CMU must do more to prioritize diversity not just on paper

CMU must do more to prioritize diversity not just on paper  (credit: Eunice Oh/) CMU must do more to prioritize diversity not just on paper (credit: Eunice Oh/)
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Carnegie Mellon’s Diversity Town Hall meeting left me disillusioned and disheartened.

I love Carnegie Mellon, and over the years I have been — and continue to be — an ambassador for many of its programs, including IMPAQT, Pre-College, Under Construction, and the Washington Semester Program. I am grateful and humbled by the meaningful relationships and opportunities Carnegie Mellon has afforded me. They have undoubtedly shaped my professional trajectory. However, my love for this institution is slowly eroding and I am skeptical as to whether Carnegie Mellon’s leadership can steer our university toward becoming a more inclusive institution.

On March 16, Carnegie Mellon hosted a Diversity Town Hall as a part of the Strategic Plan 2015 initiative. Carnegie Mellon’s Strategic Plan is a multi-pillar set of goals that creates the agenda for both campus initiatives and financial support. It was painful to sit in a replete, upscale Posner Center conference room and listen to the dearth of any specific vision for how to address Carnegie Mellon’s lack of diversity in its students, faculty, and staff.

At the beginning of the Town Hall, administrators made it clear that the term “diversity” for their purposes is reduced to two categories: ethnicity/race (Black, Hispanic, and Native American) and gender. These categories are areas where institutional data is available (they recognized that diversity is much more than those two categories), but I hope administrators will look at other categories, such as first-generation status, moving forward.

Though I appreciate the research put into the presentation, as many studies of our peer universities such as Cornell and the University of Michigan were cited, the lack of original, innovative solutions to recruiting and retaining diverse students, faculty, and staff communicated to me that this is only a priority for the university on paper. Between 2010 and 2014, the university increased its minority student enrollment by 1.1 percent. After this Town Hall, I have no hope that this figure will improve much, unless administrators include students, faculty, staff, and alumni in the conversation.

Throughout the presentation there were constant references to models our peer institutions have implemented. This approach is perfectly valid — why reinvent the wheel, after all? However, competitively benchmarking our practices with those of our peer institutions should inspire Carnegie Mellon administrators to innovate original solutions from an informed perspective. Our leaders should feel intrinsically motivated to reflect and assess our institution's societal impact. A mind-frame of incessant institutional comparisons is detrimental and unproductive for Carnegie Mellon leaders to work in.

It begs the question: Why does Carnegie Mellon have such an inferiority complex?

Recruitment was one of the topics touched upon at the Town Hall. The presenter of this topic mentioned the best practice is to nurture pipelines for minority students, including Carnegie Mellon's The Summer Academy for Mathematics and Science (SAMS) and Fusion Forum. However, to create robust, non-leaky pipelines means they must be well funded and well staffed. Our institution must expand funding for such programs and develop new ones that enable minority students to also explore aspects of Carnegie Mellon's exceptional arts, humanities, and social science programs.

I would not be on campus today if it were not for a Celebration of Diversity (COD) weekend. I was able to connect with another first-generation Latino student and it made me believe I was worthy of enrolling at Carnegie Mellon as well. It made me believe this institution cared about students like me.

Yet, funding for initiatives such as SAMS has been cut over the last few years. There was no mention of this in the Town Hall meeting. How can Carnegie Mellon brand itself as an institution that values diversity when it cuts funding to one of its most well-known diversity programs?

Also, how can this institution decide to move forward in the next ten years when there was not a proper conversation about how to exactly move forward with recruitment? Rather than telling the community that our diversity programs will be evaluated, qualitative and quantitative data should have been presented to elicit specific feedback from the community. Offering this data would have made our conversation more fruitful as community members could also tackle the questions: How do we matriculate and graduate minority students on time?

Another disappointing aspect of the Town Hall was that first-generation students — like myself — were never mentioned. If Warner Hall does not have data on first-generation students (which would be surprising), then they must begin to collect it so they can better talk about socioeconomic diversity and create a supportive infrastructure for students. There is often an intersectionality between being a minority and a first-generation student that the administration must consider when thinking about creating support networks.

Carnegie Mellon’s vision is to “meet the changing needs of society by building on its tradition of innovation, problem solving, and interdisciplinarity.” Carnegie Mellon cannot meet the changing needs of our society if our institution is not representative of the world it wants to mold. First-generation students are integral to this goal because their education will potentially have a ripple effect not only within their family, but also their community.

Administrators should also think about creating programs for these students to connect with each other, as many other universities do. It saddens me that a conversation with any member of the administration about first-generation students has never come up in my time here. This is something Carnegie Mellon can do better. Looking back, much of the anxiety and self-consciousness I felt during my time at Carnegie Mellon was related to my first-generation status.

Throughout the Town Hall there was mention of “unconscious bias” in the hiring and recruitment process. They proposed sensitivity training as a way to mitigate this. When professors and staff have to undergo cultural professional development, however, it is something they tend to not take seriously. Being sensitive to cultural difference and aware of your cultural biases can only stem from years of conversation and critical thinking. Rather than use sensitivity training to make administrators feel like they are making our institution a more global place, what if we recruited staff and faculty who value, respect, and embody what we want our institution to become?

Perhaps even more importantly, what if minorities occupied decision-making roles in Warner Hall? Carnegie Mellon’s staff and administration is largely homogeneous and a root to our campus's lack of inclusiveness. How can we become more inclusive if those decision-makers cannot relate to the issues of diversity themselves?

Moving forward, I hope our institution expands our diversity initiatives in a way that makes sense for Carnegie Mellon. I hope we avoid our fixation on applying models from other institutions that do not take into account Pittsburgh’s uniqueness and our institution’s history. Rather, let us only look to these models as a starting ground to engender programs that will lead to meaningful change for our community.

I have been a champion for Carnegie Mellon for the last three years. I am enthusiastic about the opportunities available to students and am eternally grateful that I was able to accomplish more than I ever imagined I would in four years. But this Town Hall Meeting on Diversity deflated some of my pride. Our administration needs to commit to meaningfully transforming socioeconomically disadvantaged communities around this country and we need to think about how we can start doing that in Pittsburgh.

I am calling for tangible action that directly leads to a more culturally inclusive campus in the next few years. I am calling for the committee on Carnegie Mellon’s 2015 Strategic Plan to host another Diversity Town Hall, this time bringing up specific recommendations for discussion.

Ultimately, the decision as to which initiatives will be prioritized is up to a few men in positions of power. Before this decision is made, I ask the committee to present its specific recommendations to the public. Doing so will make the process transparent, whereby Carnegie Mellon’s community can hold its decision makers — not a diverse group — accountable. Investing in diversity should not be a decision ultimately left up to a select few, particularly when those in power are out-of-touch themselves with the issues they are discussing.

Discussions with Minnar Xie and Alexandria Hernandez contributed to this article.