As part of its ongoing efforts to become more diverse at the faculty level, Penn is looking to recruit from a somewhat surprising source: high schools.
Several of the school-specific versions of the University’s Action Plan for Faculty Diversity and Excellence — which were released over the summer — contain goals to begin recruiting potential faculty as early as the high school level. By focusing on younger students, Penn is planning to begin a long-term process of broadening the pipeline of faculty candidates.
The current problem — as most of Penn’s 12 schools agreed in their action plans — is that the existing pool of potential faculty is often far from diverse.
The School of Arts and Sciences, for example, wrote in its action plan that “many SAS departments expressed deep concern about the pools on which they can draw to increase the diversity of their faculty at this time.”
And so while it may seem like an unlikely place start, Penn is looking at high school and even middle school students as the point where the process truly begins.
SAS Vice Dean for Professional and Liberal Education Nora Lewis explained that “if you look at your postdocs and your Ph.D. students and there isn’t diversity there, then you move back to your undergraduate population. If there isn’t enough diversity in students majoring in those fields, you go back even further.”
According to Associate Vice Provost for Equity and Access William Gipson, “Even fourth grade is the time to really begin to help these kids focus on mastery of math and understanding of science and the fascinating world of engineering.”
Gipson compared the process of faculty recruitment to a child growing up with a parent in the field of medicine. That child would automatically have exposure to a career in medicine, Gipson said, and Penn is trying to create a similar effect for “children from zip codes that are underrepresented at Penn.”
Before the action plans were even drafted, many different high school outreach programs focused on career-building already existed within the University.
The School of Veterinary Medicine, for example, has partnered with the Philadelphia Zoo to build interest in becoming a veterinarian from a young age.
Women in Computer Science — a School of Engineering and Applied Science student group — holds programs for female high school students to engage them in computer science and encourage them to pursue careers in the field.
There are also for-credit programs that the College of Liberal and Professional Studies conducts every summer, which allow high school students to take Penn courses and experience what it’s like to live on a college campus. LPS supplements these for-credit programs with non-credit, four-week summer academies — in biomedicine, experimental physics, art in the city and social justice — that are catered specifically toward high school students.
Lewis believes programs like these present possibilities for Penn to increase its potential for both a diverse student body and, years down the road, a more diverse faculty.
“This is an opportunity to take programs that we have and leverage them to create greater awareness of and interest in these fields on the part of kids while they’re still in school,” she said. “And maybe if those kids get really engaged in a high school experience, they might consider looking into this field when they get to college and maybe they’ll decide to major in it.”
Despite the University’s goals, most acknowledge that tangible results will not be apparent in the immediate future.
Penn’s efforts are more likely to produce “20-year kind of differences,” said Physics and Astronomy Chair Larry Gladney, who is involved in the department’s summer academy for high school students.
“It’ll take a while,” Gipson explained, “but in the end, I think, we will see results.”
“We’re very avid about building the pipeline,” Penn President Amy Gutmann added. “And we do it both in programmatic ways and also not so much by telling students, but showing them how inspiring it can be to be a University professor.”
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