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Spring Quarter Letter from the Dean

Modified: April 21, 2015

Dear Members of the Graduate and Postdoctoral Community at Northwestern University,

Warm Spring Quarter greetings from The Graduate School (TGS)! This academic year has been a whirlwind of activity during which TGS has made much progress on our strategic goals. I’m pleased to share with you information about our work in our latest annual Strategic Plan Update (click to read).
In this update, we discuss the progress we have made to “Diversify, Serve, and Engage” (the name of our original five-year strategic plan) the Northwestern graduate community. If you have not already done so, I encourage you also to review ourstrategic plan (along with last year’s update) to get a sense of just how much we’ve accomplished together over these past three years.

As many of you have heard me say during my time as Dean, diversity and inclusion are essential components of any truly excellent intellectual community in our time. Diversity of people and of thought insures that we not only see the world from many different perspectives, but that we also ask the sometimes unusual questions that lead to the improbable discoveries. And diverse communities also best prepare our students for engagement with the world as global citizens. In addition to the intellectual reasons for my commitment to diversity and inclusion in our academic institutions, I hope you might allow me for a moment to share some of my deeply-seated personal ones as well. 

I was not at all destined to become an academic.  Indeed, I am quite certain that growing up as I did—son of a sharecropper’s daughter and a laborer’s son in the small town of Belton, South Carolina—that I had neither met any such people, nor understood it as a career to which one might even aspire.   But I was fortunate that even as textile workers in rural South Carolina, my parents understood well the significance of a college education for my younger sister and me.  Though they themselves never had the opportunity to attend college, they worked tirelessly to make certain my sister and I both did.  To this day, I remain inspired by their uncommon sacrifice and their sense of purpose and conviction.  Their example is, in part, the reason I so deeply appreciate the importance of providing access to the same opportunity to all members of our society. 

Indeed, given the demographic trends in the U.S., it is perhaps more important now than ever that we be mindful of issues of access to higher education for our rapidly diversifying population. Undoubtedly, my vision and values have been shaped by my own experiences in South Carolina, in undergrad at Princeton, in graduate school at UCLA, in teaching and research positions at Santa Monica Community College, Occidental College, the University of Louisiana, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and here at Northwestern.  I remain proud of the formal and informal education I received in each of these contexts.  And I am humbled by and indebted to the many teachers and mentors along the way—some who looked like me but even more who did not—who affirmed what native ability and talent I may have had, and nurtured it to become more than it would have been left to the modest circumstances and devices of my birth.  Indeed, I knew a number of talented young black kids in my school days who were smart, charismatic, and hopeful.   The only difference between many of them and me was that I was fortunate enough to have family and mentors who pushed me in the right direction, supported me, expressed their belief in me at the right times, and provided information to me at critical milestones in my life. So as much as we celebrate individual achievement in the academy, I am keenly aware of the investments of the many who have contributed to my being in the place I am in my career today. If it “takes a village to raise a child,” then it takes invested mentors who not only see talent but also potential to produce scholars and thought leaders.

As faculty members, we are more powerful in the recruitment and retention of diverse individuals than we may even know. We give off messages that are both conscious and unconscious in our interactions with would-be students. As diversity and inclusion work does not happen by accident, but rather, through intention, it must be front-of-mind for us in order to create and sustain progress in this endeavor. As I’ve said before, our numbers are so relatively small and this work so important that we must be mindful that every student counts, every interaction counts, every intention counts, every effort counts, and every program counts.

To take this a step further, as our recruitment successes mount, so must our retention successes. We must now move beyond “retention” and begin using the word “thrive” when we discuss our efforts to create an inclusive community. I am more likely to thrive when I know that you care about me and are invested in my success. I am more likely to thrive when you believe I am capable and smart.  I am more likely to thrive when you set high expectations and show me your commitment to helping me achieve them. My vision for a thriving community is one where each of its members feels that they not only belong, but also are able to thrive, and that Northwestern is invested in their success.

I share these observations not to rehearse time-honored understandings of the functions, realities, and framing influences of race (not to mention gender, class, and sexuality) in the US, but rather to remind us that we all have opportunities to play a role in developing and nurturing the next generation of diverse thought leaders.  Whether it’s in our personal lives, in our classrooms, in our laboratories, in our offices, in our applicant pools, in our recruitment efforts, we can all be alive and attuned not only just to demonstrated intellectual talent (which is often a byproduct of advantageous social circumstances), but also to incredible intellectual potential (which can flower with the investment of the right mentoring and pedagogy and a modicum of support).  So if my personal example stands for anything, let it be for the power and potential of the admixture of talent, potential, good mentoring, and nurturing support.  While we may not individually have the power to change the world (or even the academy), I firmly believe that the gift of mentoring and fostering potential is a responsibility that each and every one of us can take up within our respective spheres of influence.

I am pleased to share that as of April 15, 2015, 80 admitted underrepresented minority (URM) applicants have declared their intent to enroll in TGS academic programs this fall. This is up from 47 URM students last year and represents 15.5% of the total PhD admitted applicants who have declared intent to enroll.  These are historic numbers for TGS and for Northwestern. This is strong evidence of the successful recruitment work of faculty and students in many of our doctoral programs: we are truly making strides in our efforts. Later this year, we will release our annual Report on Diversity, which will discuss the progress we have made in the last year program by program, and it will also discuss resources for those of you who would like to get more involved in working with TGS’s Office of Diversity & Inclusion, which is led by Assistant Dean Nsombi B. Ricketts.

I wish each of you continued success as we work toward the conclusion of this academic year.


Dwight A. McBride, PhD
Associate Provost & Dean of The Graduate School

From the Dean