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Diversity Matters

Alfreda Brown sees RIT as a brilliant mosaic of colors and cultures. "Our diversity is huge," says Brown, chair of the university's Commission for Promoting Pluralism.

Brown’s definition of diversity runs deep and wide: Everyone is included. “Diversity is not just about race and gender,” she believes. “In a pluralistic community, individuals are respected and appreciated regardless of race, gender, education, age, national origin, sexual preference, language, physical ability, health and other differences.”

RIT, long dominated by white males, is making tremendous efforts to attract a more culturally and ethnically diverse mix of students, faculty and staff. The efforts are succeeding:

  • More than a quarter of RIT’s 15,000 plus students are international, African American, Hispanic American, Native American, Asian American or deaf and hard-of-hearing.
  • Over the past six years, two-thirds of the growth in enrollment (not counting programs abroad) is attributed to African American, Latino/a American, Native American, Asian and international students.
  • Approximately 30 percent of tenure-track faculty hired in the past three years were non-Caucasian.
  • Approximately 25 percent of staff hired in the past three years were non-Caucasian.

A necessary good
To people who believe that prejudice and discrimination are wrong, promoting diversity is simply right and just. However, there’s a further impetus for RIT’s urgency in this area, says President Albert Simone.

“Demographic studies tell us that by the year 2050, people of color will comprise 50 percent of the active workforce in America,” Simone notes. “This population is currently underrepresented in our universities, and especially in key fields in which RIT specializes – technology, computers, engineering.

“The question that comes up,” he continues, “is, who’s going to replace the primarily white males, the professionals and skilled labor in the year 2050?”

If this situation is not reversed, America’s standard of living and global competitiveness are jeopardized, Simone warns. “Diversity of faculty and student body is very, very important to the future of this country.”

It is also crucial to the future of RIT students.

“To be successful, our students must be ready to work and live in a multicultural global society,” Simone continues. “The best way for RIT to impart this knowledge to our students is through daily interaction with people from various cultures in our dining rooms, dormitories, libraries, classrooms, ball fields, student clubs, and governance and other extracurricular activities. For this to occur, RIT needs to be a diverse campus.”

Making progress
When Fred Smith arrived at RIT in 1971 as vice president for Student Affairs, male students outnumbered women by seven to one and minorities were fewer still. Smith, now secretary of the university and assistant to the president, cites the creation of National Technical Institute for the Deaf in 1968 as a major step in changing the homogeneous character of the campus.

“NTID represents an important dimension of our diversity,” says Smith. The measures implemented to assimilate deaf and hard-of-hearing students provided a working model for change.

Over the years, RIT stepped up efforts to attract minority students and faculty and international students. The emphasis most recently has focused on African American, Latino/a American and Native American students, staff and faculty, which the university refers to as AALANA.

“RIT always has valued diversity and much progress has been made,” says Smith. “But it takes an all-out effort, and in recent years that has happened.”

Some examples: The Commission for Promoting Pluralism was created in 1991. Among the programs the commission sponsors is the annual diversity conference. The university’s 10-year strategic plan adopted in 1994 addressed the importance of diversity. In 1999, RIT’s first assistant provost for diversity was named. Last year, RIT launched a faculty exchange partnership with historically black Fisk University in Nashville. In January 2004, a bi-racial “Partnerships in Pluralism” program paired 60 members of the campus community in an effort to promote understanding.

A watershed event took place in 2002, when the RIT Board of Trustees and top administrators participated in “Diversity Day” to discuss the challenges and map out strategies for change. Keynote speaker was Daniel Carp ’73 (MBA), CEO and chairman of Eastman Kodak Company, which donated $100,000 toward RIT’s diversity efforts.

“Kodak is proud to partner with RIT in its mission to increase diversity among its community members,” Carp told the group of 300. “Commitment by every leader in this great school will move diversity efforts forward.”

The day-long workshop sent a clear message: Diversity is a top-level priority.

The successes gained national recognition. Two magazines, Hispanic Outlook and Black Issues in Higher Education carried laudatory feature articles on RIT last year.

“I know we’ve come a long way,” says Brown, who joined the RIT staff in 1987. “It’s the leadership that makes the difference. We have leadership that’s committed to the concept of diversity.”

Recruit and retain
James G. Miller, vice president for enrollment management and career services, heads the RIT division that carries the huge responsibility of attracting students to the university. Diversity has been a major thrust for well over two decades, and the approach is multifaceted and aggressive.

Miller explains that the overall strategy includes traditional recruitment activities and targeted development of strategic relationships with key organizations and secondary schools that can connect RIT with the outstanding students it seeks. Strategies are targeted not only to freshmen but to transfer and graduate populations as well.

“There’s a whole host of things we do,” says Miller. “To maximize our effectiveness, we strive to have the division staff – including our student workers – reflect the diverse community we aspire to be. We think this is important not only for recruitment but also because it enriches the quality of interaction within our staff.”

With pride in our diversity
A spirit of community,
We are the men, the women
of the future, here, at RIT!
RIT Alma Mater

RIT participates in several important local and national partnerships aimed at encouraging academic excellence in high school, including the Vanguard Scholars Program of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), the Hillside Work- Scholarship Connection (which links Rochester high school students to a support network of youth advocates and employers), the dual degree partnership with Atlanta University Center and the Project Excellence Program, Washington, D.C. – to name a few. These programs help expand the pipeline of qualified students.

“We don’t admit people because they’re diverse,” says Miller. “We admit people because they are qualified.”

RIT’s policy is in line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 decision on admissions policies at the University of Michigan. The court, in reaffirming the 1978 University of California v. Bakke reverse discrimination case, stated that, while quotas are illegal, universities can use race as a factor in admissions to achieve campus diversity.

Miller notes that like RIT, many other universities are seeking top students. “It’s an incredibly competitive environment. Students admitted to RIT have a lot of choices among very good colleges and universities.”

He also points out that attracting students to RIT is only one part of the picture. Helping students succeed in their college careers is equally important.

Rising star
One of RIT’s newest programs in support of student success is the North Star Center for Academic Success and Cultural Affairs.

“It goes beyond race and in some ways, beyond culture,” explains Robert Smith, who became director a year ago. “The North Star Center works collaboratively within the university to promote student success. It just so happens that our focus is AALANA students.”

Named for the newspaper published in the mid-19th century by abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the North Star Center is staffed by “college liaisons” who assist students to overcome academic or any other difficulties.

“It’s really a role of advocacy,” explains Smith. “It’s a matter of helping students understand and navigate RIT. We’ve learned we must be proactive. Students can hide at RIT. Our job is to find them.”

Smith says that although the center’s services were originally aimed at minority students, no one is turned away. “This has to be a one-stop shop. When students need help, they don’t care where it comes from.”

A key effort is the North Star Society, which supports and recognizes students for excellence in academic work, ethical/character development, and community service. The center also operates the North Star Academy, a year-long program that starts with a summer session and continues to help first-year students acclimate to college life. Another program, the Coalition for a Better World, promotes cultural understanding between different groups.

A long way from home
Erick Littleford’s high school in Washington, D.C., was 90 percent African American. The remaining 10 percent was mostly Hispanic, he says.

“When you get dropped off at the Brick City, it’s real culture shock,” says Littleford ’04 (public policy). “That was something I was not ready for.”

Initially, his circle of friends was made up of people with whom he felt most comfortable, including a student from his high school and his roommate, an African American from Maryland.

He joined the staff of the student news weekly Reporter, as a way of becoming more involved in campus life. A controversial commentary he wrote on racism in America changed the course of his college career.

“I was attacked for what I wrote,” Littleford recalls, “and others on the staff didn’t support me. I called my counselor back in my high school to talk about transferring home. She wouldn’t let me.”

Instead of leaving, Littleford became more involved in campus activities with the idea of making a difference. He became a residence advisor, joined the Black Awareness Coordinating Committee, and was elected Student Government president two years in a row.

“One thing about RIT,” he says, “especially if you’re AALANA, you have to branch out. If you want to be successful, if you are determined to have an impact, you need to be as connected as possible. You have to build relationships outside your comfort zone.”

Littleford, now a graduate student in RIT’s public policy program and recent addition to the Alumni Relations staff, applauds RIT’s diversity efforts – especially those aimed at increasing AALANA faculty. “If you don’t see those examples, it’s hard to see yourself in those kinds of roles.”

Miles to go
Like the best students, top faculty have many options.

“Especially in technical areas, we’re competing not only with other universities but with industry,” says Carl Lundgren, mechanical engineering technology professor and past chair of Academic Senate. “On balance, I think the university is quite diverse. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of getting to critical mass, and that’s what it takes. But in both the student body and the faculty, for whatever reasons, it’s more difficult in the technical areas.”

In regards to finding minority candidates for faculty positions, Simone has taken a tough stance: “We told the deans either find these people or we’ll find new deans.” He backed this up with budgetary flexibility to allow for aggressive recruitment. The carrot and stick approach has paid off. Nearly 30 percent of faculty hired since 2001 have been non-white.

RIT also implemented an innovative program called Future Faculty Career Exploration, which brings doctoral candidates from key universities to RIT for tours and meetings.

President Simone views this critical point in RIT’s development with pride and determination. Although much has been accomplished in moving toward a more diverse environment, much remains to be done. The strategic plan for the next 10 years, adopted in July by the Board of Trustees, is interwoven with the theme of diversity.

“The change in this place is remarkable,” says Simone. “That being said, we should never be complacent and say we’ve arrived. We believe that diversity is essential to our goal of becoming a great university. In that regard, there’s still work to be done.”

Kathy Lindsley