Skin Deep: Is Friedman Doing Enough to Tackle Diversity Issues?

by Caroline Carney

Although the most obvious measure is skin-tone, diversity takes a multitude of forms. There is ethnicity, gender, age, point of view, country of origin, sexual orientation, and socio-economic background—the last of which can be very difficult to perceive within a graduate program. At my undergraduate university, diversity was actively marketed, built into university goals and objectives and regularly celebrated. The student body very clearly lived up to the hype. By contrast, the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy student population is predominantly female and looks overwhelmingly white. A lack of diversity is a very real concern, because in an academic setting, professors and students learn from each other in a constant exchange of thoughts, phrases, facts, and stories. But as I found, it’s a concern that Friedman’s faculty and staff is taking seriously.

Creating a diverse campus does not come easily. Matt Hast, Director of Admissions, is all too familiar with the difficulties in bringing minority students to Friedman. Matt describes himself as fascinated by the challenges posed by diversity. In fact, this is the very subject of his final master’s degree paper. In his role in admissions, he says “you can spend a lot of time thinking about [diversity], coming up with theories, and have nothing to show for it.” It is a topic with which Tufts University as a whole continues to grapple.

The university has been thinking of ways to bring more socio-economic diversity to the classroom. “We are trying to account for it and give people of different economic backgrounds a seat at the table,” Matt explained. Gauging socio-economic diversity at a graduate school can be complicated: it becomes difficult to decipher who is paying the tuition bills when some entering students have been in the workforce for a handful of years. Another bump in the road came a few years ago when the university started giving scholarships based on merit and not financial need. But the meritocracy approach has shortcomings because it assumes an even playing field. “Not everyone has access to merit,” according to Matt. How does a school balance being inclusive with being exclusive? Not a simple question to answer, but it is one that Matt tackles daily. His job was complicated even further in 2003, when the Supreme Court ruled against admissions quotas on diversity – making it a challenge to set measurable goals.

The Friedman School is composed of approximately 10% international students, a drop from the 20% seen pre 9/11, and 10% domestic minority students. These numbers have not changed much in recent years, but Matt tries to increase them with each entering class by actively recruiting from schools and geographic areas with high minority populations. Nutrition and food issues, such as food insecurity, obesity, and diabetes, tend to be heavily concentrated among minorities. If such a small percentage of our student body and faculty are from these minority populations, are we, as students, missing out because we don’t have enough direct exposure to these populations? If so, what can different members of the Friedman community do to improve the situation?

What the administration can do

Members of the administration are working to bring new, diverse voices to the school. Mark Krumm, Director of Communications, was the primary organizer of the recent Symposium. “We do our very best to find speakers who cover a spectrum of race, gender, and expertise,” he explained. However, when one looks at the slate of speakers at the conference, it does not reflect the speakers of minority background whom were asked but, due to various conflicts, could not attend. The difficulty is compounded by competition from other engagements for the same speakers. Yet, Mark is determined to continue his efforts.

A new, formal partnership with Tuskegee University, which began as an all black school and has maintained that heritage, offers a chance to discuss collaboration. The first meeting is scheduled for January and Patrick Webb, the Academic Dean, hopes it will highlight ways in which Tuskegee and Friedman can exchange faculty and students. Friedman already has a memorandum with schools in China, Thailand, Mexico, and beyond for faculty exchanges. Dean Webb acknowledges that these efforts will not solve the problem of homogeneity but they are part of the solution. Overall, he said, it is “about finding windows of opportunity and breaking through that glass.”

In terms of diversifying the faculty, Mark said the Friedman School advertises for positions specifically on websites that cater to minorities. These efforts don’t always result in a minority hire, though, because the pool of qualified individuals is already very small. Dean Webb echoed this sentiment noting that “in all our faculty searches, faculty from developing nations apply.” However, it can be incredibly difficult to bring someone in from halfway across the world. Additionally, the Friedman School is looking for that sweet spot of experience: a veteran in academia may not still have the drive to really teach and a neophyte post-doc may not have the experience to take on a class. Someone in that “middle ground,” as Dean Webb calls it, is difficult to find.

 

What professors can do

Professors are able to provide unique insight into how to forge relationships and foster dialogue across the ethnic, racial, and socio-economic divide. They can talk about how diversity has played a role in their research, and some professors already do this. Many of us may have heard the story of when Dr. Chris Economos was speaking to a community group about a research project and how those in the audience stood up, turned their seats around, and sat with their backs to her in a form of protest. The audience may have been thinking “how could she, as a privileged white woman, understand us, the problems we face in our jobs, the long hours and the low pay?” Dr. Economos shared this story in a class to show the challenges faced during the research process, specifically in community based participatory research, and discuss strategies for overcoming these obstacles.

These types of discussions already take place in the classroom and during office hours, but more classes could explicitly address how minority issues come into play in nutrition and food programs and policies. When I broached this subject with Dean Webb, he proposed that the school should offer more opportunities, perhaps in the form of seminars and panels, for students and professors to discuss the process of designing research within populations outside our own and not just the results.

What students can do

Students have a responsibility to raise the issue of diversity in the classroom when they feel it is not being addressed. We can challenge our professors to share more about how they have structured interactions with various populations. Engaging in the diverse communities within Boston is yet another way to bring diversity to the table. Jumbo’s Kitchen, which teaches cooking classes to children in Dorchester, is a fun way to get hands-on experience engaging with a minority population. There are opportunities to volunteer with the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, a Friedman program that helps people, including immigrants, start farming in the Massachusetts. Such opportunities abound at the Friedman School. The more interest students show in these programs the more robust they will become.

The Friedman School does more than just scratch the surface of diversity issues. But more can and should be done so that the nutrition-minded community is more deeply integrated and thus better prepared to face the health challenges within minority populations. Hopefully the information provided here will spur not only discussion, but also action. We also need to remember that the challenge of increasing diversity is not unique to Friedman. The entire field needs to lock horns with this pivotal issue, because in the coming decades it will unquestionably make the difference in our ability to engage and solve nutrition problems. Regardless of how much we know, the measure of our effectiveness will be in who much change we can effect—especially in the communities that need that help the most.

To learn more about how Tufts University and The Friedman School engage in diversity issues click here:

http://provost.tufts.edu/1178544476276/Provost-Page-prov2w_1257775065326.html.

Caroline Carney is a second year Nutrition Communication student and is also working towards her Dietetic Internship. She likes to go running along the Charles with friends and to cook elaborate meals.

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