Building a Framework for Success at Rochester

It’s not enough for colleges to recruit more women and minorities as students and faculty members — institutions need to have a comprehensive plan to ensure their success.

That’s what the Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology is doing with its Inclusive Excellence Framework, built to integrate diversity and inclusion into the core of the educational enterprise, and to engage members of the campus community in a shared responsibility to create an enriching, inclusive experience.

The Infrastructure for Excellence
The framework was developed in 2011 by RIT’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion in collaboration with trustees, senior administration officials, deans, department heads and managers. It details specific initiatives to infuse diversity not only into the Rochester, N.Y., institution’s recruiting, admissions and hiring processes, but also its curriculum, administrative structures and practices, said Kevin McDonald, vice president and chief diversity officer. The framework also spells out how RIT can better partner with Rochester community organizations to attract local women and minorities to the institution, and support current RIT students.

“RIT had great initiatives around its faculty and students, but this was an opportunity to build on that foundation,” McDonald said. “Access alone wasn’t enough; we also needed supportive pillars to help ensure successful performance academically, so students will stay and graduate, and professors will reach tenure through development and promotion.”

To date, 88 percent of RIT’s colleges and divisions have added diversity goals into their strategic plans. But that’s just part of the story. The framework also measures the success of a number of specific diversity and inclusion initiatives, including the Multicultural Center for Academic Success, Future Faculty Career Exploration Program, the Rochester City Scholarship Program and the Future Stewards program, geared to attract more Native American students.

RIT’s framework was modeled after a template developed in part by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Susan Albertine, the association’s vice president, Office of Diversity, Equity and Student Success, said that institutions can attract minority and female students and faculty, but they won’t thrive if the culture isn’t ready for them.

Institutions can’t just think about diverse composition; they must consider outcomes as well, Albertine said. “They need to provide emotional support for students and faculty, especially if they are coming into an environment where there has been a history of discrimination.”

Further, she said all faculty members, diverse or not, should be made aware that they need to teach in a culturally responsive manner, particularly to first-generation students who come from a world that historically has relied more on practical knowledge than abstract concepts. “Purely lecturing is really hard on first-generation students — they haven’t necessarily been socialized to learn that way,” Albertine said. “Professors need to teach using real-world applications, having the students work in groups on fun projects and have peer mentoring.”

RIT brought on McDonald in 2010 to help the administration connect diversity and inclusion into other aspects of organizational operations. In addition to incorporating elements of the framework into the strategic plans for RIT’s colleges and departments, roughly 100 employees were introduced to the comprehensive plan in a seven-part diversity training series last summer. At that time RIT also launched Bridges, a diversity and inclusion certificate program designed to enhance employees’ multicultural competencies in group dynamics, group communication, sustainability, social change and ally development.

Programming Success and Outreach
One initiative the framework measures is RIT’s Multicultural Center for Academic Success, which helps students — particularly minorities, low-income and first-generation students — succeed academically as well as connect socially to other students, faculty and staff. Students meet to learn about supportive programs such as RIT’s Academic Support Center, its writing program or to discuss issues that are important to them. There are also tutoring and advising sessions, and social outings to places such as Niagara Falls.

The center also offers a four-week Summer Bridge program, in which incoming first-year students take two courses and learn about university research and community service programs. “This helps them adjust better to college because they are not taking a full course load to start and the entire 18,000 student population is not on campus yet,” McDonald said. “We’ve seen GPAs of students skyrocket after participating in this program — 90 percent who were involved in the summer of 2012 were at or above a 3.0 after the spring 2013 semester.”

The framework also measures the effectiveness of RIT’s Future Faculty Career Exploration program, in which doctoral students across the country are invited to visit RIT, present their research and receive guidance from faculty members on what it takes to be successful working there.

The program also gives participants an opportunity to develop a relationship with a faculty member, which helps allay concerns they might have about whether the environment is actually as supportive as it purports to be. McDonald said RIT is in a community rich with history — the homes of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony are in the city. But it’s also cold, and Rochester is not a familiar city for many people. “They are not sure they can find a supportive community within their own racial or ethnic affiliation here,” he said.

The outreach program accounted for 20 percent of minority and female faculty hires between 2006 and 2011. Overall, the percentage of minorities and women who work as RIT faculty members rose from 9.6 percent in 2008 to 10.6 percent in 2013.

Reginald Rogers Jr. participated in the program in 2008 as a graduate student at the University of Michigan. He said he enjoyed RIT and the interaction with faculty members so much he became a postdoctoral fellow in 2010. He is now an assistant professor in the school’s chemical and biomedical engineering department.

Rogers’ advice for any institution wanting to implement a comprehensive strategy to improve diversity and inclusion is to avoid the “shocking scenario where first-generation students are simply thrown into the shark tank and told to swim or get eaten alive. They need to have a nurturing support network their first year in college,” he said. “Many of these students do not have a framework for understanding the complexities of college, and not providing that framework would be a major disservice to them.”

Rogers also advises institutions to offer mentoring programs that provide practical advice and foster friendships. “Some of the best mentoring relationships I have been involved in or have witnessed stem from the mentor and mentee developing a bond that is essentially unbreakable.”
RIT also provides full scholarships, based on economic need, to graduates from the Rochester City School District. Sixty local high schoolers have received scholarships to RIT since 2010, and the average cumulative GPA of the entering scholars was 2.86 as of spring 2013. The average retention rate for that group is 63 percent.

Another component within RIT’s framework is developing partnerships with community organizations to provide support programs, such as RIT’s Men of Color, Honor and Ambition, or MOCHA, a one-year personal, academic, professional and leadership development program designed for second-year through fifth-year undergraduate male minority students. The students participate in monthly workshops on business, public speaking, health and interpersonal relationships, as well as perform community service projects.

“This program is probably the only one like it in the country,” said Herb Escher, vice president, corporate development for Dale Carnegie Training in Rochester, a program partner. “Kevin is a genius because he’s able to not only get nonprofits, but also for-profit partners like us to work with these students to better prepare them for future success and how to be good citizens in their communities.”

That First-Generation Academic Edge
Research has shown that first-generation students have a better chance of success if they are provided an outlet for community service, Albertine said. “For example, an English professor could have students do literacy outreach work in local low-income communities,” she said. “First-generation students have been shown to do better academically if they are given a chance to do things for folks in communities that are similar to where they’ve come from.”

RIT is also working to diversify the student body. Its Future Stewards program within the framework has attracted more Native American students, growing from 32 in 2007 to roughly 140 students today. After the spring 2013 semester, 125 undergraduate students in the program had an average 3.08 cumulative GPA, and 12 graduate students had an average 3.71 cumulative GPA.

In 2014, RIT will employ its enterprise-wide assessment management system, Task Stream, to collect and analyze metrics for the initiatives and other directives in the framework. Future directions will include increasing supplier diversity and engagement of multicultural alumni.

Perhaps the most critical aspect to achieving results from such a comprehensive framework is getting so many different constituencies to truly support the objectives, McDonald said. While he’s received such buy-in internally and externally within the Rochester community for RIT’s framework, not all comprehensive diversity and inclusion initiatives at institutions are met with such initial support.

While working at another university, he researched affordable ways to offer full-ride scholarships based on economic status after courts had ruled out race-based scholarships. Initially, the most senior leader was not supportive. But McDonald sought other support, was asked to present his proposal to the trustees and won their approval to explore the idea further. Ultimately, he was able to implement the scholarship program by getting a cross-functional team across the university to collaborate on the initiative, which led to “a groundswell of support among faculty, staff and students.

“This experience provided a valuable lesson. At times there may be obstacles to achieving your vision or organizational mission, but if you are convicted, collaborative and interpersonally invested in building strong relationships in and outside of your organization, you can often achieve your goals and help to transform your organization in the process,” he said.

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a California-based journalist. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.