Carnegie Mellon University

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portrait of Shawn Blanton

September 14, 2020

Blanton Brings Passion for Diversity to University Level

Interim Vice Provost for DEI emphasizes importance of recruiting

By Bruce Gerson

Shawn Blanton wasn’t looking for another assignment. The Trustee Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering in his 26th year at Carnegie Mellon is teaching, advising six Ph.D. students — with a few more on their way — and leading a research group pursuing a National Science Foundation grant to create technologies that help to serve the underserved.

A full plate, for sure, but when university leadership came calling days after announcing 34 action items to promote equity and inclusion, he felt compelled to accept.

“This is something I’m passionate about,” said Blanton, who was asked to serve as Interim Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. “We have a lot of work to do, but over the last several years, there’s not only a recognition that something’s got to be done, for the first time there are significant resources being provided to make it happen.” 

Blanton has helped make it happen in the College of Engineering as a member of its DEI Planning Committee. Now, he’s bringing his expertise to the university level with a focus on increasing diversity among faculty and students, and expanding CMU’s engagement with the Pittsburgh community.

The College of Engineering has been successful attracting minorities by taking a proactive approach, Blanton said. Faculty and staff have become recruiters at conferences, such as the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) Convention, and have been seeking out opportunities and avenues to expand their search process.

“Alabama football and Duke basketball don’t sit back and wait for superstars to show up at their door. They’re out there fiercely recruiting the best athletes. We have to do the same thing,” said Blanton, who has been recognized by US Black Engineer for his leadership in recruiting. 

The College of Engineering has doubled its investment in the Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship program at the University of California, which provides academic and research opportunities for women and minorities. Seven Presidential Postdoctoral Fellows have come to CMU and two have accepted faculty positions. 

“We have a lot of work to do, but ... for the first time there are significant resources being provided to make it happen.” 

Engineering also is a member of the national GEM Consortium, a clearinghouse for prospective minority graduate students. Blanton said Engineering had the most GEM grad students last two years and received the nonprofit’s biggest honor. 

“This is a huge accomplishment, and we’re going to easily double that number over the next year,” he said. “All our peers, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Georgia Tech and Michigan are GEM members. But we’re number one.”

Blanton credits Provost Jim Garrett, former dean of the College of Engineering, Jon Cagan, former interim dean of the College of Engineering, and a team of committed department heads for the success. He’s looking forward to spreading the progress across campus.  

“The School of Computer Science, Mellon College of Science, Heinz College and the Tepper School all have technical STEM programs and they can easily jump into what Engineering has done over the last several years. I’ve talked to several deans already, and there’s enthusiasm there. They want to see this happen,” he said. 

Blanton plans to brainstorm with the Office of Admission on ways to engage and follow up with prospective undergraduate minority students from Pittsburgh Public Schools.

“If we can get Pittsburgh students excited, the next step would be creating a pipeline so they follow through with the application process.”

“I’m wondering if they know the stars of Hamilton and Star Trek 2 went to CMU,” he said. “If we can get Pittsburgh students excited, the next step would be creating a pipeline so they follow through with the application process.”

Local community engagement is another way to help recruit Pittsburgh students. Blanton hopes to have more Pittsburghers — students and parents — on campus after the pandemic.   

“There are such amazing things here, from robotics to drama. You have Oscar winners on one side of campus and Nobel laureates on the other, and everything in between. It would be very powerful if we get this community to know more about this place,” he said.

Blanton also wants to increase awareness and expand the reach of CMU’s high school and summer programs post-pandemic.

“I’m a data guy,” he said, “so I’d like to see once they have awareness, are they utilizing the programs, and if not, why not. Are there barriers to these opportunities? If they engage, is it successful for them? Our ultimate goal is they end up at CMU as their next step in education.”

Blanton is encouraged about the current climate at CMU. He said it’s important for the community to become more aware of the efforts taking place and the opportunities to participate.

“A lot has happened, and a lot is happening. I’m very optimistic,” he said.