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Forest White - Alfred P. Sloan Foundation awards grant to create a University Center of Exemplary Mentoring at MIT

David R. Gordon | Office of Foundation Relations
April 1, 2015

MIT has received a major grant — one of only three awarded nationally — from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to create a “University Center of Exemplary Mentoring” (UCEM) that will focus on the recruitment, retention, and academic success of underrepresented minority doctoral students in four departments in the School of Engineering: Biological Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Chemical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering.

The MIT UCEM will carry out strategic and customized recruitment strategies tailored to the four participating departments, as well as a structured program that addresses key barriers to retention and educational success consisting of academic support, mentoring, and personal and professional development opportunities.

Under the terms of a three-year, $840,000 grant, 36 underrepresented doctoral students will be recruited to participate in the UCEM.

MIT Dean for Graduate Education and the Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Christine Ortiz, who is the principal investigator overseeing the initiative, noted that the grant will benefit individual students, the participating departments, and the Institute as a whole. “Aside from the significant positive impact on the participating students,” she said, “the UCEM will greatly enrich MIT’s diversity efforts overall. It will enhance synergy and momentum, awareness, and sharing of best practices within the four participating departments. It also will make possible the expansion and development of programmatic and assessment methods in the recruitment and retention of underrepresented doctoral students.” She added that each of the participating departments is known for its strong record of success in recruiting underrepresented minority doctoral students and is eager to be part of the UCEM’s programming.

The UCEM will be an attractive incentive for prospective students thinking about matriculating to MIT. “We also plan to use part of the Sloan funding to provide all of the scholars with a variety of networking and community building activities,” Ortiz added.  “We see this grant as a direct way to promote the diversity of our student body.”

Blanche E. Staton, senior associate dean for graduate education, noted that the grant from the Sloan Foundation would enable MIT “to build on our long track record of success in encouraging underrepresented students to matriculate in doctoral programs in the STEM fields.” She added that the review committee made a special point of praising efforts such as the MIT Summer Research Program, begun in 1986, which has brought talented undergraduates to spend the summer preparing for graduate work, and the CONVERGE workshop, an intensive four-day preparatory weekend aimed at successfully introducing new students to graduate study at MIT. 

Staton also cited the inherent importance of diversity in “helping us tackle and solve world problems. A more diverse student body, by definition, will strengthen our entire community by bringing diverse perspectives and talent to bear on our common challenges.”

When MIT initially received an invitation from the Sloan Foundation to participate in this competition, President L. Rafael Reif welcomed the opportunity to address the challenge directly.  “MIT is deeply committed to recruiting and ensuring the success of graduate students from underrepresented minority groups,” he wrote to the foundation. “The opportunity to participate in the Sloan Foundation’s Minority PhD Program would enable us to enhance our existing efforts, which are critical to increasing the pipeline of minority PhD graduates in STEM fields.”

A team of faculty from the four participating departments — Leslie A. Kolodziejski, professor and graduate officer of electrical engineering and computer science; David Hardt, professor and graduate officer of mechanical engineering; Patrick Doyle, professor and graduate officer of chemical engineering; and Forest White, professor and graduate officer of biological engineering — as well as Eboney Hearn, assistant dean for diversity initiatives in the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education (ODGE) will serve as the governing body for the UCEM. In addition, the team will leverage Institute-wide efforts focused on community, equity, inclusion, and diversity through physics professor and Institute Community and Equity Officer Edmund Bertschinger, as well as through Blanche Staton.

 “This has been a wonderful team effort,” said Ortiz in reflecting on the development and production of a winning proposal. “President Reif and his senior leadership team have all been very supportive. The Office of Foundation Relations and the Office of Institutional Research have been tremendously helpful resources. And members of my staff, along with the dean, faculty, and staff in the School of Engineering, have come together to create a great program.”

“In bringing the four departments together under the ‘umbrella’ of a UCEM,” Ortiz continued, “we expect to enhance and synergize our efforts to create, share, and implement effective practices in recruitment, retention, climate, and academic success for URM students. In turn, we will capitalize on our UCEM and adapt approaches that can be applied Institute-wide to the benefit of all graduate students.”

The Sloan Foundation initially invited approximately 30 leading universities to participate in the UCEM competition. More details can be found on the Sloan Foundation website.