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With the semester underway, I want to write about the expectations we have for all faculty, staff and students on creating an inclusive learning environment in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
In recent weeks, I’ve met twice with a group of our college’s multicultural students, along with several college administrators. We listened to the students share the challenges they’ve faced on campus as people of color, LGBT students, women and believers in different faiths. They recounted situations and episodes that often were emotional, painful or infuriating. One student called them “draining,” and it certainly felt that way to me. They shared experiences from classrooms, labs, on CyRide, on sidewalks, in hallways and in the community. Sometimes they occurred in unexpected places, such as uncomfortable interactions with company recruiters visiting campus.
I wish each of you could have been in the room. Both of these meetings were powerful experiences for everyone present. For some students, it was the realization that others were facing identical struggles. One student mentioned he now felt like he had allies. For others, it was cathartic. That feeling of knowing they were not alone hit some with a wave of strong emotion. And perhaps, most dismaying for me, was this: Nearly all the students felt this was the first time they were being heard.
As the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, we have high expectations for faculty and staff to meet our mission of teaching, research and extension and outreach. We have high expectations of our students to meet the rigorous challenges of our programs so they are prepared for the rigors of the waiting world. Our expectations also must be high, for faculty, staff and students, for a commitment to a welcoming environment, and for the value of diversity and inclusion in every place and situation we encounter on campus.
The CALS student population of multicultural students is growing. Last fall, 11 percent of our undergraduates, or 423 students, were multicultural students. That’s grown from 5 percent a decade ago. The fall 2016 number reflected an increase of 7.5 percent of multicultural students recruited over the year before. From 2010 to spring of 2016, the total number of CALS degrees — bachelor’s and graduate degrees — awarded to multicultural students doubled.
Overall, we do a great job retaining our CALS students, and we are a perennial leader on campus in one-year retention rates. But we can’t say the same just looking at our multicultural students. Generally, we underperform the university average with multicultural students. We must do better.
We value diversity and inclusion because it is the reality of our community and our world. The state of Iowa and the agricultural industry, so traditionally homogeneous, is changing year by year. Twenty-one percent of Iowans under age 18 are children of color, as of 2015. In one of Assistant Dean Theressa Cooper’s cultural competency seminars, we learned that an astounding 180 languages are spoken in Iowa’s communities and schools. Awaiting our graduates is a diverse workforce they must enter, fully prepared. The private-sector partners who employ our graduates understand that workforce diversity is strength, and inclusiveness drives performance.
Recently the writer Thomas Friedman speculated that the best jobs in the future were going to be what he called “STEMpathy” jobs — those that blend STEM skills (science, technology, engineering and math) with human empathy. That sounds exactly like the careers our agriculture and life science graduates will be leaders in, when they join the international workforce and engage people from around the world.
A committee led by Assistant Dean Howard Tyler, Assistant Dean Cooper and Sociology Interim Chair Paul Lasley is considering ideas and steps we can take as a college to improve the environment for multicultural students. The committee is looking to conduct pilot efforts in selected departments or units; more details will be shared with you in the near future.
For years, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has been ranked as one of the top 10 in the world. We pride ourselves on educating our students and providing a strong, constructive student experience with many opportunities for growth and advancement. I ask for your help in continuing this level of excellence with a commitment to overcome biases and eliminate incidents of disrespect or misunderstanding.
That is our shared expectation. Thank you for working with me to envision and create a more inclusive and exceptional College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, where diversity is valued and everyone is welcome.
Endowed Dean, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences