University of Iowa to launch center to boost Ph.D. diversity

$1.2 million grant could help dozens of minority scholars

Cliff Jette/The Gazette

Mathematics Professor Charles Frohman teaches a graduate-level class at Maclean Hall on the campus of the University of Iowa on Monday. Math is one of the fields that will part of the new University Center of Exemplary Mentoring on the UI campus.
Cliff Jette/The Gazette Mathematics Professor Charles Frohman teaches a graduate-level class at Maclean Hall on the campus of the University of Iowa on Monday. Math is one of the fields that will part of the new University Center of Exemplary Mentoring on the UI campus.

If enough universities fail to take action, predicts University of Iowa mathematics professor Philip Kutzko, “We are going to lose the battle.”

The global race toward innovation and industry encompasses the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines and requires the involvement of populations underrepresented in those fields — women and minorities.

Research universities that ignore those truths could lose in the area of student enrollment and funding, Kutzko said. And the United States could fall behind other industrialized nations.

But the UI, for one, is taking steps to address the cultural divides impeding growth in the number of minorities with doctorate degrees in STEM, Kutzko said.

“We are building a community — that’s why we’re different,” he said. “We’re going to beat it.”

Kutzko is behind the establishment of a new University Center of Exemplary Mentoring on the UI campus, making it one of only five in the nation. The center, made possible through a three-year $1.2 million grant from the New York City-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, aims to “measurably increase the number of minorities who get (advanced) degrees from the University of Iowa.”

The project also will help the UI attract “some of the most talented minority doctoral students in the nation.”

And it could help the university secure subsequent funding for research in the future.

“It benefits us greatly to increase our Ph.D. minority students,” Kutzko said.

‘We are eager’

The Sloan Foundation has provided funding for mentoring centers at universities with proven track records for successfully educating underrepresented minority graduate students in the STEM disciplines — such as the UI. Participating universities are expected to expand and strengthen minority recruitment, mentoring, educational support and professional development, according to Kutzko.

The UI’s Sloan Foundation grant will take effect June 1 and will provide a total of 24 $40,000 scholarships over a three-year period. The UI will provide a matching 24 scholarships at $10,000 a piece, according to Kutzko.

They can be used for “anything that will aid the student in achieving a Ph.D.,” including travel, computer equipment and child care, Kutzko said. Eligible students must be U.S. citizens, from a minority group — black, Hispanic, native American and Alaskan native — and enrolled as a doctoral student in a named UI STEM department or program.

The UI has identified 22 participating departments and programs — such as its Applied Mathematical and Computational Sciences program. The new minority graduate student center also will provide mentors for the scholars, and 175 senior UI faculty members have agreed to participate, Kutzko said.

Each participating faculty member will be trained in mentoring, and every scholar will be assigned a mentor who will meet with them to discuss which classes to take and how to succeed.

“They will be kind of like a basketball coach,” Kutzko said.

Colleen Mitchell, mathematics associate professor and chairwoman of the Department of Mathematics Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, will direct the new center, which also will increase recruitment and outreach efforts, and develop year-round seminars, workshops and social events.

UI President Sally Mason, provost Barry Butler and Chief Diversity Office and Associate Vice President Georgina Dodge have expressed “strong” support for the project, Kutzko said.

“These are factors which, we believe, made our proposal competitive,” he added. “We are eager to get started on this important project.”

Doing even better

The Sloan Foundation also considered the UI Department of Mathematics’s previous efforts in the area of minority graduate education in approving this new grant.

The department, which has been praised nationally, has institutionalized a minority graduate initiative that has produced 25 minority Ph.D. recipients since 2002, ranking it among the best in the country.

And the UI’s graduate population already is much more diverse than its undergraduate population. University data shows that 71.4 percent of the fall 2013 undergraduate population identified as white whereas 58.6 percent of its graduate population identified as such.

But the UI’s graduate faculty has hopes of doing even better. Goals of the new center include admitting at least 12 new minority students next fall, 16 in 2015 and 20 in 2016, and boasting attrition and graduation rates for those students that are comparable to those of other students who enter with them.

The center also aims to increase minority composition of the doctoral degrees awarded in the UI Sloan programs to 10 percent within eight years. And, within three years, Kutzko said he hopes it will become a permanent fixture at the university.

Other institutions that have received grants to launch the diversity centers include the University of Southern Florida, Cornell University, Georgia Institute of Technology and Pennsylvania State University.

Elizabeth Boylan, program director at the Sloan Foundation, has called the UI’s efforts to support minority students creative and comprehensive.

“From the classroom to the lab to the provost’s office, these institutions are creating environments where minority STEM students cannot only succeed, but thrive,” Boylan said.

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