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Making Diversity a Priority at Purdue

When Dr. France Córdova describes how Purdue University constituencies are increasingly recognizing the value of diversity, she shares this example from a recent debate among five candidates for student body president:

“Two candidates were women, and one was Black,” says Córdova, who as university president moderated the debate. “Yet, as all five of them went through their debate points, it became clear they each had in their platforms improvement of diversity and inclusion. They had various ideas, such as getting minorities and international students more involved in clubs on campus. I’m pleased they had this attitude because it shows the climate on campus is getting better.” 

Increasing opportunities at Purdue for underrepresented populations and providing them sufficient support for success has been a priority for Córdova, one of the few Latinas who has led a major U.S. research institution. As she prepares to step down from the presidency in mid-July, some quantifiable improvements in campus diversity are among her proudest accomplishments. 

For instance, Purdue has narrowed the gap in retention rates between underrepresented minorities—Blacks, Hispanics and American Indians—and the general student population to less than 2.5 percent. Five years ago, which marked the start of Córdova’s presidency, the retention gap was 11 percent. It was even wider between Blacks and the general population at 14 percent.

The current retention rate for underrepresented minorities is 87.8 percent while the overall retention rate is 90.2. And the overall retention rate of Blacks is now 87.4 percent. Among the strategies that Purdue officials attribute to closing these gaps is making mandatory the new student summer advising and registration program.

Also under Córdova, former chief scientist for NASA and an astrophysicist by training, Purdue has nearly doubled the ranks of tenured and tenure-track minority women faculty in STEM disciplines. Last fall, there were 22 women of color, compared with only 12 in 2007 and six in 2004. Financed by a $4 million National Science Foundation grant, a Purdue project called “ADVANCE” aims to improve recruitment, retention and promotion of such women, who are widely outnumbered by White male faculty at the 39,000-student university renowned for producing engineers. One in 50 United States engineers is Purdue-educated. 

Progress in diversity has come slowly. A 2010 self-study showed that Purdue lagged behind other Big Ten universities—large, public institutions in the Midwest—in terms of racial and gender diversity. The university did not have a cabinet-level chief diversity officer until 2009, for example. And only this year did it create a new position of director for gay and lesbian student services, which its Big Ten peers have had for years. 

However, there have been accomplishments in other areas. Under Córdova, the university has doubled its annual research expenditures to $600 million. And, Purdue has received $1 billion in private philanthropic gifts during her presidency, including a $6 million anonymous donation that finances Emerging Urban Leader scholarships in which students from public high schools in Gary, Ind., Indianapolis and East Chicago are awarded $5,000, renewable annually at Purdue.

Córdova currently chairs the Smithsonian Institution’s board of regents and sits on four other boards.

“Dr. Córdova is leaving a tremendous legacy,” says Keith Krach, chairman of Purdue’s board of trustees. “She is an incredible role model for women and has really demonstrated how to do it all.”

Formerly chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, Córdova says she won’t likely consider a presidency or even interim presidency elsewhere. “It’s time to do other things,” she says, jokingly adding, “I’ve got a bucket list.”

While navigating Purdue through Indiana’s state funding cuts, Córdova and other senior administrators devised a decadal funding plan to try to reduce tuition hikes. As she transitions out of the top job this summer, the phase-in of a new trimester will begin in which expanded academic choices will ultimately allow students to fulfill graduation requirements in three rather than four years and, theoretically, save them money. Previously, about 6,000 students attended summer school. That head count could grow to 20,000 when the trimester plan is fully implemented by 2022. For Purdue, it could mean $45 million in additional revenue annually and make better use of its facilities during summers.

Krach says it’s interesting to hear the perspective of his son, currently a Purdue student, and his classmates. “They watch Dr. Córdova closely and really believe she embodies leadership by example.

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