American universities and colleges are “woefully unprepared” for the dramatic change in student demographics they will experience over the next twenty years, Raynard Kington told a gathering at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Speaking at the 2013 Wharton/Penn Medicine “Career Narrative / Leadership Autobiography” lecture, Kington, a Wharton alumnus who is the first African-American president of Iowa’s Grinnell College, pointed out that “last year was the first year in which the majority of U.S. births were non-white.”

‘Not ready’
“Eighteen years from now,” said Kington, MD, MBA, PhD, “that’s who is going to be graduating from high school and many of our institutions, especially the highly-selective institutions, aren’t ready.”

Prior to becoming Grinnell’s chief executive three years ago, Kington, whose Wharton MBA and PhD are in health care management, served as a senior scientist and researcher at both RAND and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). From there he went on to become both the Deputy Director and Acting Director of the $30-billion-a-year National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“One of the challenges I had at NIH,” he told a standing-room-only audience in Wharton’s Huntsman Hall, “was to help the community come together in terms of the realization that in spite of 30 years of programs for diversity at NIH, we never had more than two percent of the primary investigators who were African American. In my mind that means the programs aren’t working.”

‘Deep buy-in’ lacking
Now, as head of one of the country’s top-rated liberal arts colleges, he sees similar evidence that academia doesn’t “have that level of deep buy-in to this problem that we need to have.”

“Higher education’s discussions of diversity have generally been about two things: who gets in the door and who graduates. I disagree with that.” he said. “We have to shift our [research] focus to what happens between those two points because there are huge performance gaps across demographic groups in the likelihood of getting an A and the likelihood of getting an F.”

“These are differences that we haven’t really explained and haven’t tried to develop interventions for,” Kington said. “I think it’s the next big frontier — to deal with the performance gap. But many people really don’t want to talk about it because they believe that it will be used as an argument against diversity.”

‘Performance gap’ not inevitable
“I don’t agree with that. We will never deal with this unless we actually analyze then situation,’ said the former Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics Senior Fellow. “This performance gap is not destiny; it’s not inevitable. And there are places — Freeman Hrabowski’s program at University of Maryland Baltimore (UMBC) — that have done incredible things. It’s hard but it can be done.”