On Wednesday, April 2, Indiana University First Lady Laurie Burns McRobbie made her first visit to IU's Northwest Indiana regional campus, bringing a message of encouragement about the future of women and minority students in the global science and technology economy, and about Indiana's potential for playing a significant role in the tech world of tomorrow.
One key to unlocking that future, McRobbie said, is to encourage all students, but particularly girls and other underrepresented populations, to take seriously their potential to excel in fields that have traditionally been occupied by men. Teachers play an important role in conveying that message in the classroom, she explained.
"We all know how transformative a good teacher can be," McRobbie told a group of IU Northwest faculty, staff and guests during an 11 a.m. presentation in the Dunes Medical/Professional Building. "And also, in terms of addressing the gender gap, how important excellent female math and science teachers can be. Women who are confident and competent in math and science set an example for young girls."
Like many Americans, McRobbie, who helped to establish the women's studies program at the University of Michigan while she was an undergraduate student there, said she is heartened by developments in the 2008 election season, when either a female candidate or an African-American candidate is expected to be nominated for the U.S. presidency. But she cautioned that such strides in the political field should not obscure the persistence of gender, racial or other forms of discrimination elsewhere in society.
"I think some of us probably didn't ever believe that, in our lifetime, we would see a female candidate or a black candidate running for the highest office," McRobbie said. "We've come so far, and tremendous progress has been made, but we run the risk of becoming complacent. We need to be vigilant. We still need to be aware of where bias exists and speak out against it.
"Excellent leadership requires bringing forth diverse perspectives," she added later.
McRobbie, who had been heavily involved in the advanced networking consortium Internet2 prior to becoming IU's First Lady last year, pointed to a lingering gender gap in the field of information technology as evidence that more needs to be done to encourage girls and young women to pursue careers in math and science. McRobbie said her own ascent to an executive director's position at Internet2 was aided by the relative accessibility of management positions as opposed to tech positions, which she said were accorded higher status in the industry. In 1987, she recalled, nearly all of those jobs were held by men.
Even today, more than 20 years later, McRobbie said, women remain underrepresented in information technology.
"The numbers are still pretty dismal," she said. "There is still a gender gap."
IU has committed to advancing these critical knowledge areas in Indiana, having established the IU Institute for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education (ISTEME) to focus on improving Hoosier education in these areas for K-12 students. McRobbie has also declared this science, technology, engineering and mathematics focus to be a priority in her role as IU's First Lady.
In November, McRobbie came to Gary to help dedicate a new science lab at Frankie W. McCullough Academy for Girls and the Writers' House writing lab at the Dr. Bernard C. Watson Academy for Boys. Both labs were developed in affiliation with the IU School of Education. On April 2, during a women's luncheon with McRobbie, Cynthia Owen-Bergland, wife of IU Northwest Chancellor Bruce Bergland, announced that the Northwest campus would donate $1,000 worth of equipment to each learning lab in support of this important educational effort.
McRobbie's first visit to IU Northwest included a campus tour, a dessert reception with faculty and staff, and a visit to the campus child care center, where the children sang a song in honor of their guest.
During a brief address at day's end, McRobbie reaffirmed her commitment to visiting each of IU's regional campuses and acknowledging their contributions to the IU system. When her husband, IU President Michael McRobbie, first was selected as the institution's 18th leader by the IU Board of Trustees, she promised to try and visit each of the regional sites during his first academic year in office. With her visit to IU Northwest, McRobbie said she has come close.
"Coming to all of the regional campuses is as much about being able to hear your issues, ideas and concerns as it is to see these all of these wonderful places and to have an image of them in my head when I go back to Bloomington," McRobbie said.
IU's First Lady also promised to advocate for the regional universities whenever possible.
"I'm not the president, but I do speak to him periodically," she quipped.