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In Touch With: Hank McCoullum

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On diversity, inclusion, and life after Penn State

26 July 2017

Hank McCoullum

Henry "Hank" McCoullum, director of the Office of Diversity Initiatives and Multicultural Programs and executive assistant to the dean of the Eberly College of Science, sat down with the college's Office of Communications to reflect on his 40 years as a champion for diversity and inclusion at Penn State and to share his vision for the future. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


In your 40 years at Penn State, what have you seen as the key initiatives toward promoting a culture of diversity and inclusion?

In my 40 years of being here at the University, there have been a number of initiatives that I think have contributed to diversity and inclusion. I would say one of the more important aspects was the creation of a dedicated framework for diversity, which was instituted by Old Main, and the intent was to have every academic unit develop a strategic plan, one that would be published and could be shared with our peers and colleagues as a commitment that the University had to this overall goal. Little did we know at the time that it would become a best practice and model that would go across the country for other universities to emulate. Frequently we still are approached about how we are able to do many of the things that we do, and they are always surprised that we actually publish [our strategic plan], and not only is it published, it’s available to the public to see the kinds of engagement that we have and the outcomes we hope to have once we’ve reached some of those goals. 

When I started, we were not the Eberly College of Science, we were just the College of Science. I say ‘just,’ but we never say ‘just’ when we’re talking about science. There’s nothing ordinary about us. We think of ourselves, and we are, preeminent when it comes to the outreach experiences and the kinds of support that we provide to students. We pay attention to the climate and diversity committee, the leadership that the deans have provided, and I think we’ve become a much more family-friendly college and organization, and one that’s willing to actually engage each other in dialogues. 

Looking at climate in the early years, we didn’t have as many opportunities for leadership engagement for women and underrepresented populations, and so we thought one of the ways that we would go about making changes is providing an administrative fellows program, one that would allow for those individuals that wanted to look beyond their current roles, and I think that as we’ve become more comfortable looking at data the way we would normally approach anything else, particularly research, we have discovered that we still have room for growth and development. And I think that with the current group of department heads and associate heads for diversity and inclusion — and, of course, the dedicated office where I serve — and the commitment to transparency, that we’ll begin to be the kind of college that we’ve always been, but expanding it to be more than just our rankings nationally where research is concerned, but also in terms of the importance of being a family-friendly, student-centered, engaged community of scholars. 


Who, along with you, have been the drivers of change, and what are their contributions?

We’ve been fortunate in the college to have a number of individuals that have been champions. We’ve had not just champions but individuals that have taken on extraordinarily tough roles and made some really hard choices about the initiatives and direction of the college. Believe it or not, we weren’t always comfortable talking about race and religion and sexual orientation — I know you find that hard to believe — but those things were taboo in their earlier years. Norm Freed was one of the persons that I had a chance to work with. He was an associate dean, and in his role we didn’t have as many associate deans as we have now, and so he tended to be the associate dean for everything. Now, of course, we have individuals like Chuck Fisher and Andy Stephenson, Teresa Diehl, Mary Beth Williams, and, of course, Dean Cavener who has continued embracing moving us forward. I would say that when we look at the departments, chemistry and physics have always been the two departments that have carried the banner for the successes that we've had in that area, and when we look at some of the more current initiatives like the Millennium Scholars program. Of course, we were fortunate to have a STEM community that saw the merits and now are part of that activity, but as far as the heavy lifting was concerned, I'm proudly giving the credit to Dean Larson, Mary Beth Williams — Chuck Fisher now is the person who’s in that role — but those individuals were instrumental in making some of the more serious dents into moving us forward, particularly as we look at where we are now, committed to some new programs that will hopefully in the next four or five years will begin to see a number of new PhDs as a result of the commitments the college made and now the University and the rest of the STEM community. As I look internally, of course we've always had our partners. I would say Development helped us move from being just the College of Science to the Eberly College of Science.


In your opinion, what critical steps does Penn State need to take in the next 40 years?

One of the things that I would like to see happen as we look forward, where the University is concerned, I think there are a number of opportunities we still have to make progress, and to embrace one of the slogans that I thought that we would have already in place, and that’s 'excellence through diversity.' The dean has charged our associate heads for equity and diversity with the kind of direction, I think, that will make a difference — having the kind of diversity in departments that reflects not just our commitment to being the best regional university, but the best national and international university, as well. We have the Millennium Scholars program in place; we want to have a similar program for graduate students. Also, with our new communications department, once they're up and running and have the kind of investment, we’ll be able to be more out front and working with our external constituents — that will allow not just for this to be a well-kept secret here in Happy Valley, but also a place that will be not just best in class but, for the College of Science, a college of choice for underrepresented populations. I think that as we look as some of the investments that Development is able to secure for us and the way the alumni are supporting these efforts and initiatives, we’ll also begin to see that in those ranks as well.



As you prepare to leave academic life behind, what are you most proud of?

As I look at the time that I’ve enjoyed and, actually, had the privilege of being part of the Eberly College of Science, I'm proud of a number of activities that we’ve been able to do together. Working with the departments, we started a program that allowed us to do clustering of classes. One of the things that was occurring when I arrived is we had large classes. We were able to look at that effort, particularly since some of the gate-keeping courses were identified, and we were able to have the kind of success with underrepresented groups in small classes that allowed us to extend that to the college community at large. We have embraced being more than just a rigorous college, but being partners with students and the other members of the University community, so I think we’ll begin to look at retention as an important part of who we are, as well. We’ve also begun to look at undergraduate education, and I think that under the auspices of Mary Beth Williams, the kinds of engagement she has in mind will allow us to move forward with opportunities for students outside of the classroom. We’ve already begun to see the kinds of changes that she made: we now have learning assistants, and these are students that are undergraduates who are supporting actually making it possible for us to begin looking at how to impact retention, and actually growing our ability to have students that have always been excited about science actually leave with a degree in science and enjoy getting to the degree.


Is there a particular moment from your time at Penn State that stands out in your mind?

There have been a number of things that stand out in my mind that have had an impression on me. I can remember when my office was over in Whitmore Lab — this was in 1988 — we had student protests occurring in front of the Telecommunications Building. These were underrepresented students asking for the University to be more receptive to the plight and situation of African-American students at the time. But from that confrontation, there was the outgrowth of what’s now known as the Vice Provost for Educational Equity office, and that office has contributed to a number of the partnerships that the College of Science has enjoyed. But I think it shouldn’t always be left up to students to bring about changes. We have to begin to be more committed to looking at ourselves inwardly and working with students to contribute to that overall effort to change who we are and to have the kind of progress that we all agree to and embrace.


If you could pass along a bit of wisdom to your successor, what would it be?

One of the things that I think that I would do if I could pass on wisdom to a successor would be ‘Don’t take yourself too serious.’ Oftentimes, being able to laugh and to share that laughter with the people you work with is able to accomplish a lot more than being too serious. I know I think of myself as someone who had these strong family and moral values when I came into the college and then, as I became responsible for getting students through their dreams to be scientists, I found that I had to rely on the entire University community and so, just like a family, I found that you couldn’t always say what you think or wanted to say, because if you did, that that meant that you didn’t always get the kind of response that you were hoping for.


You must have plans for your retirement; can you share some of them with us? 

So people always believe that you have these wonderful plans in mind when you’re about to retire. I'm hoping that the second 40 years will be my most productive, and so as I look at some of the things that I would like to do, one, I would like to maintain my affiliation with the College of Science and the University, so that means I'll probably have to register for some courses here. One of the things that I want to do personally for myself would be to compete in an international table tennis tournament -- the World’s Veteran Table Tennis event is taking place in 2018. I hope to be not just a competitor, but to win an international title. We have a number of students that I would like to see finish their programs and get their doctorates through the Millennium Scholars program, so I hope to stay in touch with some of them, too. Long term, I’m hoping there’s a long term, and not think of this as winding down but the beginning of a new direction.


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