Duke administrators discussing diversity initiatives is far from unusual, but the Pratt School of Engineering hopes their efforts to tackle diversity issues are more than just talk.

On Wednesday afternoon, the co-chairs of the Pratt Diversity and Inclusion committee—comprised of faculty and undergraduate and graduate students—held a town hall to present recommendations developed by the committee and receive feedback. Pratt Dean Ravi Bellamkonda expressed the engineering school’s commitment to diversity initiatives at the beginning of the event, particularly emphasizing the importance of investing in the people already at Pratt.

“Our people are our biggest assets,” he said. “We want Duke engineering to be a place where we attract the best minds independent of whatever backgrounds, race or ethnicity or sexual orientation, things like this.”

Johnna Frierson, director of Diversity and Inclusion in Pratt and a co-chair of the committee, presented her group's approach to tackling issues of inclusion based on the engineering design process.

“Sometimes when you talk you use more abstract values and initiatives, people feel very intimidated, they don't have the expertise to address these issues,” she said. “I want to put into a conceptual framework that we can all understand, which is the engineering design process.”

The committee is also leveraging data analytics, noted Claudia Gunsch, Theodore Kennedy associate professor and the other co-chair of the committee. Their presentation included Pratt demographics data, including percentages of female, black and Hispanic students and faculty, comparing those figures to national statistics.

Pratt has a markedly higher percentage of female students compared to national figures in undergraduate and graduate programs. Although only about 20 percent of students who receive bachelor of science degrees nationally are female, that number is 32 percent at Pratt. 

There is a similar proportion of black students in Pratt programs compared to the national average, but there is an underrepresentation of Hispanic students. Although about nine percent of masters students in engineering programs nationally are Hispanic, only about one percent are Hispanic in the comparable Pratt program.

Frierson said that their team will apply this data in building upon their current practices toward diversity and recruiting new faculty.

“I think it's important for us to try to mirror the student population that we're serving and interacting with,” she said. “So, if we're looking at targets or goals, the next step for us to be leaders in this area will be to give our faculty numbers to look a little more similar to our student numbers.”

She added that companies and universities show their commitment to diversity initiatives through public-facing messages, strategic plans, developing implementation and financial resources. Pratt as an institution is already committed to and acting upon most of these items, Frierson said.

Gunsch presented the committee’s six areas of focus for diversity initiatives, including accountability and recognition, building an inclusive community, partnerships and pipelines, awareness, training and development, recruitment, hiring and admissions, and mentorship. She emphasized the importance of taking action on these fronts, as opposed to just talking about them. 

Her fellow co-chair pushed the audience to apply some of these recommendations in their work and to think more actively about diversity issues.

“One of the most important things I'll say from the outset is that representation definitely matters," Frierson said. "But what we're really asking for people to do is take it a step further and think about how to actively engage everyone in our community to allow everyone to thrive and be successful."