Alumni Trio Provide Diversity Perspectives

Friday, November 13, 2020
Three images of each participant: James Stewart, Robert Wilkins and Tonya Combs.

Distinguished alumni James Stewart, Judge Robert Wilkins and trustee Tonya Combs have had career success in economics and law while also being mentors and advocates for African American life and history.

Trailblazing African American alumni James Stewart, Judge Robert Wilkins, and trustee Tonya Combs explored Rose-Hulman’s past, present, and future for diversity and inclusion during a special virtual panel presentation on November 12 for members of the campus community, organized by the Center for Diversity and Inclusion.

Each graduate brought unique perspectives to the topic, “Diversity at Rose: Our Past, Our Progress and Our Potential,” and has had success in their chosen career fields. They discussed the campus climate during their Rose-Hulman careers, lessons learned during their professional careers, and what the future holds for racial relations and justice. They also talked about Rose-Hulman’s expanding role in bringing diversity and inclusion to the campus and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. Click to view the video from the panel.

Stewart, a 1969 mathematics alumnus, has become a strong voice for African American life and history. He focused on economics and Black history as a professor of economics at Penn State University, and in retirement is serving as president of the Manasota branch (Sarasota/Bradenton, Florida) of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, an organization established by Black History Month founder Carter G. Woodson. Stewart also served as president of the National Economic Association, the National Council for Black Studies, and conducted audits of Black/Africana Studies programs and departments at more than 20 colleges and universities.

Wilkins, recipient of the Herman A. Moench Distinguished Senior Commendation as a 1986 chemical engineering graduate, is a judge on the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In this role, he reviews cases involving U.S. law and litigation against U.S. federal agencies. He served on the Presidential Commission created by Congress to plan for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opened in the fall of 2016, and chronicled the struggle to establish the museum in the book, “Long Road to Hard Truth: The 100 Year Mission to Create the National Museum of African American History and Culture.” Wilkins was presented with an honorary degree from Rose-Hulman and gave the Commencement Address in 2017.

Combs, a 2001 chemical engineering alumna, has been vice president and deputy general patent counsel with Eli Lilly and Company since early 2019. Previously, she was senior director and general patent counsel for the company’s biomedicines business unit, and team leader and general counsel for the oncology business unit. She began her career in 2001 as a chemical engineer at Lilly Research Laboratories and turned to legal matters after earning a law degree summa cum laude from Indiana University’s Robert McKinney School of Law. Combs recently started a term on the Rose-Hulman Board of Trustees.

The Center for Diversity and Inclusion affirms Rose-Hulman’s commitment to promoting a campus culture where the individual's unique presence is valued, experience is respected and everyone belongs. The center provides diversity and inclusion education experiences, along with engaging strategic outreach activities to support diverse audiences.