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April 28, 2016

Senate Matters: Pitt should take the lead on campus diversity

Concerns about race relations roiled U.S. college and university campuses this past year. Although incidents of racial harassment spurred initial protests at schools like the University of Missouri, these episodes evoked a wider discussion of perceived institutional blindness to underrepresented minority students’ concerns and flagging institutional commitment to boosting the numbers of minority faculty. Blacks and Hispanics are especially underrepresented among the nation’s professoriate. Across the U.S., only 6 percent of postsecondary faculty are black and just 5 percent are Hispanic. Moreover, racial disparities are exacerbated when analysis is limited to elite private colleges and universities, flagship state universities, and tenure-track and tenured faculty.

The University of Pittsburgh is no exception to this national trend. According to 2014-15 National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data, at the Pittsburgh campus less than 3 percent of faculty are black or Hispanic. Notably, black and Hispanic underrepresentation among Pitt’s faculty reflects a similar pattern among its student body: 2014 NCES data revealed that just 5 percent of Pitt students are black; 3 percent are Hispanic. Yet nationally, blacks and Hispanics comprise 12 and 15 percent of undergraduate students at public colleges and universities and 13 and 10 percent of undergraduates at private (non-profit) post-secondary institutions.

This striking underrepresentation of black and Hispanic faculty and students at Pitt is troubling and undermines the University’s ability to attract and retain students and faculty of color. To gain insight into how these issues play out at Pitt, the graduate student diversity committee in the Department of Psychology, along with faculty member Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal, conducted a series of focus groups with underrepresented minority students who were prospective and current psychology majors. In these interviews, minority students consistently noted how they yearned for more opportunities to learn from and interact with minority faculty. Conducting research, attending graduate school, pursuing an academic career or simply sparking a conversation about research and professional opportunities seemed more tenable for these students when they encountered faculty whose backgrounds mirrored their own. For minority students, a realistic vision of what psychologists label “possible selves” emerged from such encounters. Indeed, research shows that students internalize notions about what opportunities are feasible for them based, in part, on their access to race-matched role models.

Lack of diversity in the classroom also negatively impacts the learning climate for minority students. Black participants in the focus groups noted they often felt put on the spot and charged with representing the perspective of an entire race because they were often the lone black student in a class. Classmates would turn to them for the black “take” on an issue. While such experiences could represent isolated events, recent research lends credence to these students’ concerns. Specifically, students of color often feel stigmatized in classrooms and other school environments wherein they are dramatically underrepresented, and these feelings of marginalization impact their sense of academic self-efficacy and scholastic performance. Instances of outright racial bias typically demand greater attention and swifter action from college and university administrators. However, as philosopher Elizabeth Anderson notes in her case for “the imperative of integration,” these more common, pernicious and subtle episodes of racial exclusion and insensitivity may be equally damaging and equally in need of institutional redress.

Moreover, greater racial/ethnic and socioeconomic diversity on college and university campuses not only benefits minority and disadvantaged students, it also improves the educational climate for all students and the institution as a whole. Research and teaching quality is buoyed by the inclusion of diverse perspectives. In addition, students learn to confront their own biases, navigate difficult and controversial intellectual terrain, and ponder and assimilate disparate opinions and information. Recent scholarship suggests that increased group diversity enhances innovation, creativity and problem-solving. Nevertheless, the effects of greater diversity are not wholly salutary. Social scientists also note how increased diversity can diminish social cohesion, hinder communication and increase feelings of personal discomfort and distress. Of course, nearly everyone feels more comfortable in more familiar surroundings with people very much like themselves. But the mission of the academy is to generate and impart knowledge and to cultivate intellectual growth and sophistication — which only occurs through exposure to a range of ideas, beliefs and voices.

Pitt can stand at the forefront among its peers by developing initiatives to diversify its student body and faculty ranks — and by making it a priority to do so now. Pitt’s leadership already has taken important steps. The University devotes resources to enhancing sociocultural awareness. More importantly, University-supported initiatives, such as the Investing Now and Hot Metal Bridge programs, aim to generate a pipeline of qualified minority students who will pursue STEM majors as well as graduate training in the sciences and humanities. But more can and should be done. We call on the Pitt community to become a national leader on efforts aimed at recruiting underrepresented students and faculty. Increasing racial/ethnic diversity on our campus not only pays educational dividends, it simply is the right thing to do.

Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal, associate professor in the Department of Psychology, is the faculty adviser to the department’s graduate student diversity committee, whose members co-authored this column. Votruba-Drzal can be reached at

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