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How can architecture schools increase diversity?

Solving the pipeline problem is the key to a less homogenous architecture industry

When Patricia Nakaghala Muumba, a junior at the Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, was in second grade, a new building taking shape next to her elementary school in Kampala, Uganda, stirred her curiosity. Muumba, 21, noticed the construction every day on her way home, and eagerly awaited the day when she could attend as a middle school student.

Her fascination with architecture grew once she started sixth grade and learned about the principal’s vision for using the building to create a more cohesive student body, and as a student, she was intrigued by how the school building made her and her classmates feel.

After two years in the building, Muumba knew she wanted to be an architect, and seeing professionals who looked like her cemented her decision. “When I was younger,” she says, “the architects that I got to know first were predominantly black people.” Observing them inspired her and “helped me definitely make the solid choice.”

That changed dramatically in high school, when Muumba moved to Newton, Massachusetts, and confronted what she called a “huge cultural shock”: the alarming absence of black people in her chosen field. She has a vivid recollection of moving from Uganda, which is largely black, to America, where “the people who actually do architecture … are predominately white.”

According to the latest figures from the National Architectural Accrediting Board, some 24,200 students—of whom 57 percent were bachelor’s students—were enrolled in 2015 at accredited architecture programs at 122 public and private colleges and universities.

The NAAB data also reveals a stark and indisputable racial and ethnic disparity. The overwhelming bulk (44 percent) of all students are white, trailed by Latino students (16 percent); Asian students (9 percent); and black students (5 percent). The balance is made up of international students (18 percent) and ethnic categories in the single digits or so small that they round to zero. Additionally, trend data shows the total number of black architecture students has remained at or near 5 percent since 2008.

With the aim of moving this stubborn needle, leaders at schools of architecture are now focusing more attention and effort on boosting racial and ethnic diversity in their programs—an entrenched and complex problem. The City College of New York Spitzer School of Architecture published a comprehensive study in 2015 mapping the participation of people of color in architecture schools and the profession, concluding that multiple factors are responsible for “discouraging youth of color from pursuing the field of architecture.”

Architecture deans and department heads are increasingly zeroing in on strategies, including diversifying faculty and offering underrepresented youth earlier exposure to architecture, to make racial inclusion part of the culture in the academy. These initiatives, both new and established, share one vital aspect: They attempt to create a new generation of architecture students from diverse backgrounds.

The scarcity of black architects specifically has been a source of concern for nearly five decades. In 1968, Whitney M. Young, Jr., renowned civil rights leader and executive director of the National Urban League, delivered a now-famous rebuke at the annual convention of the American Institute of Architects, denouncing the group’s “thunderous silence” on diversity within the industry even as segregation in housing became a flashpoint in American politics. His speech centered the work of architects and planners in a national conversation about race.

The rich history of black architects in the United States, and the legacy of racism in architecture, dates back to the colonial era. Historians have documented that enslaved craftsmen, who worked without pay or recognition, were involved in the design and building of historic cities and structures, including the White House.

Following the Civil War, with rapid industrialization and Jim Crow laws enacted after Reconstruction, independent black tradesmen largely disappeared. It was the growth of formalized educational opportunities that eventually paved the way for black architects, like Paul Revere Williams, Norma Merrick Sklarek, and Julian F. Abele—trailblazers who built homes in neighborhoods where they couldn’t live and designed higher education institutions they couldn’t attend.

Kent Kleinman, dean of Cornell's architecture school, views enrolling a more racially heterogeneous student body as a non-negotiable goal at his top-ranked program: “It’s not an option not to be diverse if we want to serve our principal mission,” he says. About one of five undergrads—21 percent—is an “underrepresented minority,” an umbrella term the university uses for black, Latino, Native American, and Pacific Islander adults.

Kleinman notes that out of roughly 300 undergraduate architecture students, 11 are black—less than 4 percent. While acknowledging that his school is relatively small, Kleinman says Cornell architecture strives to lead disproportionate to its size.

One area that Kleinman identifies as “essential to the success of … diverse students” is advising. Faculty advising, which is mainly academic, and staff advising, which he says was bolstered significantly in the last decade, work jointly to ensure students have a strong support system.

Cornell also recently launched an award for high school students from historically underrepresented groups interested in pursuing an architecture degree. The all-expenses-paid, six-week program brought its first cohort of students—three black teens from New York and Detroit—to the Ithaca, New York, campus last summer.

Though it’s too early to measure the full impact of this program, Kleinman calls it “one of the most satisfying, concrete efforts to try to increase the application pool … I think [it’s] where we can do some real measurable good.”

Where Cornell architecture has had significantly less success is in hiring more diverse faculty members. Nationally, Kleinman cites an exceedingly small pool of black candidates and the need to graduate more students of color to feed the pipeline.

In contrast, Muumba emphasizes the lack of black women on the faculty and the challenges posed by this imbalance. “The first step was [hiring] a male professor of color, [but] they forget that they admit more female architecture students of color … diversity for me is someone who [shares my race] … and someone who relates to me because I’m female.”

The void is most acute, Muumba says, when it comes to finding mentors in her field. “Cornell architecture is a very vigorous program, and the one thing that will get you through it is just having support,” she explains, adding that faculty who shared her identity—something that white and Asian students “have automatically”—would’ve helped ease her transition into college.

A set of architecture schools that have achieved the seemingly impossible feat of having both racially and ethnically diverse student bodies and faculties are historically black colleges and universities.

The most recently available data shows that the seven HBCUs that offer NAAB-accredited degrees accounted for 30 percent of all architecture degrees awarded to black students nationally. And black faculty comprise 44 percent of the professors at HBCUs, compared to 3 percent of faculty members at all NAAB-accredited programs nationwide.

These stats are no surprise to Robert L. Easter, chair of the architecture department at Hampton University, a historically black college in Hampton, Virginia. Easter says his work is twofold: first, to produce students who are excellent at architecture, and second, to make sure that excellence is recognized by a larger audience.

He takes pride in the personal outreach that his program makes to each student, saying: “We mentor, we tutor, we coerce, we work students hard, but we do it with a touch of love and understanding … We set [the bar] pretty high.”

A priority for Easter is visiting K-12 public schools and talking to students about architecture. Students he’s mentored have ultimately enrolled in the architecture program at Hampton, and his program has formally partnered with schools in the region to bring students of all ages to the campus to sit in on classes and meet Hampton’s architecture students.

“You can't set your compass in a direction you're not familiar with. You can't set your goal on something that you've never seen,” says Easter, stressing the urgency of exposing black youth to the architecture field. Easter also knows, as a licensed black architect himself, what his students will likely face when they enter the industry. So the curriculum combines academic rigor with guidance on how to navigate bias and professional hurdles.

“We are teaching our students to dominate in a world where they may not [be] the dominant culture,” he says. “[They] have to leave this program not just prepared to work in an office; they've got to be prepared to take over the office.”

His program’s diverse environment is key to this preparation, and it also emphasizes intersectionality. Half of Easter’s students are young women, and more than half of his faculty are women. “Our students have to learn to embrace the world that they’re going to work in: people of color and not of color, women, men, and gay, lesbian, and transgender [persons.] We want [them] to take charge wherever they are.”

At the University of Texas at Austin, the drive to create a more diverse student body through a race-conscious admissions program thrust the flagship campus into national headlines. In June 2016, the Supreme Court upheld the university’s affirmative action program, which considers race as one factor, among many, in ensuring an inclusive educational setting.

Within the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, the number of black undergraduates has nearly tripled in the last decade. In 2006, the school enrolled eight black students; this academic year it’s up to 22. Black architecture students are still a small fraction of the school’s 331 students, but their numbers are steadily growing.

Elizabeth Danze, interim dean of the School of Architecture at UT Austin, says she’d like to see a much higher rate of growth. “I think it’s got to be intentional. So we need to be recruiting them.” Danze credits the studio culture in architecture schools with creating a strong sense of community and helping scholars form stronger bonds across racial and class lines—students spend 12 to 15 hours a week in small groups that become “a home within the university.”

She also believes a diverse faculty is integral to growing a diverse student body, and in fall 2016 welcomed two emerging scholars as part of a new initiative focused on race and gender disparity. One of the fellows, Andrea Roberts, a black graduate of UT School of Architecture, is teaching a course this spring on cultural landscape and ethnographic methods.

Danze says that like other schools, UT Austin struggles to have a more diverse faculty, but she hopes the new project will be a conduit to improvement. When it comes to boosting the number of black students in her program, she measures success on a continuum: “Have we attracted them to apply? Have we accepted them? Did they come? Are they here and thriving? Are they able to be socially connected? Those are all the facets of being an undergrad.”

Achieving racial and ethnic student diversity is one of the toughest challenges architecture schools face, says Michael Lucas, associate dean of the College of Architecture and Environmental Design at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. And in California, one of the most racially and ethnically diverse states in the country, Lucas says the issue is equally important for white students.

“In a profession like architecture, you're going to have multiple publics. If you don't prepare for that, you're going to have a problem,” he says. “Because the fundamental issue is designing for someone who is not you. That’s a profound revelation for a lot of students who haven't been exposed to any people other than the group they've grown up with.”

The San Luis Obispo Tribune in 2015 examined Cal Poly’s campus diversity and found white students made up more than half of incoming freshmen in all of the university’s colleges except one: architecture. Still, the dismally low number of black architecture students observed across institutions was consistent—less than 2 percent at Cal Poly, compared to other racial and ethnic groups in the double digits.

Lucas says it’s critical to factor in how racial diversity intersects with economic diversity to fully assess the problem at architecture schools. Career Igniter, an online resource for job seekers, shows the cost of an undergraduate architecture degree ranging from $15,000 a year on the low end to over $60,000 on the high end.

As a result, Lucas says majoring in architecture can be inherently difficult for economically disadvantaged students. “If we combine underrepresented [racial] status with lower-income [status], it’s the added issue of how do you afford a five-year program, which is what an architectural degree is [at] the undergraduate [level].”

To address the financial gap, Cal Poly architecture partnered with about 10 to 15 community colleges across the state to better align their curriculum and ensure transfer students are well-prepared to enter Cal Poly’s architecture school in their third year. Completing the first two years of the five-year program in community college provides a major cost savings, Lucas says.

Though the school of architecture has been engaged in this work for many years, he admits it’s been “moved to the front burner.” And not simply because of the numbers, but because of the school’s mission: “We’re supported by the people of California … we’re obligated to provide this opportunity to all of the students in this state, and the diversity they represent.”

Heads of architecture schools uniformly agree that boosting the racial and ethnic mix in their institutions is a work in progress. And students like Patricia Muumba challenge them to do more and better—for their students.

“It definitely has been more challenging since I moved to the U.S.,” she says, adding that she sometimes questions if studying architecture is “really worth it [or] the place I'm supposed to be.” Yet she’s optimistic that one day she’ll be a role model for a future black architecture student: “If I put effort and put all the ability that I know I have in it … I could be that person for another person.”


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