December 6, 2017
by Melanie Eversley
Columbia University is taking steps to make sure its faculty and student body look more like the world around it, and this is helping the New York City school remain a diversity leader among institutions of higher education, especially Ivy League schools.
University president Lee C. Bollinger announced in October that the school would dedicate $100 million over the next five fiscal years to continue its support of faculty recruitment, career development and creating a pipeline for potential professors, as well as doctoral and post-doctoral students from underrepresented groups. This is alongside $85 million that the school has dedicated to similar efforts since 2005.
“It is a fundamental premise of modern U.S. higher education, and it is most certainly true of Columbia University, that scholarship and teaching are strengthened immeasurably by having a diverse faculty and student body,” Bollinger wrote in an Oct. 5 letter to the Columbia community.
Diversity “… is also an imperative of any reasonable conception of justice, given our history and its continuing consequences,” Bollinger continued.
Dr. Dennis Mitchell, vice provost for faculty diversity and inclusion and senior associate dean for student development at Columbia’s dental school, is implementing the initiative.
“I’m incredibly proud of the university for really … doubling down on its commitment to faculty diversity and inclusion, and making sure we’re very clear about our core values,” Mitchell said in an interview with Diverse,
The announcement comes at a time when campus diversity is under attack. President Trump’s Justice Department plans to challenge affirmative action in college admissions and recently threatened to sue Harvard University for its student and applicant records, according to published reports.
The Columbia announcement also comes at a time when the country is paying more attention to race. The string of cases involving African-American men dying or suffering injuries during altercations with police, set off not only widespread protests across America but also demonstrations on college campuses.
Former University of Missouri System president Tim Wolfe resigned in November 2015 after students demonstrated against alleged systemic racism and the school’s lack of response to the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teen fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014.
Mitchell said he is proud that Columbia has been proactive on the issue as opposed to other campuses that have implemented plans as a reaction to the racial climate.
Columbia’s effort dates back to 2004, when Bollinger created the office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion. The vice provost office announced varied initiatives in three-year increments until October’s announcement for the unprecedented five-year plan, Mitchell said.
Both Bollinger and Mitchell seem suited to carry out the efforts.
In 2003, a year after Bollinger left the University of Michigan to become Columbia’s president, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his landmark defense of affirmative action in admissions at the U-M, where he’d been president and, before that, law school dean.
Mitchell’s higher education career started as an undergrad at Cornell University, where he led the Alpha Phi Alpha chapter and took classes at the university’s Africana Studies and Research Center. He even studied under Dr. Manning Marable, the late Pulitzer prize winning historian who would eventually join the faculty at Columbia.
Mitchell later was a dental resident at Harlem Hospital and completed three residencies at Columbia’s dental school before earning a master’s degree at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.
Mitchell said he understands the significance of an inclusive educational environment.
“I can understand the differences in both productivity as well as freedom and strength of character when you’re in an environment where there’s a critical mass of people who are like you,” he said, adding that 25 percent is generally the tipping point that gives an underrepresented group a voice.
The new plan is half funded by the main campus in Harlem and half funded by the medical center, Mitchell said. One new push in this initiative is for dual-career hiring that will allow the university to offer jobs to academic spouses of the scholars they recruit. The university also will continue its newer push to bring in LGBTQ scholars and those specializing in related issues, Mitchell said.
The initiative offers awards to junior faculty that will help them with the resources to seek tenure, and also will recognize mid-career tenured faculty. The focus is not limited to scholars from underrepresented groups but also those whose work brings light to issues that affect underrepresented communities, Mitchell said.
Overall, 54 scholars have been brought in under Mitchell’s office.
The effort is bolstered by an initiative Columbia announced in April in which it brings in students from partner historically Black colleges and universities to enter one-year master’s degree programs. The first round of 21 students are on campus now and the initiative is recruiting for a second cohort of 24 students, said Dr. Tatum Soo Kim, associate dean of student affairs at Columbia’s School for Professional Studies. Students who earn a GPA of at least 3.0 serve as interns with one of Columbia’s corporate partners.
Columbia’s numbers reflect the efforts.
The school’s student body is 42 percent people of color as of the fall of 2017, according to Mitchell’s office. Women make up 52 percent of students.
The faculty is 28 percent minority. For tenured faculty, the number dips to 20 percent. Women represent 26 percent of tenured faculty.
According to the U.S. Census, 23.1 percent of the U.S. population was non-White in 2016. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2015, 22.5 percent of all full-time faculty were people of color and that 23.2 percent were women.
Columbia is ahead of most national statistics, but it might be hard to see that in real life. One recent morning at the cobblestoned crossroads of the main campus, it took a couple of minutes for a person of color to walk by. In metal receptacles of lobbies around campus, the cover headline of that week’s campus newspaper shouted racial strife. “‘I don’t feel like I belong here’ Students of color on the unique challenges they face at Columbia,” it read.
Senior Cornelia Ogendo from Nairobi, Kenya, said she feels professors and classmates misunderstand her points in class because their experience is different.
“If there’s an argument that’s surrounding poverty in Africa there’s always a Eurocentric view, and when I present the struggles they don’t understand it because they have this Eurocentric view of how developing nations are supposed to … interact with developed nations and what they need to do to achieve success,” said Ogendo, 26.
“Professors of color … have had to grow up in these conditions, systemic structures of inequality, so they kind of know how to integrate that with how they disseminate their information to students.”
African-American senior Joshua Burton said that in seven semesters at Columbia, his only instructors of color have been two African Americans, one a woman, and one Latino.
“Mostly the people of color have typically been relatable to my experiences,” said Burton, 20, of Buffalo. “It’s not like my White professors haven’t, it’s just that I can relate to people of color more.”
Mitchell understands this dynamic. He said the next goal is endowment of the diversity program. He is preparing a presentation for the faculty to discuss just that, he said.
“There’s always this assumption that when you’re talking about diversity and excellence, that there’s this disconnect — people don’t understand that you can’t really have excellence without diversity,” Mitchell said. “The assumption is that there’s going to be a challenge on quality and excellence. But the thing that makes me the happiest is that as we’ve brought in these outstanding scholars that have been winning Pulitzer Prizes and MacArthur Fellowships, the faculty sit back and say, ‘Oh, now I get it.’ ”