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Welcome Back: Nordenberg gives double-support for affirmative action

By Dale Shoemaker / For The Pitt News

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If affirmative action initiatives are meant to increase opportunities for minority groups, then Pitt has done so twofold. 

In an unprecedented move, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg selected two Pitt groups, the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and the Career Education and Enhancement for Health Care Diversity (CEED) program, to receive the annual Chancellor’s Affirmative Action Award this year. Typically, the chancellor selects only one group or individual each year. 

Two groups winning the award this year may indicate that the University is becoming more committed to affirmative action. The awardees, chosen by a University selection committee, were recognized at the Senate Council’s meeting on June 11.

Dr. Kaleab Abebe and program coordinator Quinten Brown accepted the award for the CEED program and Drs. Michael Boninger and Amy Houtrow accepted the award for the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. The chancellor selected both groups because they work to actively promote the success of minority individuals. 

Affirmative action refers to the act of providing special opportunities for, or favoring, members of a group disadvantaged by discrimination, such as women, immigrants or disabled people. Initially introduced in the United States as a means to combat racial discrimination in hiring processes, affirmative action has expanded in recent years to include members of all minority groups, including those with mental or physical handicaps. 

The Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation provides rehabilitative care to those who need it in the Pittsburgh area. Houtrow, associate professor in University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the vice chair in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation for Pediatric Rehabilitation Medicine, said her department is “dedicated to diversity.”

“Being attentive to diversity enriches the department in everything we do,” Houtrow said. “Various perspectives, expertise and experiences provide a robust opportunity for all members.”

The CEED program’s objective, as stated on its website, is to “promote the careers of underrepresented minority researchers through provision of mentorship and training.” Thirty-five scholars have completed the CEED program so far and four are currently enrolled.

Abebe, co-director of the CEED program, said the most important thing is that the program has been recognized in a larger arena. 

“The award is secondary,” he said. 

As for his program’s work with affirmative action, Abebe said that, though the two were connected, his program’s goals “are to make sure that minority faculty are getting exceptional research training.”

“Whether regarding race or sexual orientation, people aren’t on a level playing field.” Abebe said. “[We] need get to a place where that’s not needed. We need to get to a place as a nation where all people have equal footing.”

Boninger, professor in and chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, said that affirmative action is a core belief of his department and that his ideal is a world that achieves “a balance [of all people] that gets rid of affirmative action.”

In April, the Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s decision to ban race and ethnicity as factors in the admission to state universities. This means that no longer can a minority student be chosen over a non-minority student based only on his or her race or ethnicity. It is yet to be seen how this decision affects the diversity of Michigan universities.

To Boninger, however, the ban does not represent progress. 

“[Without affirmative action, students] may miss out on a big part of the world, creating a homogeneous thing that penalizes people because of where they grew up,” Boninger said.

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Welcome Back: Nordenberg gives double-support for affirmative action