cornell Engineering’s Diversity Programs in Engineering office was honored at the White House with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM) in December of 2011.

The Sun has helped make people aware that success of minority students in engineering depends significantly on very real external factors related to being a minority and having nothing at all to do with ability. Can Cornell Engineering do better at recruiting and retaining underrepresented minority students? Absolutely! But, the strides Engineering has made in the last eight years show that we are on the right track.

Prof. Alan Zehnder, mechanical and aerospace engineering, associate dean for diversity and faculty development in the College of Engineering Prof.

Rick Allmendinger, earth and atmospheric sciences, former associate dean for diversity and faculty development in the College of Engineering