Dr. France Cordova is by no means the first college president to declare increasing the presence of women and minorities on campus as a top priority. Nor will Cordova be the last. However, several of her initiatives thus far suggest she is aggressively guiding Purdue University into a firmer embrace of diversity while building on its stellar reputation as a world-class engineering institution.
* As of May, 31 percent of Purdue's senior administration team was female and 25 percent was ethnic minority. That marks a 57 percent increase in women and an 80 percent jump in minority representation since the 2007-08 school year. Cordova's presidency began in July 2007.
* This fall, 33 freshmen will enroll at Purdue with scholarships offered under its new Emerging Urban Leaders program, made possible by a $6 million gift from an anonymous donor. The new students, more than half of whom are underrepresented minorities (URMs), come from cities such as Indianapolis, Gary and East Chicago. Scholarships vary but many are $5,000 a year and may be renewed annually.
"We're working from both ends, and from the top down," says Cordova, an astrophysicist and one of the few Latinas in the country leading a major research university. "We need not only more students from underrepresented groups, but also role models at the top. This will give us programs and people in place with a positive net effect. We are way better than we were a few years ago but we have a ways to go. Reversing institutional inertia is a challenge."
With a total of more than 39,000 students, at least one in five at Purdue pursues a degree in engineering. As one of the largest and most prestigious of its kind nationally, the College of Engineering houses 11 schools such as civil, mechanical and biomedical. Its aeronautics and astronautics school has produced 23 alumni who have been selected for space flight, including Neil Armstrong, who became the first man to step on the moon's surface in 1969. Founded as a land-grant institution in 1869, Purdue awarded its first engineering degree nine years later. Today, one out of every 50 U.S. engineers is Purdue-trained.
However, the acute absence of URMs and women at the university is particularly conspicuous at the College of Engineering. In the 2008 fall term, Blacks and Latinos each made up only 2 percent of undergraduates. American Indians were also underrepresented at less than 1 percent. Those figures were nearly identical among the graduate student body, of which 54 percent were international students that semester. Meanwhile, women accounted for 19 percent of students collegewide.
Engineering faculty aren't much better. This past school year, only two professors and four associate professors were Latino and two associate professors were Black. Women made up only 13 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty. In 2008, Purdue had only one Latino among its adjunct faculty; no Latinos, Blacks or Native Americans were among its 84 non-tenure-track lecturers or postdoctoral ranks either. During academic year 2009-10, at least six women were added to the full-time engineering faculty, but only one of the 27 individuals hired by February was URM.
The ramifications of such a heavily White male-dominated College of Engineering aren't lost on Cordova, who lacked role models in the sciences herself. The oldest of 12 children, Cordova, who had a lifelong passion for sciences but also an interest and aptitude in creative writing, earned a bachelor's degree in English from Stanford University. For a time, she worked as a journalist, writing and editing for the Los Angeles Times News Service. "My parents didn't think science had opportunities for gals, and my teachers steered only guys into science."
But she altered course--and her entire trajectory--while living in Cambridge, Mass. …