Presidential Commission on Diverse Community Report

The ad hoc Presidential Commission on Diverse Community was established in December, 2003 as a joint presidential commission and subcommittee of the Multicultural Community and College Life Committee. Made up of faculty, students, and staff, it was charged with assessing and enhancing the role diversity plays in our work environment, our community, and especially in the curricular and co-curricular dimensions of our students’ education. President Creighton further asked the commission to take as its mandate our mission to educate “a diverse community of women at the highest level of academic excellence” and to address both how to make diversity more educationally productive for all students and how to ameliorate those conditions that inhibit or prevent some students from achieving their full academic potential. (See Appendix A for the president’s charge to the commission.)

The impetus for its formation grew out of a meeting the President, Dean of the College, and Dean of Students had with a group of African American, Latin American, Asian American and Native American (ALANA) students in October, 2003. Students articulated a range of issues having to do with their sense of disconnection from “the college experience,” including the faculty and the administration; their need for better mentorship; their sense that there were too few faculty and administrators of color, especially following the recent departures of some administrators of color; their sense that few of them succeed in the sciences although many start out with the idea that they would go to medical school; their experience of stereotyping and unconscious racism; their feeling of the need to represent their cultural heritage and to plan cultural events without sufficient support from the administration.

In the spring of 2004, while the Commission’s work was under way, a campus incident raised tensions and accelerated community-wide concern about the racial climate of the College. President Creighton called a community forum in which she issued four imperatives, and steps that would be taken to implement them. (See Appendix D for full statement.)

  1. Root out Stereotyping and Insensitivity.
  2. Create a Climate of Achievement for All Students.
  3. Celebrate Cultural Diversity.
  4. Demonstrate Institutional Commitment.

Considerable progress that has been made on these imperatives. Nearly all the actions proposed by the President have been undertaken, and the issues they addressed have moved to the center of our shared community agenda. (See Appendix E for a partial list) The President has created the positions of Coördinator of Multicultural Affairs, of Director of Academic Development, and of Director of Diversity and Inclusion, and supported the establishment of a new five College minority recruitment officer.

In taking up the four imperatives, the Commission noted that the issues that ALANA students brought to us were not new. During the late 1960s Mount Holyoke had begun actively recruiting African American students. But as early as 1967 Black students formed the Afro-American Society in an effort at “combating the common problems of individual black students.” Throughout the last thirty-five years the College has seen cycles of expressions of its ongoing commitment to make Mount Holyoke more diverse, more inclusive, more hospitable, and to ensure that all students thrive here. But often prompted by protests from racial and other minority groups, the College has also seen reminders that our efforts at reaching these lofty goals have not been enough, and have not succeeded.

Within this context it would have been easy to assume that we had lagged on our commitments to diversity and to our ALANA students. However it quickly became clear that to the contrary, Mount Holyoke has become a national leader in creating and sustaining diversity. ALANA students, while raising concerns about how few faculty of color we had, were surprised to hear that Mount Holyoke is second in the nation among top liberal arts colleges in both the percentage of Black tenured faculty and the percentage of all Black faculty. And in the most recent year studied (2003) we rank second in the nation among a handful of top colleges and universities that have a higher graduation rate for Black students than for White students.

But despite impressive efforts and achievements, many ALANA students feel alienated and undersupported. In this context, the cyclical re-emergence of similar concerns made clear to the Commission that dusting off familiar responses would not sufficiently address the issues that students have raised. Particularly because it is painfully aware of the oppression and racism that characterize our society, the Commission aspires to break the grip of those structures on our own shared aspirations and sense of community. In order to bring about the long-range effects that we aspire to, we need to create fundamental change. The fact that we are working from a position of strength – the strength of our historical efforts and achievements – and not in a climate of crisis suggests that we can afford to seek solutions that address underlying causes and not just their symptoms. To this purpose the Commission returned to the College’s fundamental mission of educating “a diverse community of women at the highest level of academic excellence.” and a conclusion that President Creighton’s second imperative, Create a Climate of Academic Achievement for All Students, must be the keystone of our efforts. Many of the concerns brought to us by ALANA students were expressions of a disjuncture between their academic aspirations and their experience here. Many of their other concerns could be connected to a climate that made it difficult to engage fully their academic aspirations, and to students’ consequent responses.

The focus on academic achievement was reinforced by conversations sponsored by the Commission with Claude Steele and his colleagues about stereotype threat. By identifying the performance differences that emerge reliably under conditions of stereotype threat, Steele enabled the Commission to see those differences as a measure of “institutional inhospitability” to students of color, and by extension to all students who work under the dynamics of stereotype threat (students who represent the first generation in their family to attend college, for example). Identifying the scope of this inhospitability and the structures that support and maintain it even in the face of our mutual efforts at inclusiveness, led us to place students’ academic experience at the center of their experience of Mount Holyoke.

The Commission has a clear sense that at the core of ALANA student concerns is the belief that Mount Holyoke is not serving some fundamental academic needs. Students described at times feeling alienated, unwelcome, or inadequately prepared in certain academic classes, fields, or majors. Students articulated a failure on the part of the College to create an academically hospitable environment. Research conducted by Beverly Daniel Tatum and Janice Gifford pointed to divides between Black and Latina students on one hand, and white students on the other, in achievement, engagement, and satisfaction. Further research, conducted through the summer of 2004 under the auspices of the Office of Academic Development, showed that nationally, liberal arts colleges have found it challenging to facilitate the high academic performance of students of color, especially black and Latino students. Scholars identified this phenomenon as a "racial achievement gap," and studies go back and forth between, on the one hand, ascribing the factors that lead to this phenomenon to the K-12 preparation or readiness for college of the students concerned (this phenomenon is itself a product of a variety of environmental factors) and, on the other, to negative features of the climate that students of color enter into when they attend predominantly white institutions of higher learning.

To realize the Four Imperatives fully, the needs and concerns of students of color must be addressed at multiple levels and in different areas of the institution. The Commission urges the whole college community to recognize that the issues ALANA students raised are problems for all of members of the College community. Diversity is an important and valued resource at Mount Holyoke. Education thrives in a climate of civil but engaged difference – difference among views, cultures, epistemological standpoints, interests and values. We learn when, in the face of difference, we either change or need to justify not changing. We will all learn more deeply when we can engage our differences more effectively.

We hope and expect that the findings and recommendations that follow in this report will lead to dramatically new prospects for a genuinely engaged multi-cultural community of learners. Although we have focused on academic achievement as both an end in itself and as a lever for changing the dynamics of our community, we do not suppose that all of the concerns that students brought to us will best be addressed in this way. For that reason, we ask the Multi-Cultural and College Life Committee (MCCL) to continue and accelerate its work on improving the climate of diversity on campus. In reaffirming the necessity for a multi-cultural community of learners, we affirm that issues of race are issues for each of us. This does not mean simply that the concerns of a few are concerns for many. Rather it means that either we all have race – or none does.

The conclusion of the members of the Commission, resulting from our wide-ranging discussions of this research, is that in the face of larger social structures of racism and bias that will not be eradicated with the speed that we would hope, our task must be to engage in an honest investigation of factors that we have control over here at Mount Holyoke. We believe that Mount Holyoke's academic mission challenges us to see ourselves as taking the lead nationally in reversing forms of institutional inhospitability increasingly identified as part of a national trend among liberal arts colleges. We believe that all students will benefit from a thorough discussion, evaluation, and renewal of our vision of creating diverse communities of learning in which all students feel full and equal partners.

While the "racial achievement gap" remains the primary touchstone and lens for our discussions – a way for us to test the thoroughness of any of our proposed initiatives in terms of the depth of their reach among our diverse student population–the Commission firmly believes that this is only one well-articulated measure for affirming students' social identities. Because each of us has multiple identities, the Commission’s work requires attention to academic concerns deriving from other social identities like gender, ethnicity, class, nationality, age, ability, sexual preference and orientation, political and religious views, just to name a few. Race is a focus of our work, but other identities matter as well. Indeed, the improvements in the learning environment we envision will benefit all students at Mount Holyoke College.

The Commission’s recommendations toward that end fall into three categories, each of which depends crucially on the others. They are:

  1. Mentoring, Advising, Teaching
  2. Creating Multiple Opportunities for All to Learn
  3. Implementing the Goals of this Report: through Institutional Leadership, Focused Resources, and Multiple Sites of Engagement across the Community.


I. Mentoring, Advising, and Teaching

Goal: To realize the benefits of diversity in educational processes, and to improve the overall climate of achievement for all students.

Student diversity enriches the intellectual community on campus and potentially contributes to a culture of high achievement. When all students are genuinely engaged with faculty and staff in fruitful academic work, the overall climate of achievement becomes palpable and self-sustaining. To reach their greatest potential students must be challenged, led, and inspired. The Commission believes that early and full engagement with inspiring role-models is likely the single most important factor in instilling a climate of achievement. This is particularly true for students of color, for whom there have historically been fewer such models. We need to offer strong and engaged mentoring, advising, and teaching throughout the College.

Specific Recommendations:

A. Faculty, Staff, and Alumnae advising and mentoring of students

  1. Strengthen student connections with faculty. A strong and early connection with faculty helps students engage with the liberal arts and represents the distinctive promise of small colleges. The Commission believes that enhancing the value of these connections creates a climate of achievement in which each student can take effective charge of her own education.
    1. Create and support advising and mentoring workshops for faculty and for students. Institute January and May/June workshops for faculty, and develop hands-on resources for them.
    2. Consider mentoring and advising as part of tenure, reappointment, and post-tenure reviews. Good advising engages a student in a dialogue with her future self. It is a form of teaching, and should be conceptualized as such. Develop methods for evaluation of advising, and factor advising into deliberations over faculty reviews. (Cf. III,4,c).
    3. Assign instructors of first-year seminars advisees who are enrolled in the seminar.
  2. Connect academic and career counseling. To help students connect their educational and career goals, the Commission encourages the Career Development Center and department or program chairs to collaborate more comprehensively to achieve reciprocity and coördination of information and planning between academic departments and the CDC. Alumni networks, “how to interview” workshops, internship opportunities, summer research opportunities, and job searches are most effectively accessed through consultation between departments and the CDC.
  3. Encourage high achieving or “late-blooming” students, especially students from underrepresented backgrounds (e.g., ALANA, first-generation college) to pursue postgraduate degrees and careers in higher education. To do its share in opening this pipeline for ALANA students to careers in higher education, Mount Holyoke faculty must take the lead in modeling for students the requirements and benefits of becoming a professor or teacher. Mentoring workshops organized around personal narratives were successful this year. Find ways to make available additional research opportunities through MHC Summer Research Fellowships, and Weed Fellowships, and the CDC. Seek ways to generate greater involvement of all faculty in these mentoring opportunities.
  4. Expand and enhance pre-health advising. The high ratio of students interested in health professions to students who enter them creates a heightened need for effective advising. The Commission encourages the Health Professions Advisory Committee to eliminate the nearly two-year advising gap for students interested in health careers, between the time they get some advice in Orientation week and the time they are assigned a pre-health advisor in the spring of their sophomore year; to use this period to provide resources to students to help them assess and acquire the skills they need; and to work with the students to ensure that they know the full variety of careers in health so that they can focus on a best fit for their ambitions, desires, and abilities.
  5. Engage alumnae more comprehensively with aspiring students. The Commission encourages department and program chairs, the Alumnae Association, and the CDC to collaborate in building alumnae sisters’ networks that will bring alumnae in the professions into productive mentoring relationships with students. These networks can operate online, on campus, and on-site at alumnae workplaces. The Alumnae Association and departments should collaborate to develop alumnae liaisons with departments and programs. These could help current majors more effectively to connect their academic aspirations with career aspirations.
  6. Find ways to support appropriate advisory roles for staff. Staff play an often underappreciated role in the creation and maintenance of academic climate. Academic administrative assistants, in particular, play an important role in administering academic policies and serving as intermediaries for faculty and students. We encourage departments to bring administrative assistants and academic staff more deliberatively into the advising and mentoring processes as coaches and well-informed resource persons who team supportively with students and faculty around academic achievement.

B. Peer mentoring and networks

  1. Build more peer mentoring structures and collaborative study networks. Peer-led supplementary instruction, like the Speaking, Arguing, and Writing (SAW) mentors’ program and the chemistry department’s Peer Led Undergraduate Mentoring (PLUM) program build skills among both students and their mentors, and strengthen students’ engagement with their coursework. Course-based study groups are another proven strategy for increasing student performance and persistence, especially in the sciences. A third model is Sistahs in Science, a program for women of color in the sciences founded by Professor Sheila Browne. The Commission encourages expansion of programs like this. These programs normalize the acquisition of field-specific study skills, keep students engaged with courses, provide excellent training for peer leaders and cascading benefits, and put students in charge of their own academic achievement. We encourage faculty to continue to find ways to engage students in peer mentoring, and to draw more students of color to become peer mentors.
  2. Expand the fledgling Peer Academic Advisors (PAAs) program and the Undergraduate Academic Advisors (UAAs) program. PAAs provide an important bridge between residential and academic life, a source of academic information, and a stimulus for critical reflection. PAA’s and UAAs expand the overall climate of achievement by guiding students into active construction of their own education. We should expand the PAA program, and re-define and strengthen the UAA system for majors. Departments and programs should redefine the UAA program and encourage UAAs to organize events that will increase students’ academic engagement.
  3. Peer mentoring and the value of diversity. Not all students arrive knowing how to think rigorously and creatively. The Commission suggests that the SGA, student organizations, and the student organizations coalitions like the ALANA co-chairs be used to help orient new students to the possibilities of a diverse academic community. To broaden the culture of achievement and to use student-to-student relations as a site for building the value of diversity, the Commission recommends that much of this work be done in cultural houses and in partnership with the cultural organizations. In collaboration with SAW and with help from faculty, plan year-long workshops that focus on acquiring and maintaining the social and academic tools for success, including time management, study skills, buddy networks, Five College opportunities, choosing a faculty mentor, choosing a major, leadership and volunteering in the community.
  4. Encourage and prepare students to take a more active role in their advising. Educate students about the role they can take in preparing for and building their mentoring/ advising relationships with faculty and others; encourage faculty to see advising as engaging students in dialogue, not as conveying “advice.” Encourage students to develop and regularly revisit their “big picture” or map of study. Encourage students to seek opportunities to integrate the learning that occurs throughout the semester. Encourage each student to assemble an advising team for herself.
  5. Build clubs and honor societies within departments. The Commission encourages all departments and programs to have or revive vital student clubs and groups (on- and offline) that can be enlisted to provide tutors for pivotal classes, establish study tables at dining halls, organize mini-conferences, host career days and panels, etc. The UAAs could play a greater role in this area, working with department and program chairs, and with faculty advisors.

C. Teaching and Learning

  • Identify pedagogical strategies for diverse learners. Some groups of faculty, for example in the languages and the sciences, have undertaken conversations about creating a climate of achievement in their areas. We encourage all faculty to have similar conversations in faculty seminars, departmental retreats, workshops, and the like. Consider expanding the pedagogical palette to make ideas more accessible to diverse learners, and taking advantage of the rich resource that diversity may offer to strengthen academic engagement and excellence for all.
  • Restructure introductory curricula to try to decrease achievement gaps. Science departments have begun to discuss ways to restructure introductory curricula whereby students with achievement gaps – undeveloped quantitative skills, weak high school background, unhoned study skills – are given more opportunities to succeed. A number of approaches emphasize skill-building, intensify contact with faculty, and reduce class size. We strongly encourage all departments and programs to take up this work.
  • Investigate the feasibility of a Named Scholars Program. This could be a donor opportunity for the next capital campaign, an endowed program designed to attract and retain a promising group of incoming students. It would be open to all students but be particularly seeking high potential students of color. These students might enter as a cohort and be assigned to a cohort of faculty tutors. They might have special opportunities – first-year tutorials, summer internships, study abroad opportunities, and research opportunities and might meet periodically as a group with the goal of engendering shared community, good study habits, and high expectations. The participants could begin in a pre-college summer program that provides intensive workshops that cover analytic content and learning skills.
  • Continue rebuilding January Term. The Commission recommends that the revitalization of January term continue, but with a sharper focus on intensive three-week skill-building courses that allow students to fill gaps in areas such as math, technology, critical thinking, and writing.
  • Continue to create research opportunities for students. The new online process for identifying funding opportunities for summer research, including funding available specifically for ALANA students, has streamlined the application process for students. Faculty should continue to report new sources of funding for students to encourage and facilitate entry onto trajectories that will lead to graduate work.
  • Review and support ethnic studies programs. Students have expressed a strong interest in having more robust ethnic studies programs such as African and African American studies, Latin American studies, and Asian American studies. Especially in light of recent administrative reassignments, some faculty who currently teach in these programs are less available for teaching and mentoring. In addition to addressing this shortage, the Commission recommends that the College review these programs with an eye to identifying ways to provide them with greater support.