The University Record, January 25, 1999

In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.

Engineering commits to new diversity initiative

By Joel Seguine
News and Information Services

A strong commitment to diversity in the student body of the College of Engineering is represented in a new plan unveiled last week by Stephen Director, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of the College. Director’s announcement came early in “Implementing the Dream in Sciences and Engineering,” a program presented by the U-M student chapter of the American Society for Engineering Education earlier this month.

Director stressed that without being exposed to a variety of other life experiences, engineering graduates will have a limited ability to solve the complex problems of today’s world. “Diversity in education helps to ensure a diverse work force,” he added. As a step toward the goal, Director announced a new diversity plan.

The five-year plan addresses diversity by identifying goals related to the recruitment, retention and graduation of underrepresented students, as well as the recruitment of underrepresented faculty and staff members. “We must understand the issues that lead to underrepresentation of women in science and engineering,” Director said.

An invited lecture by Earl Lewis, dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, took the form of an imaginary phone call with “my friend,” during which the two talked of the relationship between what we now celebrate in King’s life and achieving diversity in the fields of engineering, science and mathematics.

Lewis said he and his friend agreed that the image of King we now tend to celebrate “has been stripped of all controversy, forgetting the man who openly questioned U.S. participation in the Vietnam War or who wondered aloud about the shortcomings of capitalism or the need to redistribute some of the country’s accumulated wealth.

“As we approach another birthday and try to enliven our actions as stewards of King’s dreams in all their forms,” he told his friend, “we cannot lose sight of King the social activist, or the intelligent risk taker.”

Lewis’s friend challenged him to describe what he was doing to celebrate King’s birthday: “What are you doing to improve the racial, gender and ethnic diversity of recipients of graduate degrees in science, math, and engineering and technology?” he asked.

Lewis said that the College of Engineering and LS&A recently joined with the Graduate School in submitting a successful grant proposal for the National Science Foundation to address this issue.

“Jointly we submitted this grant and jointly we plan to make it work,” Lewis said, “by taking risks to improve conditions for minority graduate students as Martin did to improve conditions for all minorities.”

The grant calls for the U-M to increase over five years by a factor of three the number of African American, Latinos and Latinas, and American Indians who earn doctorates in the fields of science, engineering and math; and to increase by the same factor the numbers who enter the academy.

A panel discussion on the experiences of faculty and students who don’t fit traditional science and engineering stereotypes followed Lewis’ presentation. In addition to Lewis, the panelists were: Avery Demond, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Damaune Journey, undergraduate student (senior) in industrial and operations engineering; Maricel Kann, graduate student in chemistry; and Lewis Kleinsmith, professor of biology. Cinda-Sue Davis, director, Women in Science and Engineering Program, moderated the discussion.

Demond attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when women and persons of color were few. Journey often finds himself the “lonely only” person of color in a class or project team. Kann, a native of Uruguay, also is a mother. Each has had to create strategies to overcome various forms of prejudice from faculty and fellow students.

Kleinsmith and Lewis spoke to fellow panelists and audience members about seeking help from professors or instructors when encountering such problems.