Advancing Diversity: Lessons From a White House Summit

A week after the 2016 presidential election, Cate Rowen, executive director of institutional research and educational assessment at Smith, traveled to Washington, D.C., to be part of a White House Summit on advancing diversity in higher education.

The gathering—which drew more than 100 college representatives, government officials and education experts—focused on topics such as building an inclusive campus and using data-driven strategies to boost student success.

The meeting coincided with the release of a new report, “Advancing Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education,” describing promising practices and key data points.

(Debra Shaver, Smith’s dean of admission, was also invited to the summit to discuss the college’s work on expanding access, but was unable to attend.)

“This was the experience of a lifetime,” said Rowen, who has served on the research advisory committee for the Consortium on Financing Higher Education and as an adviser to studies on SAT-optional admissions.


Cate Rowen, executive director of Smith’s Office of Institutional Research and Educational Assessment, at the recent White House summit.

“I met wonderful people, learned about great work and, most of all, was inspired and strengthened to continue over the next four years,” she added.

Here’s what else Rowen had to say about the gathering.


What was the main purpose of the White House summit?

“It was organized along the lines of a handoff—highlighting what the Obama Administration has been doing over the past eight years in higher education and what we need to continue to do. The agenda included a panel on legal threats to campus diversity and ways to respond to them, with evidence of how diversity leads to student success. I was in a breakout session about how to translate educational research for the public, which was an opportunity for discussion among diversity experts, college representatives and heads of national educational organizations. The idea was to foster connections so the work can be carried on.”


What are some initiatives that need to continue?

“The Obama Administration has done a really good job of talking about what we do in higher education and translating that for the public, as well as foregrounding the access barriers to education that Smith is so committed to addressing. The administration has also done a lot to support the community college sector, which is the vector for many low-income students to get to college. And they’ve attempted to deal with some of the predatory practices of for-profit educational institutions.”


What Smith programs did you share with your colleagues at the summit?

“In informal conversations, I was able to talk about the success of our Achieving Excellence in Mathematics, Engineering and Sciences (AEMES) program. Smith faculty view the problem of the achievement gap in the sciences for students from under-resourced high schools as an issue that can best be solved through support and innovative teaching, rather than changes in admission. There is also some important work happening at Smith around expanding access in math and engineering that our office is involved with. And we are working with the Anita Borg Institute to survey our alumnae about their experiences working in the technology field.”


How does the research done by your office help support diversity and inclusion?

“Smith is doing so much around issues of access and equity. I was very proud to represent us at the summit. Beyond AEMES, the Office of Institutional Research supports a number of faculty initiatives designed to ensure our classrooms are engaging for all students. We have worked extensively with the Clark Science Center on examining and improving the experience of students in the sciences, and we know that diversifying the science pipeline has been a major goal of the Obama Administration. At the conference, I met scholars who are working on strategies to diversify the faculty, which is something Smith is very actively working on right now.”


Did participants talk about the impact of the presidential election results?

“There was some discussion about how what we’re doing to achieve diversity might have to be a private, nonprofit effort for a while, based on the election results. We’ve had eight years of having a presidential administration that really understands higher education, and we’ve gotten used to that. One thing the experts emphasized is that we need to share more evidence of how educational diversity can promote learning for all students. Another message was that higher education needs to do a better job of telling our story—to stop accepting the narrative that we are out of touch with our communities. Overall, I found the summit really moving. It was a source of inspiration to continue working on the issues we care about.”