George Washington Carver, the legendary scientist and educator, spent five years at the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, known today as Iowa State University, as a student, graduate student and faculty member in the late 19th century.
Nearly 120 years later, Carver’s presence still looms large on the Iowa State campus.
“World renowned plant scientist George Washington Carver got his college education at Iowa State,” ISU’s website states.
A building on campus that houses the mathematics department and provides space to other departments is named in his honor. The university posthumously awarded Carver, who created many products from peanuts and sweet potatoes, an honorary doctorate in 1990.
In 1998, the school held a yearlong series of lectures and activities aimed at celebrating his life. Each year, the university offers 100 full-tuition scholarships to high-achieving minority students. Many of these students participate in the Carver Academy, which emphasizes public service. The Cargill corporation — an international producer and marketer of food, agricultural, financial and industrial products and services — gives a stipend to 12 students of color each year designated as Carver-Cargill scholars in Carver’s honor.
Carver was the first African-American to attend Iowa State, enrolling in 1891, the first to get a graduate degree from there and the first to teach there. He was leader of the debate club and a trainer for athletic teams. He held the highest rank in the campus military regiment, had his poetry published in the student newspaper and penned the class poem for the 1894 graduation.
Carver began his college studies at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, where he studied piano and painting. But his art instructor, Etta Budd, who was concerned about Carver’s ability to make a living after graduation and knew of his interest in horticulture, steered Carver toward Iowa State where her father served as head of the college’s horticulture department.
Carver was the lone African-American on campus. And for decades after he left, Blacks and other students of color arrived on the campus only in a trickle.
“Things have really changed in the last 10 to 20 years,” says Tanya Zanish-Belcher, ISU’s archivist. “There’s more of an emphasis on recruiting and retention.”
The efforts appear to be paying off. Ethnic minorities and international students comprise 9.4 and 11.2 percent of the 28,000-student population, respectively. The university is making a big push to diversify its faculty and staff. In recent years, several people of color have held high-profile positions on the campus, including athletic director, vice president of student affairs, associate vice president for human resources, dean of students and director of institutional research.
Iowa’s changing demographics have fueled ISU’s drive to diversify. With a White, not Hispanic population of 90.3 percent, according to the 2008 Census Bureau estimate, Iowa is one of the nation’s most homogenous states. However, the growing Hispanic population, estimated at 4.2 percent in 2008 and up from 2.8 percent in 2000, now outnumbers Blacks. In the Iowa K-12 public school system, children of color represent 15 percent of the student population, according to 2007-2008 Department of Education data.
“The state of Iowa is just now coming to terms with a high growth rate of Latinos,” says Dr. Loreto Prieto, a professor of psychology and director of the university’s U.S. Latino/a Studies program.
University officials consider having a more diverse atmosphere critical to their success as a major research institution.
“It’s important for a university to create an environment where everyone will have opportunity to interact not just with people from their city or their state,” Admissions Director Marc Harding says. “A university should be a tremendous place of academic assets and intellects. Academic assets and intellects are enriched by the perspectives that other people from other cultures bring to the table.
“Iowa State is a very unique community. Here we are in the middle of a mostly White state and as of this fall, we had 3,017 international and 2,533 U.S minority students. Even more impressive than our numbers is when you look at the fact that 1 out of 5 students in a little town in Iowa is a minority or an international student. Almost 11 percent of the freshman class are minorities.”
How did a university in the heart of the American heartland reach this point?
ISU officials say they have been more strategic in their recruiting. For instance, although Iowa State doesn’t have an admissions officer who focuses on people of color, it has a regional recruiter in Chicago.
“This provides regular contact with all students and areas where we ordinarily might not be able to spend a lot of time,” Harding says. “It helps us do more outreach in a far more diverse community.”
Representatives from the university’s admissions office also attend events throughout the region where they are likely to encounter strong prospects. For example, Iowa State is a major sponsor of “I’ll Make Me a World in Iowa,” a program that highlights African-American arts and culture. It features concerts, shows and educational sessions and attracts about 750 high school students.
“It provides us an opportunity to connect with the African-American community,” Harding says.
Iowa State officials say they are working hard at retaining students. The university maintains multicultural liaisons in each college. ISU’s Division of Student Affairs also has multicultural liaisons who work closely with students on academic and nonacademic matters.
The university also annually hosts the Iowa Conference on Race and Ethnicity, a daylong summit designed to spur the Iowa State community to converse about race and building community.
“You have a university that is very committed to creating an environment for all students that is welcoming of all people and all cultures,” says Harding.
Paxton Williams, who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and communication studies from ISU in 2000, says he is one of those students of color who benefited from this welcoming environment. When he was a student, he says, the school had an active Black student organization and a university administration that was receptive to its ideas or complaints.
But that wasn’t all he liked about ISU.
“I liked the opportunities to get involved,” he says. “I was in an honors program that allowed first-year students to learn about the Ames community. We would meet twice a week with a group of 12. I was involved in the student alumni association and helped give tours. I actually co-chaired a caucus during the Iowa (Democratic) Caucus. I got to introduce (former Vice President) Al Gore at a speech and he mentioned me by name.”
University officials say they are working diligently at diversifying ISU’s faculty. On the surface, the percentage of faculty of color, 18.6, seems impressive. But it masks the low number of under-represented minorities among faculty.
According to Iowa State’s records for 2009-10, the university had only 23 tenured and tenure-eligible African-American faculty and 29 Hispanic faculty.
Dr. Susan Carlson, ISU’s associate provost for faculty advancement and diversity, says the school has a number of initiatives aimed at diversifying its faculty. One of the biggest is a $3.3 million National Science Foundation grant aimed at increasing diversity in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). A large piece of this program aims to connect minorities and women with mentors around the country. The grant pays for the mentors and mentees to visit each other on their respective campuses. In addition, Iowa State collaborates with the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa to recruit minority doctoral students for STEM areas. This increases the pool of eligible minority candidates for faculty positions.
Carlson says the university is working to ensure that the message of diversity trickles down to the faculty in all of its departments and colleges.
Success in recruiting and retaining qualified minority faculty, she says, requires “creating the right environment so that if we make a hire we can be reasonably sure that the person is going to succeed because he or she feels welcome.”
“We know we need a good mentoring program,” she says, adding that to succeed in developing a diverse faculty, professors have to buy in to the idea that diversity will improve the university.
She acknowledges that although there has been considerable progress in recent years that may not be the case right now.
“There’s a strong commitment across the university but not evenly,” says Carlson.
But Prieto, who arrived at Iowa State three years ago, says the institution deserves credit for trying. The number of Latino students and faculty is small, he says, but that doesn’t tell the full story of a supportive administration.
“If we were in Texas someone in Texas may say you guys have a long way to go,” he says. “But you have to consider that in Iowa you don’t have the sheer numbers that you have in California, Texas or Florida. Here faculty find the things they are interested in doing and find their research is valued.”
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