Campus & Community

Diversity conference draws from across U.S.

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Representatives from 45 institutions in attendance

Representatives from 45 different institutions of higher learning from across the United States, including Puerto Rico, gathered at Harvard’s Science Center Nov. 18-19 to focus on the vexing question of how to attract and retain a more diverse pool of students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The emphasis at the conference, first in a series of three “Symposia on Diversity in the Sciences: Mentoring and Retaining Underrepresented Students” was on success and effectiveness: Conferees heard from students, faculty, administrators, and funders of programs with strong reputations for bringing students of color and women into academic fields where they have historically been few and far between.

“This symposia series underscores that increasing the numbers of underrepresented minority students in the sciences requires developing effective mentoring and retention programs,” said Evelynn Hammonds, senior vice provost for Faculty Development and Diversity who gave opening remarks. “[Director of Life Sciences Education] Rob Lue, who has been at the forefront of addressing these issues at Harvard, brought together scientists, administrators, and students from institutions across the country to engage in an exciting set of discussions about how to make concrete the goal of true diversity in the scientific workforce.”

In her remarks, Hammonds also underscored the importance of making it possible for undergraduates to get valuable research experience in laboratories. She stressed that hands-on training in the field is key to inspiring students to continue on to careers in science.

The closing session of the conference included a plea for “a new paradigm” for diversity initiatives, and a new level of effort to understand what really determines their success.

John Matsui, a biologist who is director of the Biological Scholars Program (BSP) at the University of California, Berkeley, told the conference, “I’m really concerned about the state of diversity efforts.” Ticking off a list of elements of his own program, including mentoring and providing special resources to those who are the first in their families to go to college, he said, “We’ve done the same list of things for years. I believe that we need a new paradigm.”

Noting that affirmative action programs have been around for nearly 40 years in more or less the same form, he likened continuing the traditional approaches to diversity to relying on outmoded entertainment technologies. “It’s like using an eight-track approach in the era of the iPod nano.”

Members of his own program, which has been in existence for 13 years, graduate from Berkeley with biology degrees at virtually the same rate as the majority-group students not in the program. They do so, moreover, with grade point averages not significantly different from the majority – despite coming to Berkeley with SAT scores typically 200 points below their majority counterparts, as well as lower high school averages.

This leads Matsui to conclude that the BSP works as it is intended to, he said. But he added, “You might think this is false humility, but we don’t really know why.”

Matsui called for educational research to analyze the success and failure of students in diversity programs. “We must go beyond simply describing what we are doing to understanding what works, what does not, and for whom.”

In the “show me the numbers” culture of today, that lack of data isn’t going to be acceptable, Matsui suggested.

Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers, who gave the conference’s closing remarks, picked up the call for rigorous analysis and data-driven inquiry. He cited three rationales – “any one of which would suffice to generate a major effort” – for the pursuit of diversity in the sciences: simple fairness; the need to attract the ablest people in any field by diversifying the pool – what he called “fishing in as large a lake as possible”; and the fact that “better outcomes come from more diverse themes.”

He also pointed out a fourth rationale for diversity programs: that many of the things an institution does to promote diversity also promote good practice generally. In the case of recommendations made by two task forces convened this past spring to work on diversity issues at Harvard, he cited more systematic feedback and mentoring as probably useful for all junior faculty, not just minorities and women.

The symposium was inspired by a panel discussion at the October 2004 Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Program Directors/Professors meeting in Washington, D.C. The Harvard session is to be followed in April by another at the University of Louisiana, Monroe, and a third next October at the University of Washington, Seattle. The point of the symposia is to disseminate information about successful diversity programs to “institutions that are primed for change,” as the conference organizers have put it.