Defining Identity: Examining Diversity Initiatives at Columbia

Volume 4, Issue 2, Summer 2014

By Alexander Gelfand

When Andrea Morris first came across a job listing for the newly created position of Assistant Dean for Academic Diversity in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences—a position she has held since September 2013—she wasn’t really looking to leave her post as a tenured associate professor of biology at Haverford College. Something about the ad caught her attention, though—namely, the word academic.

Morris already had plenty of experience, both personal and professional, on the front lines of the effort to increase diversity in higher education. The daughter of Jamaican immigrants and a Haverford alumna, she was the first African-American woman to graduate from Princeton with a Ph.D. in molecular biology. After returning to Haverford, Morris served on the college’s Committee on Diversity and as a faculty adviser to its Multicultural Scholars and Chesick Scholars programs, which provide support for first-generation, underrepresented, and underprivileged students; lectured widely on diversity in higher education; and established herself as a prominent researcher, earning the first National Institutes of Health Career Development Award ever given to a faculty member at a small liberal arts college.

Nonetheless, Morris says that she did not necessarily think of diversity as something that was tied to the academic mission of a college or university, as opposed to something that lived in the realm of social justice. Reading that GSAS job posting sparked an epiphany of sorts. “This is the heart of the matter, right? This is why it’s really important,” Morris says of the University’s decision to locate diversity at the center of its intellectual mission. “We’re a better institution for this commitment.”

That commitment to diversity as a core academic responsibility is made manifest in a variety of ways, from the five-year, $30 million commitment the University announced in 2012 to advance the recruitment of underrepresented minority and female scholars, to the growing variety of pipeline programs designed to encourage students from such groups to pursue graduate studies in the first place. It is a commitment that has been influenced by the past decade or so of research into the benefits of diversity, and by changing notions of what diversity really means. And its effects can already be seen in the day-to-day experiences of those who make up the Columbia community.

Diversity and Doxa

Contemporary ideas of diversity—its meaning, its value, how it can and ought to be addressed—have been shaped by decades of legislation, litigation, and research. Fueled by the civil rights movement and by the executive orders issued by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson that first introduced the phrase “affirmative action” to the American lexicon, early efforts at enhancing student diversity in higher education focused on increasing the numbers of historically underrepresented groups: racial and ethnic minorities and, eventually, women. Over time, however, the definition of campus diversity expanded to encompass socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, religious belief, and more. This move toward what Carlos Alonso, Dean of GSAS and Vice President for Graduate Education, calls a more “ample” conception of diversity was accompanied by a recognition that numbers alone were not enough, and that intangibles such as cultural climate—the extent to which difference was accepted or even celebrated in an institution, and to which members of a diverse community interacted with one another and felt valued and respected by their peers—also mattered, particularly if the benefits of diversity were to be fully realized.

Those benefits, meanwhile, came into considerably sharper focus, in part thanks to the repeated legal assaults on affirmative action in higher education. The 2003 Supreme Court cases of Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger were especially influential. Gratz successfully challenged the affirmative action policies of the primary undergraduate college of the University of Michigan when headed by Lee C. Bollinger, now President of Columbia, while Grutter unsuccessfully challenged those of its law school. Both cases inspired a surge in social science research on the role of diversity in higher education, some of which was cited by the Court in its rulings. When Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the majority in Grutter that diversity “promotes learning outcomes” and has “substantial, important, and laudable educational benefits,” she was echoing the work of Patricia Gurin, a professor of psychology at Michigan, who submitted an expert report to the Court asserting that diversity is “likely to increase effortful, active thinking” and to spur “growth in intellectual and academic skills.”

Nevertheless, attempts to overturn affirmative action policies have continued. In 2012 the Court heard the case Fisher v. University of Texas and returned it to a lower court for review; in 2014 the Court heard Schuette v. BAMN and upheld a ban on affirmative action enacted by Michigan voters. These challenges come even as researchers—such as psychologist and former Columbia Provost Claude Steele, whose work on stereotype threat examines how a student’s social identity affects classroom performance—have collected more data showing that diversity leads to a wide variety of benefits for minority and majority students alike.

Meanwhile, Scott Page, a professor of complex systems, political science, and economics at Michigan, began presenting formal proof for what has come to be known as the business case for diversity: the argument that diversity leads to more innovation and better problem-solving. Though Page was careful to point out that “identity diversity” arising from differences in categories such as race and ethnicity does not necessarily lead to “cognitive diversity,” or variations in ways of thinking, he did contend that the two were often strongly correlated, thanks to the concomitant range of life experiences that differences in personal history and background tend to engender.

Page’s assertion that “in diversity lies value,” and his claim that varied perspectives and cognitive tools allow mixed groups of people to innovate and solve problems more rapidly than homogeneous ones, supported the growing consensus among business leaders that diversity was good for the bottom line—a consensus that was soon echoed in the precincts of higher education. When Alonso, for example, contends that “doxa” and “canonical ideas” would arise if everyone at Columbia possessed the same background, and that, by contrast, diversity is a means of keeping the “creative juices of the institution flowing,” he is in essence making the business case for diversity in academia. So too is Andrew Davidson, Vice Provost for Academic Planning, when he describes a reciprocal relationship between diversity and academic excellence. “At the end of the day, we want to be the go-to place for the world’s greatest academic scholars,” says Davidson, whose office is responsible for building a diverse body of faculty. “And we can’t achieve that aspiration unless we can realize our core values of inclusion and excellence.”

Expanding “Diversity”

Acknowledging the link between diversity and academic quality is one thing, however. The trick lies in creating the conditions under which diversity is not only achieved, but under which it can yield the fruits that Gurin, Page, et al. describe—a task that demands an array of programs as diverse as the community of scholars that the University seeks to foster.

If statistical diversity represents only one step in this process, it is nonetheless the first one; and to achieve it, the University must attract a variegated population of students and faculty. Fortunately, Columbia is hardly new to that game.

For the past 25 years, for instance, GSAS has hosted the Summer Research Program (SRP), an 8- to 10- week program for undergraduates from historically underrepresented backgrounds. Since 1993, the SRP, which belongs to a class of pipeline programs designed to carry students from college to graduate school, has been sponsored by the Leadership Alliance, a consortium that was founded with the ideal of increasing participation by ethnic and racial minorities pursuing graduate studies in the sciences at leading research universities. Yet GSAS has broadened the definition of “underrepresented” to match its expansive conception of diversity itself—a conception that goes beyond the relatively narrow categories of race and ethnicity to embrace the kind of experiential diversity espoused by Page.

Andrea Morris, who now runs the program and is actively involved in recruitment, says that this shift in emphasis is already changing the face of the SRP cohort, making it more racially and ethnically mixed and opening the door to a broader range of students. And while she doesn’t want to lose sight of the need to redress the inequities that racial and ethnic minorities have historically confronted on the road to academia, she also believes that it is “a great moment to say yes” to a prospective SRP student who, for example, may be a white male, but is also the first in his family to attend college.

In any event, the goals of the Summer Research Program remain the same: to give underrepresented students the opportunity to conduct graduate-level research under the supervision of Columbia faculty, in hopes that the experience will encourage them to pursue academic careers. And it appears to be working: SRP alumni have gone on to pursue Ph.D.’s at Columbia in fields ranging from English literature to the biomedical sciences.

Marcel Agueros, ’96CC, a 1994 alumnus of the SRP and assistant professor of astronomy at the University, directs another pipeline program, Bridge to the Ph.D. The Bridge program offers members of underrepresented groups who hold undergraduate degrees and intend to pursue doctorates in the natural sciences the chance to conduct research for two years under the supervision of Columbia faculty, postdocs, and graduate students. Bridge participants also receive services like writing workshops and GRE prep to help them succeed in the program and in the graduate school admission process. (Bridge program graduates have gone on to Ph.D. programs at such institutions as Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, the University of Michigan, the University of Washington, Yale, and Columbia, among others.) The program is designed to patch the infamously leaky pipeline for minorities in the sciences: according to a 2010 report by the National Academy of Sciences, underrepresented minorities accounted for 30 percent of the U.S. population in 2007, but only 6 percent of people earning science and engineering doctorates. But like many such initiatives, it could prove influential beyond its original scope. For example, a study by Eric Bettinger of Stanford University found that less than half of all students who had intended to major in a STEM field actually graduated with a degree in one. In that context, the Bridge program’s successes could illuminate strategies for helping anyone, regardless of background or field of interest, advance toward a terminal degree.

Creating Connections

The idea that programs intended to smooth the path to academia for members of underrepresented groups could serve the broader interests of the University is central to another, more recent addition to Columbia’s quiver of diversity initiatives: the Creating Connections Consortium, or C3.

Emerging from conversations between members of the Liberal Arts Diversity Officers (LADO) consortium and administrators at Columbia and the University of California at Berkeley, C3 is unusual among programs of its kind insofar as its pipeline flows in more than one direction.

LADO members wanted to increase faculty diversity at their liberal arts colleges while sending more of their undergraduates—especially ones from underrepresented groups—on to graduate programs at top-tier research institutions, while Columbia and Berkeley wished to recruit a more diverse body of graduate students and expose their newly minted Ph.D.’s to an oft-overlooked job market. The result was a uniquely reciprocal arrangement, designed in conjunction with the Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia University Law School. Beginning this year, underrepresented students from LADO member colleges can apply for eight-week summer research internships at either Columbia or Berkeley, with mentoring provided by doctoral students and senior faculty, while underrepresented graduate students from Columbia and Berkeley can apply for two-year postdoctoral fellowships at Middlebury, Connecticut, and Williams Colleges. The postdocs will be grouped into cohorts of three per college. First-generation college student Nathaniel G. Nesmith, Ph.D. ‘13, Theatre, has joined the C3 Fellows at Middlebury, while Seema Golestaneh, who is completing her Ph.D. in anthropology, is one of the C3 Fellows at Connecticut College.

If the SRP and Bridge to the Ph.D. address recruitment and retention, C3 adds professional development to the mix. When a diverse squad of tenured faculty from LADO member colleges came to Columbia last November to speak with doctoral students and recent graduates about C3, they devoted an entire panel discussion to life at liberal arts colleges—a discussion that dealt primarily with the nitty-gritty of teaching, research, and promotion, and touched only occasionally on issues of gender, ethnicity, and the like. In the end, says Shirley Collado, Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Middlebury College and cofounder of LADO and C3, the larger goal of the initiative is to reap the lasting benefits of diversity, not, as Collado puts it, in a “Kumbaya kind of way,” but in the practical sense of helping everyone in the pipeline to succeed in the academic communities they call home.

That success is not guaranteed to anyone, regardless of race, color, social status, or creed; but the challenges faced by underrepresented groups can make their path to the professoriate even rockier, and the support provided by mentors and cohorts even more crucial. Collado, for example, credits the Posse Foundation, a nonprofit that sends groups, or “posses,” of urban students to schools across the country and supports them with mentoring and other services, with getting her through her undergraduate years at Vanderbilt University. But she also recalls how difficult it was to be the only Hispanic student in the doctoral program in clinical psychology, and the only woman in her cohort, at Duke University; and how hard it was not to have a graduate school mentor who could understand her lived experience. All in all, she says, “It’s amazing that I made it through.” Morris, meanwhile, recounts how one particular Haverford professor took her by the hand and set her on the road to a career in science at a time when she “couldn’t imagine being at a place like Princeton in molecular biology”; but she also speaks quite candidly about how isolated she felt once she got there (she was one of very few students of color in the department), and how difficult it was to forge close and supportive relationships with faculty who simply could not identify with her on a personal level.

Morris’s mixed experiences with mentoring, and the sense of isolation she experienced in graduate school, are hardly uncommon. Devon Wade, a doctoral candidate and Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in sociology, is equally candid about the ups and downs of his own time here at Columbia.

As an undergraduate at Louisiana State University, Wade was a McNair Scholar, receiving support from a federally funded program that prepares minorities and first-generation college students for doctoral study. He also participated in the University of Chicago’s Summer Research Program and has received funding from the Ford Foundation and the National Science Foundation while at Columbia. Nevertheless, navigating the byways of Morningside Heights has not always been easy.

When he arrived on campus, Wade found it difficult to establish relationships with tenured faculty who looked like him and shared his research interests (he is black, and his scholarship focuses on race and ethnicity, social inequality, and crime). And though he has found support both inside and outside his department, he did at first “long for faculty of color” who were engaged in work similar to his own. He also couldn’t help but notice how rarely he ran across other graduate students of color, partly because GSAS currently lacks a formal association for underrepresented graduate students. “Grad school in general is difficult because it’s isolating,” Wade says; but he adds that it is even more isolating when you are the only person of color in your cohort, for example, or the only first-generation college student from a state school. And that’s not just bad for the individual who feels alienated; it’s also bad for the University, which will never realize the benefits of diversity unless everyone within its walls is fully engaged in the academic community.

This is, in part, why Morris has been talking to students like Wade about reestablishing an organization for underrepresented students within GSAS. It is also, in part, why the University intends to use the $30 million pledged in 2012 not only to recruit a diverse corps of graduate students, postdocs, and faculty but also to provide them with the mentoring and professional development opportunities that will help them flourish.

Diverse Applications

There is, however, no one-size-fits-all solution to either increasing or leveraging diversity across an institution as large and as complex as the University, which is itself composed of many different schools and departments, each with its own history, priorities, and needs. That is why every school was asked to develop its own three-year diversity plan and made responsible for determining how best to employ tools such as the new Provost’s Fellowships, which are aimed at recruiting Ph.D. students from traditionally underrepresented groups. (While the School of Nursing might legitimately consider men to be an underrepresented minority, for example, The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science would not.)

One can already see those plans in action, often dovetailing with long-standing efforts at encouraging diversity within the various schools— some of which have their own compelling reasons for pursuing greater inclusivity. Linda P. Fried, Dean of the Mailman School of Public Health, cites both general arguments in favor of diversity (e.g., our responsibility as a society “not to permit the waste of talent and intellect”) and ones that flow more directly from the goals and responsibilities of her institution: to train professionals who can work with colleagues, not to mention populations, whose backgrounds may be quite different from their own; to untangle the factors that drive the serious disparities in health outcomes that exist among people both at home and abroad—factors that include race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

Consequently, when the School overhauled its curriculum two years ago, it added a daylong orientation session on cultural awareness; and for the past five years, it has been strengthening its faculty and student pipelines. The federally funded Initiative for Maximizing Student Development, for example, aims to boost the numbers of underrepresented students who receive graduate training in public health by providing full-time doctoral students with research assistantships, strong mentoring relationships with Mailman faculty, and workshops on topics like coping strategies for graduate school.

Dean Bobbie Berkowitz, meanwhile, had already made diversity one of the principal goal areas in the School of Nursing’s broader strategic plan, a decision that led to the appointment of Vivian Taylor as the School’s first Associate Dean for Diversity and Cultural Affairs in 2013. The push for greater diversity aligns well with nursing’s historic commitment to social justice; but according to both Berkowitz and Taylor, it also has an eminently practical component. Nurses, after all, work in interdisciplinary teams, and they must often cooperate with, and care for, people whose backgrounds they do not share. Like their colleagues at Mailman, they must also attend to what Berkowitz describes as the “social determinants of health,” including the discrimination and stereotyping that can lead to unequal treatment and access to care. That, says Berkowitz, is a problem the School would like to fix, in part by ensuring that its own graduates don’t carry such attitudes with them into the workplace.

Toward that end, the School has been weaving training in cultural competencies—the skills required to work effectively in cross-cultural situations—into its curriculum, and engaging students and faculty alike in conversations about diversity through surveys, retreats, and committee work. It is also working on recruitment and retention. For example, the School’s Combined B.S./M.S. Entry to Practice (ETP) Program, an accelerated nursing program for non-nurse college graduates, recently began awarding scholarships to enhance the diversity of its students. Funding is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through its New Careers in Nursing (NCIN) program, which requires that mentorship and leadership development activities be made available to all recipients.

Elizabeth Gary, a first-year ETP student and NCIN scholar from Brooklyn, recognized that a lack of effective mentoring played a significant role in her decision to quit the premed program at Bowdoin College. Gary, who is black, had dreamed of a career in health care since her teens. But by her junior year, the academic and social pressure she felt had become overwhelming, especially since her assigned adviser had gone AWOL. So Gary was delighted when she received a survey asking her to list her preferences for an NCIN mentor—”fitting me to a mentor,” as she says, “rather than just assigning me to one who doesn’t understand where I’m coming from.” Gary describes her current faculty mentor, Tawandra Rowell-Cunsolo, an assistant professor of social welfare science, as part therapist, part academic coach: someone to whom she can speak candidly, and who has a knack for keeping her on track. As a member of the Committee for Diversity and Student Retention, Gary is now is trying to figure out how the NCIN mentoring model could be scaled up and applied to all incoming ETP students—perhaps by assigning them peer mentors or placing them in study groups with accompanying faculty advisers.

What’s happening at Mailman and the School of Nursing illustrates how Columbia’s commitment to diversity is being realized at the local level, and how the various initiatives being undertaken contribute to what Alonso calls the goal of “normalizing” diversity within the institution: of ensuring that diversity does not “sit on the sidelines of academic and intellectual life,” but instead “suffuses the ongoing project of the pursuit of knowledge at the University.” Yet it also demonstrates how programs designed to enhance diversity can benefit not only those at whom they are specifically targeted but also the broader Columbia community; how diversity initiatives not only serve a common good but in fact represent one.