UMEC event takes hard look at campus diversity

Salam Rida/Daily
Center for Engineering Diversity and Outreach managing director Robert Scott (right) talks with attendees at a town hall meeting hosted by University of Michigan Engineering Council last night. LGBT rights activist Jim Toy (back left) also spoke at the event. Buy this photo

BY BETHANY BIRON
Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 20, 2010

The University of Michigan Engineering Council hosted a town hall meeting at the Lurie Engineering Center last night that featured discussion on the importance of establishing a positive social climate on campus and increasing tolerance among students.

A panel of University officials opened the program, including Jim Toy, a leading gay rights activist in the state and co-founder of what is now called the Spectrum Center, Director of the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities Stuart Segal, Associate Dean of the College of Engineering James Holloway, and Managing Director of the Center for Engineering Diversity and Outreach Robert Scott. The group spoke to a crowd of about 75 students about increasing diversity on campus and then opened up the floor for questions.

In light of recent incidences of bullying against LGBT young people, including Michigan Student Assembly President Chris Armstrong, Toy spoke about why the Spectrum Center is a crucial tool for gay, lesbian and transgendered students on campus. As a co-founder, Toy helped launch the center — which was called the Office of LGBT Affairs at the time — after the Gay Liberation Front in Ann Arbor asked the University to develop an organization that would cater to the needs of homosexual students.

Toy said he hopes to foster an environment of increased tolerance at the University by quelling hateful speech and cheers at hockey games, which he hopes University Athletic Director David Brandon makes a priority.

“The climate at hockey games is totally sexist and totally homophobic, and that situation has got to get addressed,” Toy said.

Extending the conversation beyond sexual orientation, the panel emphasized decreasing segregation in the classroom and on campus, particularly within the College of Engineering.

Holloway said many students view the liberal arts and humanities classes as pivotal places for learning the basics of respectful discussion and diverse interaction, but many don’t think they can learn the same values in the more science and math-based and less interactive discipline of engineering — a notion he believes is false.

“Sometimes as engineers, we tend to step back and say we do analytical stuff that’s all very clear cut and scientific, and so we don’t have that same kind of issue, we don’t interact in the same way,” Holloway said. “Of course that’s garbage, because we interact with each other in exactly those ways.

“Our ability to interact with each other in a respectful way, to hear each others' needs, to take into account how various stakeholders have competing needs and how to balance those are very important as engineers,” he added.

Scott, a University alum, said while integration has greatly increased since he graduated in 1975, he still sees students of the same ethnicity clinging together and not venturing outside racial boundaries.

“The fact that minority students are here does not mean that they are necessarily included and engaged,” Scott said. “You can walk around campus and see diversity, and see that diversity moves in clumps. Our center is all about trying to change the paradigm.”

Halloway said the College of Engineering is also working to increase diversity in gender in the engineering field. He added that the college has been trying to implement various techniques to enroll more women in engineering programs, especially computer engineering which has been a predominantly male-driven concentration.

“One strategy that we are trying to peruse is to recruit faculty that are more representative of the student body, and we’ve actually had some pretty good success with women faculty in some departments,” Holloway said.

Scott said while female enrollment in computer science engineering is low, information technology companies are continually looking to recruit female employees, adding that women engineers should not be discouraged by the prevalence of men in industry.

“Women do as well or better than men in industry from an IT standpoint,” Scott said. “Corporations are doing everything they can to encourage women to go into computer science and computer engineering because there’s a desperate need for that talent going forward.”

In addition to embracing racial and gender equality, Segal said he believes students need to be more aware of the prevalence of disabilities and unreported mental disorders on campus. Segal said he hopes that students with mental disorders will someday feel more comfortable about being open about them in order to get rid of negative stereotypes.

“Most of the disabilities that are on campus are invisible,” Segal said. “A person with a disability has their own sort of needs, wants, desires, comforts, and securities around the issue. There’s a lot of stigma within these groups to be public and identify themselves.”

Segal said that because students he works with want to keep their mental disorders secret among friends, when he encounters them on campus they often ignore him.

“There’s still a lot of work to do to get people even comfortable with their own disability, to see it not in such a stigmatized way, because we all carry a bunch of stereotypes, particularly with mental health issues,” Segal said.

Engineering senior Bethany Glesner, honors and services director of UMEC, said the group decided to throw the event after receiving grievances that meetings were failing to focus on improving the state of campus life.

“We had gotten complaints in the past that our general body meetings were boring and not useful, so we were trying to come up with a way to get not only the student organizations involved but also the student population at large to come and actually participate,” Glesner said.

“People are willing to talk about campus climate and people are willing to help if you have problems,” she added. “There are resources and campus climate can be a problem, but it can also be improved.”