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Diversity in Action

Cornell University seeks underrepresented techies

Providing IT and engineering support for more than 30,000 students, faculty and staff "is like running a small city," says the recruiting manager

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Constance Thompson: The university's IT demands are just mind-boggling.

Constance Thompson: The university's IT demands are just mind-boggling.

Constance Thompson manages diversity recruitment for nonacademic staff at Cornell University in upstate New York. She notes that the school's mission, to "educate the leaders of tomorrow and extend the frontiers of knowledge," requires technical support from a host of IT and engineering specialists in areas like software, programming, development and facilities engineering.

"IT for a major research and teaching university is just mind-boggling," Thompson continues. "We're faced with many different kinds of demands, depending on what's needed."

Cornell has a VP for IT who's responsible for administrative systems, security, technology infrastructure, network and communication services, systems and operations, and more. The current IT VP, Thompson notes, is a woman.

Each of Cornell's fourteen colleges and administrative units has its own director of IT. This decentralized structure allows more freedom to meet the individual IT needs of each unit, and supports the academic freedom most universities pride themselves on.

The university hires software developers, programmers, engineers and people with expertise in consulting, advising, implementation and project management. "Our IT needs parallel those of many corporations," Thompson explains. "We need to be able to customize and implement off-the-shelf solutions, which means we need to hire IT pros who understand the technology and can also connect to end users."

Besides IT, areas of growth include biomedical engineering, nanotechnology, technology transfer, finance and financial systems.

Cornell has strong Asian, Latino, African American and LGBT communities and has seen a rise in minority staff since 2000. Thompson notes that the university's diversity initiative actually began with the students. "They were looking around and saying, 'You guys don't look like us.'" The school's 2005 student population was about 69 percent white, 18 percent Asian, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, 6 percent Hispanic, 5 percent African American and 2 percent Native American. Last year's staff demographics came out to 59 percent women, 92 percent white, 3 percent African American, 2 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 1 percent Hispanic and .1 percent Native American/Alaskan Native.

Of the Cornell faculty, 86 percent are white, 3 percent African American, 2 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, and .4 percent Native American/Alaskan Native.

The 2005 numbers represent significant growth in Asian/Pacific Islander and Hispanic staff and faculty since 2000. "That's been very encouraging for us," says Thompson.

The university is working to increase the proportion of underrepresented populations on its staff. Affirmative action representatives help analyze each university unit's figures, then offer resources to help improve the situation.

One encouraging development is the Cornell Recruitment Partnership that connects Cornell's nonacademic staff recruiters with diversity-focused community organizations. The partnership includes groups like the Ithaca Asian American Association, the Latino Civic Association, the Women's Opportunity Center, the historic Southside Community and Greater Ithaca Activities Centers, the New York State Department of Labor, Challenge Industries, the Urban League and the NAACP. Black fraternities and sororities are also involved in the partnership, including Alpha Phi Alpha, which was founded at Cornell a hundred years ago.

Staff recruiters and supervisors have received diversity recruitment training, and Thompson has established a "recruiter roundtable" to foster communication and standardize recruitment practices in the decentralized university environment. "We've done a lot, but we have much farther to go," she says.

Retention is another important goal for the school. For example, there are monthly roundtable discussions and university-sponsored social and community programs for all university employees. Cornell's work and family advisory council, made up of staff, faculty and interested students, looks at many needs and challenges. The school is investigating near-site childcare arrangements. Religious accommodations are made when needed, and flextime is available.

The campus has a disability services office for students and staff, and is the home of the Employment and Disability Institute, a research and technical assistance center.

"We try to make our decisions based on the greater need and the greater good," Thompson explains.


Cornell University

Headquarters: Ithaca, NY
Employees: 2,630 faculty, 8,570 staff
Students: 20,300
Endowment: $3.7 billion
Business: Private research university with fourteen graduate and undergraduate colleges and schools
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