Longtime Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion Fuels Columbia University’s Success

Diversity Champions exemplify an unyielding commitment to diversity and inclusion throughout their campus communities, across academic programs, and at the highest administrative levels. INSIGHT Into Diversity selected institutions that rank in the top tier of past Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award recipients. 

For some colleges and universities, the decision to establish policies, programs, and offices dedicated to diversity and inclusion has been a reaction to either local or national events — such as the recent student-led protests on college campuses nationwide. Yet at Columbia University in the city of New York, a commitment to improving diversity and inclusion began a decade ago as a proactive effort focused on attracting and retaining the best and brightest scholars.

Specifically, one of Columbia’s largest efforts to date is its faculty diversity initiative to support the recruitment and retention of underrepresented faculty members. And while many other colleges are now investing in this area, Dennis A. Mitchell, DDS, vice provost for faculty diversity and inclusion at the university, says Columbia’s support has been consistent.

“Within the past year, we’ve seen all that has happened nationally to many of our peers, … and many universities are beginning to roll out these multi-million dollar faculty diversity initiatives,” he says. “We [think] this is wonderful, but at the same time, we have been doing this for a decade now, and when we actually add it up, we have put $85 million toward this effort.”

According to Mitchell, Columbia’s faculty diversity initiative began as a $15 million investment in the faculty of arts and sciences, followed by $2 million for professional schools, $5 million for natural sciences, $30 million for the whole campus, and later, another $33 million university-wide.

“We weren’t really paying attention to the [amount]; we were focused on increasing the diversity of our faculty,” he says. “We have started to talk about it as a single figure, but it really did not originate that way.”

A Thriving Community of Scholars
Mitchell, who has been at Columbia in varying roles for 25 years, has played a pivotal role in increasing the diversity of the faculty, as well as ensuring they feel included and supported. One way the university does this is through its Provost’s Grant Program for Junior Faculty Who Contribute to the Diversity Goals of the University.

The goal of this competitive program, which began in 2013, is to provide opportunities for junior faculty to thrive and ultimately achieve tenure. Every semester, Mitchell says an average of 12 faculty members are each awarded a grant of up to $25,000 to use for a project of their choosing.

“Sometimes it is used for supplemental research that’s not funded. Sometimes it enhances research that they have in place. Sometimes it helps them do what’s necessary to write their next book,” he says. “Obtaining funding is often the very limiting step for junior faculty and helping them succeed. … That one additional research award could put them in place to achieve tenure down the road.”

Since the university-wide launch of the program three years ago, 63 faculty members have benefitted from the

Diana Hernandez, assistant professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia
Diana Hernandez, assistant professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia

grant. For Diana Hernandez, who is charged with covering a significant portion of her salary through external funding, receiving the grant helped not only fund her position, but also establish her as an expert in her field.

“For me, the actual amount of the award was not as important as what it symbolized in terms of launching an independent career,” says Hernandez, whose research has focused on the intersection of energy, equity, housing, and health. “It allowed me to pick up essentially where my dissertation left off, and I was able to start … research that has since become my signature area — but also one that I’ve been able to get a lot more funding for.”

Since receiving the original grant from Columbia in 2013, she has secured an additional grant from the university as well as more than $400,000 from the National Institutes of Health and $350,000 via a fellowship with Harvard School of Public Health.

Beyond a monetary investment, Columbia supports its faculty members by providing mentoring and career advancement workshops, which Mitchell says cover topics ranging from relationship and network management to how to address difficult conversations in the classroom. The university also just completed a Guide to Best Practices in Faculty Mentoring, which provides resources and a roadmap for departments, schools, mentors, and mentees.

Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger — who has served in his role since 2002 — says this work is essential to fostering an environment where all diverse faculty members can thrive. But it also aids the university in its mission to be a leader in higher education.

Columbia President Lee Bollinger (second from left) at a 2007 forum on the future of diversity and affirmative action at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, along with Harvard law professor Lani Guinier, then-Columbia law professor and former President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Theodore Shaw, and moderator, Columbia faculty member, and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins
Columbia President Lee Bollinger (second from left) at a 2007 forum on the future of diversity and affirmative action at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, along with Harvard law professor Lani Guinier, then-Columbia law professor and former President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Theodore Shaw, and moderator, Columbia faculty member, and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins

“We’ve made a very big financial and institutional commitment to this over the past decade because we know that for Columbia to be a national leader and world center of the greatest scholarship and teaching, we need a faculty that brings diverse perspectives and experiences. And I mean diverse in all ways — diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation,” Bollinger said in an email. “Indeed, fostering the uninhibited exploration of competing ideas and beliefs — expressed by people of different backgrounds and perspectives — is really what makes possible the kind of scholarship, learning, research, and public service that are Columbia’s mission in society.”

 The Impact of Need-Blind Admissions
Another important part of Columbia’s mission is to break down the cost barrier for students from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds.

By employing a need-blind admission process that doesn’t take applicants’ financial situation into consideration, the university is able to admit “the best, brightest, and most talented students,” says Jessica Marinaccio, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid for Columbia College and The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia.

Columbia practices need-blind admissions for U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and applicants who are in the U.S. on a refugee visa. The university also awards a significant amount of financial aid to foreign students.

“We look holistically at who [applicants] are, whether or not we think they are a good fit for a Columbia education [and] whether they contribute to the class we’re trying to create,” Marinaccio says. “So the strength of each class is incredibly impacted because we are [admitting] students who are going to be the most successful regardless of need.”

Students from families that make less than $60,000 per year are not expected to contribute to the cost of attendance, and those from families earning between $60,000 and $100,000 receive a significantly reduced family contribution. Columbia meets 100 percent of every student’s demonstrated need for all four years of study through grants and by requiring some on-campus work from students. But the university does not expect them to take out loans.

According to Marinaccio, the average financial aid package per student — specifically at Columbia College and the School of Engineering — is approximately $46,000 in grants and scholarships. And she believes Columbia’s need-blind admissions process and its generous financial aid policies help lead to a student body that is rich in diversity.

Indeed, the university’s recent demographic figures reflect this. For instance, the Class of 2019 is composed of 14 percent African American, 15 percent Latino, 27 percent Asian, 18 percent first-generation, and 17 percent Pell Grant-eligible students. In addition, students represent all 50 states and 65 countries.

“Our overall financial aid policies are important because they certainly impact students’ time when they are here, but they also lift a burden upon graduation,” Marinaccio says. “It makes families think that it’s really possible for students to attend.”

While Columbia’s diversity and inclusion efforts are supported and sustained by all members of the campus community, Mitchell says improvement in those areas would not be possible without strong university leadership.

“We have been committed to these values for a very long time, but we do understand that … there’s a lot of work to be done,” he says. “However, I think that the leadership that our president, and I would also say our provost, John H. Coatsworth, [have shown] is critical. You can always find faculty and administrators … who will do this work, but without leadership at the very top of the university, you usually don’t see progress.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. Columbia University is a 2016 INSIGHT Into Diversity “Diversity Champion.”