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Updated 4:00 PM January 24, 2007




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Creativity needed to build diversity after Proposal 2

U-M faces significant roadblocks to furthering diversity among students and faculty, but the battle is winnable with creative thinking and dedication, said Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Malcom delivered her keynote speech Thursday at the Biomedical Sciences Research Building atrium. The event kicked off the two-day Conference on Advancing Diversity and Excellence in Science and Engineering, and Malcom's talk, "A New Look at an Old Challenge: Whither Diversity in STEM?" took a hard look at the progress so far of efforts to create diverse campuses, and the future of such efforts. STEM refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Malcom, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and was in second grade when Brown vs. Board of Education legally desegregated schools, said she never had a white teacher, nor had she gone to school with anyone white until she reached college.

Malcom, now a fellow of AAAS and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, has served on the National Science Board and the Presidents Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology. She has a doctorate in ecology from Pennsylvania State University and 14 honorary degrees, including one from U-M. She is the recipient of the National Academy of Sciences' highest award, the Public Welfare Medal.

Yet when growing up and attending African American schools, the books were hand-me-downs from white schools and woefully outdated, she said. The laboratory facilities were so old that when she arrived at college, she was unable to keep up in science lab because she couldn't operate the equipment.

Malcom's story illustrates the importance of understanding how past inequities hold groups of people back by not preparing them. If it weren't for an African American teaching assistant at college, "I wouldn't be here today," Malcom told the audience.

When she finally went to his office after flunking two lab quizzes, she told him, "I'm not dumb, I'm just unprepared." After their conversations, he would quickly show her how to work the lab tools during quizzes, and her grades shot from failing to A's.

The story also points to the importance of mentors, Malcom said, noting that she found it impossible to approach a white professor for help, considering her history.

"I had just come from a place where the entire policy structure was oriented to telling me that I was not worthy," she recalled.

Malcom said that post-Proposal 2, the University's efforts to attract and retain minority and female students and faculty must be more creative than ever. For example, she suggested, what if U-M departments with the best student retention could earn a $200,000 bonus from the University at the end of the year? Undoubtedly, department chairs would take a much more active role in retention, she said.

Such out-of-the-box thinking appeals to Abigail Stewart, one of the conference organizers and the director of U-M ADVANCE, a program whose goals include improving recruitment and retention of women faculty in science. Stewart believes Malcom's example speaks to the most important point the speaker made during her presentation—especially now, since U-M is trying to regroup after the crushing blow of Proposal 2, the ballot initiative passed in November that bars universities from using race or gender in admissions decisions.

"Malcom pointed out how the legislative and political environment has changed many times nationally and locally over the past 50 years, and yet in response to these changes the goal of diversity has still been pursued successfully," Stewart said in an interview after Malcom's talk. "We can find the ways to achieve diversity under the present circumstances."

One way faculty are encouraged to take action is by applying for Advancing Diversity and Excellence in Science and Engineering Grants of up to a total of $50,000 (to be used within 12 months of the award), which will be awarded on a competitive basis to support proposals to improve the campus climate for diversity in science and engineering. Proposals requiring smaller amounts of funding strongly are encouraged; funding is anticipated for a few large grants and many smaller ones. A total of $250,000 will be distributed. Applications must be received no later than April 2; awards will be announced by May 15.

Part of the goal of the conference, which is sponsored by NSF ADVANCE at U-M and the National Center for Institutional Diversity, is to encourage the faculty to submit proposals, Stewart said.

Over the two-day conference, a series of speaker and breakout panels and sessions addressed questions about diversity, and discussed faculty issues and programs.

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