The Carnegie Corporation of New York named Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe one of seven honorees for the 2017 Academic Leadership Award last Tuesday. The award recognizes American university and college presidents and provides $500,000 to the recipient’s academic initiative.
The Academic Leadership Award specifically noted Klawe’s work to increase student diversity. During Klawe’s time as HMC president, the college’s female student population has increased from 29 percent in 2006 to 48 percent this year.
Today, African Americans make up four percent of the student body and Hispanics make up 20 percent, up from one percent and seven percent respectively in 2010.
Klawe emphasized the importance of the institution’s role over the individual president in achieving this progress.
“Presidents get all the credit and all the blame, and neither is completely deserved,” Klawe said. She cited the college’s associate deans for their work on a range of programming for attracting both a diverse pool of students and potential faculty members. “A president can’t be successful unless the faculty, staff, and students are really aligned in doing the work,” she said.
However, this progress has not come without its challenges.
“Some parts of the college have moved faster than others,” Klawe said. “When I arrived … people would say things like, ‘We’re a merit-based institution, and if we become more diverse it would mean lowering standards.’”
While the initiative to increase diversity of both the gender and racial makeup of the student population began more than 10 years ago, Klawe admits the college made very little progress racially for the first six years.
“It took a lot longer for us to make progress on race than it took for us to make progress on gender, even though we were working on both of them at the same time,” Klawe said. “Sometimes people interpret what happened at [HMC] was, ‘Well they decided to fix gender first, then they turned to race.’ But it’s not true.”
Different strategies were used to attract African American students and Hispanic students to HMC’s application pool. Klawe cites the lesser-known reputation of HMC at the time as a factor in college decisions among high achieving African American students who were admitted by the college but chose to go elsewhere.
“We had to find a way to become better known,” Klawe said. “Both in general and also within the African American community.”
Despite the large population of Hispanics in the local region, the college was wary of regional public schools’ standards of education, Klawe said. Instead, the college focused on admitting and increasing support for students who may be entering college less prepared.
“When you make that kind of progress there is going to be a lot of things you find out about in the culture that is not going to be supportive of those students as it is for your traditional students, which for us was white male,” Klawe said. “How do you not privilege the student who went to [Philips] Andover or Exeter versus the students who went to Montclair High School? How do you set things up that they are just as likely to succeed as others?”
HMC has worked to expand support systems for students, including the academic excellence program, peer academic liaisons, companion classes, workshops, and tutors. Additionally, the college has redesigned curriculae in computer science and engineering to serve students of varying experience levels and with more hands-on implementation.
“One of the things that makes [HMC] so successful is that we’re willing to say we aren’t perfect and it is so much easier to change an institution if you’re willing to admit you’re not perfect,” Klawe said. “The world is changing and if we’re really serious about giving students the best education we can, we have to change.”
The role of support systems for students has become a prominent issue on Mudd’s campus. Last semester, HMC faced a number of student protests and a two-day class cancellation as a result of a TSL article that detailed the Wabash report, an external review of the curriculum commissioned by the college that was leaked to TSL. The report concluded HMC’s workload was excessive and didn’t leave any free time for students.
“It was like the place boiled over,” Klawe said. “We were incredibly worried that one of our students or one of our faculty would have a nervous breakdown or commit suicide or something terrible would happen. It just felt there was too much pain and suffering.”
This year, the college has focused on providing mental health services on campus, additional funds for diversity groups, and more diversity and inclusion programming for faculty. The college is also looking to review the core curriculum, potentially cutting down to four courses a semester, according to Klawe. Since the process to review and redesign the core curriculum of HMC would take three years, faculty members are trying to slightly lighten the workload in the meantime, Klawe said.
While HMC is undecided on what academic initiative the Carnegie award will fund, Klawe guessed it will go toward a more supportive environment for students, faculty, and staff.
“We’re trying as a whole, as a community, to become more inclusive,” Klawe said.
The initiative, which may last up to three years, will be chosen with input from the campus community. Previous strategic planning groups have had up to a third of students participating, Klawe said.
“Just as the reason we won this award was because of the hard work of our entire community, I want our entire community to have input on what we might spend it on,” she said.