Collaboration among Colleges, Universities Urged as a Minority STEM Strategy

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

WASHINGTON – While the higher education landscape for diversity initiatives is fraught with legal pitfalls, institutional leaders can still develop exemplary programs that increase minority participation in STEM fields without running afoul of the law.

That is the crux of a new report released this week by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, and EducationCounsel LLC titled “The Smart Grid for Institutions of Higher Education and the Students They Serve: Developing and Using Collaborative Agreements to Bring More Students into STEM.”

As its name suggests, the report draws an analogy between efforts to enhance the nation’s electric power grid and what is envisaged in the report as “the Smart Grid for institutions of higher education.”

The report highlights dozens of programs at colleges and universities throughout the nation that boost minority participation in STEM programs in ways that are considered race, ethnic and gender neutral.

“We’re not writing on a blank slate. That’s the really good news,” Arthur Coleman, managing partner at EducationCounsel LLC, which has provided policy, legal and overall support for the AAAS Diversity and Law Project, said during a panel discussion Monday to release this report.

“This is what qualifies as race, ethnic or gender neutral, even though it has a particular focus on underrepresented minorities,” Coleman said of the programs featured in the report.

With a special focus on the legal framework for diversity, the report is meant to serve as a “bridge” between legal counsels at colleges and universities and institutional leaders in order to enable both groups to find legal ways to broaden participation in STEM programs and other fields, said Dr. Daryl E. Chubin, director of the Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity at AAAS.

“The law stands for increasing opportunity and reducing underrepresentation of minorities in STEM education and careers,” Chubin said. “This report offers how it might be done in various settings in legally sustainable ways.”

Spurred by a pair of 2003 U.S. Supreme Court rulings that allow but limit how race-conscious affirmative action can be used in higher education, the report was produced as part of AAAS’s Diversity and Law Project. It is deemed as particularly timely given the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to revisit the issue of race conscious affirmative action in higher education.

Among the innovative approaches highlighted in the report is a “fully automated reverse transfer system” developed by the University of Texas – El Paso (UTEP) and El Paso Community College (EPCC).

In short, the system identifies potential EPCC associate’s degree candidates currently enrolled in UTEP’s baccalaureate programs and allows them to complete final requirements at UTEP.

The system also determines whether students who transitioned from EPCC have completed enough qualifying courses at UTEP to earn an associate’s degree from EPCC, the report states

“Administrators hope that students will get a confidence boost from the additional credentials and be more likely to complete their baccalaureate degrees,” the report states.

Both UTEP and EPCC benefit from higher retention and graduation rates since the program and other measures have been implemented. Other institutions, such as University of Massachusetts at Boston, are using the UTEP-EPCC model for their own programs, the report states.

Donna Ekal, Associate Provost in the Office for Undergraduate Studies at UTEP, said the system and other collaborative efforts between UTEP and EPCC are in line with UTEP’s quest to become the “first national research institution with 21st century demographics.”

“Seventy-five percent of our students have taken one or more classes at EPCC,” Ekal said. “We’re not going to get there without our partners at EPCC.”

Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall Fund, an organization that helps students attending public HBCUs, said that, while HBCUs graduate more than their share of African-American graduates in STEM fields, HBCUs still understand the need to partner with other institutions to boost STEM participation overall.

“But the real challenge is to figure out how to reach back into the K-12 pipeline, because, at the end of the day, if we can’t get these kids out of schools and prepared,” colleges and universities will have a more difficult time educating them, Taylor said.

Along those lines, Taylor said, the Thurgood Marshall Fund is working on ways to get STEM majors to go back to urban schools and begin mentoring young students.

Jamie Lewis Keith, vice president and general counsel at the University of Florida, said the report can be used to challenge institutional processes and assumptions—the “bureaucratic stuff”—without questioning the character of the institution.

“We’re not talking about lowering admissions standards,” Lewis Keith said. “We’re talking about thinking: Do our transfer programs provide opportunities at the right points in the undergraduate experience to bring in students who might have been able to fill the gaps?”

She also said the report shines light on the need for four-year institutions to seek to cultivate talent among community college and state college students in order to broaden participation in STEM fields.

Thompson Le Blanc, a native of the Caribbean and a Ph.D. candidate for a Doctor of Philosophy in Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt University, said he wouldn’t have been able to access Vanderbilt were it not for the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-the-Ph.D. Bridge Program, which is featured in the report.

“If I had applied for an astronomy program at Vanderbilt, I would not have gotten in,” Le Blanc said, citing his computer science degree from Fisk as a likely impediment since the degree is in a subject that is distant from physics and astronomy.

But the program gave him the opportunity to “build that foundation I needed to be able to compete at a doctorate level. And I think it did that very well.”

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