Academic Chiefs Discuss Diversity

Conference report calls for increased representation of women, minorities

Presidents of over a dozen universities gathered at a forum in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday to discuss efforts to increase the representation of minorities and women in higher education.

Four separate panels, each comprised of seven university presidents, presented their findings about diversity in graduate, undergraduate, and doctoral education at a conference sponsored by the Leadership Alliance, a consortium of colleges and universities.

University President Lawrence H. Summers served on the panel addressing “The Impact of Diversity on the Academy,” but did not attend the forum due to a longstanding scheduling conflict, according to Valerie Petit Wilson, executive director of the Leadership Alliance. The panel met and completed its findings prior to the conference.

According to the Leadership Alliance’s website, the panel on which Summers served addressed ways to break down “negative stereotypes” by employing more minority professors, and the need for universities to keep pace with a changing U.S. demographic.

A summary of the panel’s findings, presented at the National Academy of Sciences, stated: “On purely pragmatic grounds, our universities and colleges will look increasingly anachronistic if we are not more effective at attracting underrepresented minorities into the professoriate.”


It also stated that minority and female professors had “greatly enriched the intellectual landscape of scholarship and academic offerings.”

And the summary warned that by U.S. Census Bureau predictions, Caucasians will only form “the barest of majorities,” in 2050, meaning that colleges will fall behind without sufficient minority representation.

The presidents attending the forum represented many of the 29 universities in the Leadership Alliance, a coalition committed to increasing the representation of women and minorities in higher education.

Though the Leadership Alliance formed in 1992, this was the first large-scale meeting of the presidents of member institutions, which includes all schools in the Ivy League, as well as schools across the country.

The forum aimed “to look at the trends and challenges that face us in diversity in higher education and to begin a dialogue about ways we can address challenge,” said Wilson.

After a 90-minute public briefing, the presidents met in a private meeting to discuss concerns about diversity.

One of the particular problems addressed at the forum was the lack of diversity in the science, technology, and math related fields.

“More and more students are going to college to study science, technology, and math,” Wilson said. “But, we are turning students off in the first two years of college.”

Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, who served a chair of a panel entitled “Graduate Training and the Pathway to the Academic Workforce,” stressed the need for change within academia.

“We agreed on the need to reexamine and ultimately reform our own institutional practices, from how we teach introductory courses to the inexorability of the tenure clock in order to make academic careers attractive to exceptionally talented scholars from all backgrounds,” Gutmann wrote in an e-mail.

Wilson also addressed the recent controversy regarding Summers’ remarks on women in science, and the role it has played in engendering discussion on the topic.

“The whole issue around that has raised the discussion on a number of different campuses. It’s focused more attention on a larger debate on the representation of women and representation of minorities. It has encouraged a healthy debate,” she said.