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Being The Change, Leading The Charge: Diversity In Higher Education

Nine of the Shinx Virtuosi performers rocking hard

Nine of the Virtuosi Sphinx performers rocking hard

Higher education needs more diverse leaders, to help as many students from as many different backgrounds as possible achieve their goals. Sarah Dahl reports on Tuesday evening’s panel on diversity in higher education, which discussed this need from a variety of perspectives.

With a stirring contemporary string composition inspired by civil rights activist Rosa Parks, the Virtuosi Sphinx performers prefaced the panel. The Virtuosi Sphinx performers are part of the national Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, “dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts,” whose founder, Aaron Dworkin, was among the panelists.

Sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion and the Office of University Life, the event included presentations from accomplished minority academics, some of whom voiced concrete steps toward improving diversity in higher education, and some of whom merely lamented the lack thereof and cited statistics.

Columbia Business School professor and Senior Vice Dean Katherine W. Phillips, Ph.D. presented first. She displayed statistics of women in the workplace, citing unsettling numbers such as the fact that women comprise 47% of the workforce but just 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs.

She also spoke about her research on problem-solving and decision-making variances between homogenous and diverse groups. Her studies have shown that diverse groups can and do lead to better performance and decision-making than homogenous teams, but despite this, diverse teams have much lower perceived effectiveness and confidence in their answers than do homogenous groups.

“We assume people who look differently from us think differently from us,” she said. “But if you aren’t open, you won’t benefit from diversity.

Professor Phillips also spoke briefly about the Ph.D. project in the Business School, which aims to increase diversity there.

Assistant Professor of Astronomy and Director of the Bridge to the Ph.D. Program in the Natural Sciences Marcel A. Agüeros moved the conversation from diversity in the workforce to diversity in academia. He focused on diversity in science, highlighting the fact that our education system fails to produce enough STEM students to fill jobs and discussing the lack of minority representation in STEM.

Professor Agüeros also described Columbia’s Bridge Program for minorities: two years of intense classes, lab work, and mentoring experience that helps enhance students’ Ph.D. candidacy.

Next up was City College of New York (CCNY) Grove School of Engineering Dean and Berg Professor Gilda Barabino, Ph.D., who offered a personal account.

She spoke of her experience being the “first black woman” in many moments of her life, from the first black female engineering Ph.D. student at Rice University to first black female dean at CCNY.

She also presented statistics displaying the lack of improvement in diversity in engineering: between 1993 and 2012, engineering bachelors earned by minority women stayed at just 2-4%, with no growth.

Sphinx founder and Dean at University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance Aaron P. Dworkin began his presentation by talking about his past.

As the biracial son of a Jehovah’s Witness and an Irish Catholic, adopted by Jewish parents, he experienced much dichotomy growing up.  “The violin is the greatest constant in my life,” he said.

He cited the underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos in music and the arts, and said the situation has remained relatively unchanged for the past 10 years.

He spoke about the wonders art can work in education. “It can literally make the difference for those who are less well off,” he said, explaining that students who have arts-rich experiences do better academically across the board.

Dworkin also noted that compared to other countries, American funding for the arts is seriously lacking: we spend just .0005% of our GDP on the arts, compared to Germany’s 2%, and France and Britain’s 1%.

The funding that exists tends not to find its way to underserved communities. This asymmetry disadvantages all of us by restricting the types of cultural experiences we have, he said.

Between 1998 and 2008, Sphinx has created programs that have improved the situation for minorities in the arts.

Dworkin ended with a quote from MLK: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” speaking to a need for all of us to work towards creating and celebrating diversity in higher education.

Finally, Senior Vice President of Faculty Affairs and Career Development and CU Medical Center Professor Anne Taylor, M.D., who was meant to present first but arrived late, spoke.

She discussed diversity in medicine, noting how the Civil Rights movement failed to extend benefits of a more diverse society to health care, and how research often excludes minorities.

Her presentation focused more on numbers and stating the obvious than coming up with solutions. In fact, her final slide was titled “What do we need to do?” and consisted of questions on how to diversify higher education—but lacked answers.

Provost and Professor of History and International and Public Affairs John H. Coatsworth, Ph.D., then led a brief Q&A.

“We can’t be the university we aspire to be if we aren’t diverse,” he began rather obviously.

His first question was to Professor Phillips.

Phillips brought up important points: that “diversity begets diversity,” and also that she sometimes fears institutions wanting minority professors there as “window dressings,” as opposed to appreciating their achievements, a sentiment Professor Dworkin also voiced.

“Diversity’s not always about representation,” she said, “but also openness.”

“I hope, I believe, Columbia is doing a pretty good job,” she finished.

Professor Barabino added that what works in diversity is when a college helps the students. She mentioned her time at Xavier University in New Orleans, which sends more African-American students to medical school than any other institution in the country.

Xavier, she said, provided “a supportive community, an expectation to succeed, and people who believed in me.”

The hope is that Columbia, too, can provide support to underrepresented demographics, and a large part of that is necessarily increasing diversity among students and faculty.

Virtuosi Sphinx via their website

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1 Comment

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous When are we going to start judging people on their merits rather than their skin color? Why are we hiring people based on their skin color?

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