Purdue’s Córdova Leads University Into Firm Embrace of Diversity

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by Lydia Lum

Dr. France Córdova is by no means the first college president to declare increasing the presence of women and minorities on campus as a top priority. Nor will Córdova be the last. However, several of her initiatives thus far suggest she is aggressively guiding Purdue University into a firmer embrace of diversity while building on its stellar reputation as a world-class engineering institution.

Consider:

•  As of May, 31 percent of Purdue’s senior administration team was female and 25 percent was ethnic minority. That marks a 57 percent increase in women and an 80 percent jump in minority representation since the 2007-08 school year. Córdova’s presidency began in July 2007.

• This fall, 33 freshmen will enroll at Purdue with scholarships offered under its new Emerging Urban Leaders program, made possible by a $6 million gift from an anonymous donor. The new students, more than half of whom are underrepresented minorities (URMs), come from cities such as Indianapolis, Gary and East Chicago. Scholarships vary but many are $5,000 a year and may be renewed annually.

“We’re working from both ends and from the top down,” says Córdova, an astrophysicist and one of the few Latinas in the country leading a major research university. “We need not only more students from underrepresented groups but also role models at the top. This will give us programs and people in place with a positive net effect. We are way better than we were a few years ago, but we have a ways to go. Reversing institutional inertia is a challenge.”

With a total of more than 39,000 students, at least one in five at Purdue pursues a degree in engineering. As one of the largest and most prestigious of its kind nationally, the College of Engineering houses 11 schools such as civil, mechanical and biomedical. Its aeronautics and astronautics school has produced 23 alumni who have been selected for space flight, including Neil Armstrong, who became the first man to step on the moon’s surface in 1969. Founded as a land-grant institution in 1869, Purdue awarded its first engineering degree nine years later. Today, one out of every 50 U.S. engineers is Purdue-trained.

However, the acute absence of URMs and women at the university is particularly conspicuous at the College of Engineering. In the 2008 fall term, Blacks and Latinos each made up only 2 percent of undergraduates. American Indians were also underrepresented at less than 1 percent. Those figures were nearly identical among the graduate student body, of which 54 percent were international students that semester. Meanwhile, women accounted for 19 percent of students collegewide.

Engineering faculty aren’t much better. This past school year, only two professors and four associate professors were Latino and two associate professors were Black. Women made up only 13 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty. In 2008, Purdue had only one Latino among its adjunct faculty; no Latinos, Blacks or Native Americans were among its 84 non-tenure-track lecturers or postdoctoral ranks either. During academic year 2009-10, at least six women were added to the full-time engineering faculty, but only one of the 27 individuals hired by February was URM.

Breaching Barriers

The ramifications of such a heavily White male-dominated College of Engineering aren’t lost on Córdova, who lacked role models in the sciences herself. The oldest of 12 children, Córdova, who had a lifelong passion for sciences but also an interest and aptitude in creative writing, earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Stanford University. For a time, she worked as a journalist, writing and editing for the Los Angeles Times News Service.

“My parents didn’t think science had opportunities for gals, and my teachers steered only guys into science,” she said.

But she altered course — and her entire trajectory — while living in Cambridge, Mass. The day after watching a TV show about neutron stars, Córdova marched herself to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and begged for a job at its Center for Space Research from some of the scientists featured on the show. Her writing skills landed her a position reviewing academic articles. She eventually earned a doctorate in physics from the California Institute of Technology. Among other things, she served as NASA’s chief scientist in the mid-1990s, evaluating the science mission and budget for NASA and working with federal agencies on science policy initiatives.

Yet Córdova knows that many barriers remain for women, especially women of color, among faculty STEM ranks at all large universities. So she and others secured a $4 million National Science Foundation grant aimed at improving the recruitment, retention and promotion of women faculty in Purdue’s STEM fields. Known as “ADVANCE,” the project launched in 2008 explores the causes for female underrepresentation in order to develop models that will improve opportunities.

Furthermore, the entire university has historically enrolled and employed limited numbers of women and minorities. In a May report to Purdue’s governing board, the chief diversity officer hired by Córdova last fall made multiple recommendations such as:

• Increase underrepresented students from 7.4 percent of the enrollment to 15 percent.

• Increase underrepresented graduate students from 7.7 to 12 percent.

• Increase underrepresented tenure-track faculty from 5.9 to 10 percent.

• Increase women faculty from 30 to 36 percent.

• Increase women graduate students from 38.6 to 51 percent.

“There has been much to celebrate, but there is much yet to be done,” wrote Dr. G. Christine Taylor in her report. Taylor also made note of accomplishments such as the improved racial and gender diversity in the senior administration team.

Taylor determined that Purdue lagged behind other Big Ten universities — large, public institutions in the Midwest — as well as peer institutions such as Texas A&M University and the Georgia Institute of Technology in terms of racial and gender diversity.

Among other things, Taylor theorized that affordability — or lack of it — may play a major role in drawing URM undergraduates. Purdue Dean of Admissions Pam Horne says better scholarships at competing universities are reasons commonly cited by students who gain admission to Purdue but attend Indiana University Bloomington or elsewhere.

Throughout his professional life, university trustee and vice chairman of the governing board Mamon Powers Jr., who earned a bachelor’s in civil engineering from Purdue in 1970, has watched many of the highest-achieving URMs leave Indiana to study engineering. The reason? Better scholarships elsewhere, he says, adding, “It is the biggest single driver.”

A trustee since 1996, Powers has become increasingly concerned and disappointed by stagnant numbers of URM students before Córdova’s hire. He has spent hours contacting high school counselors and individual families in Gary, where the company he leads — one of the largest Black-owned construction companies in the country — is based, to find out why Blacks, for instance, spurned Purdue, and his findings ran similar to Taylor’s.  

“The fact that so much of Purdue’s scholarship pool is open to all students with no distinction among students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, that makes it harder to diversify the campus. Chances are, not everyone is competing on equal footing,” he says.

In a recent interview with Diverse, Córdova said nothing in Taylor’s report took her by surprise because she’d seen the sobering statistics from individual departments since becoming president. Taylor’s office will follow the transition of the incoming freshmen under the Emerging Urban Leaders program as well as track their grades and overall academic progress through graduation. Córdova hopes studying the experiences of those students will aid her, Taylor and other Purdue officials in recruiting other disadvantaged young people to the university and in improving their academic success.

Off to a Good Start

So far, several initiatives aimed at improving overall undergraduate performance and the first-year student experience appear to be paying dividends. In 2008-09, retention climbed to an all-time high of 87 percent, a figure that makes Córdova proud yet also spurs her to insist the university can continue raising that. She hopes retention can soon reach the mid-90s.

Córdova credits efforts by faculty and staff to make the campus more personable so that students feel less overwhelmed by its size. As one example, a new state-of-the-art learning lab in the College of Engineering puts freshmen into smaller classes and gives them more hands-on experience. What was once a 450-pupil lecture hall was broken down into multiple sections of smaller class size. Those classes were then broken down even further into teams that worked on projects in design studios. Known as “Ideas to Innovation,” the program’s class attendance jumped almost 20 percentage points to 98 percent from the preceding year, and the number of freshmen withdrawing or failing fell from 10 percent to 5 percent.

“It’s crucial that students and parents believe that we have the mentorship to help them succeed here,” says Córdova, a former chancellor of the University of California, Riverside. “There’s a misperception that we’re some big, scary place. We’re strict, but it’s a good place to come, and we have a lot of great programs.”  

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