Institutional Mixed Messaging

If diversity, equity and inclusion are truly valued, Amy Wagoner Johnson writes, everyone -- not just underrepresented faculty members -- should do more and be rewarded for it.

June 30, 2020
 
 
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In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and uprisings over police brutality, the academy is firing off statements, from individual faculty members to the university level, in support of Black Lives Matter and social and racial justice. Momentum for change is building.

What also needs to change is institutional mixed messaging, as well as the overtaxing of certain faculty and staff members. We must turn our attention to inclusion, which implies some understanding of additional burdens and systemic and sustained biases underrepresented groups face, especially those of color. It is clear that even those of us who have honest and sincere intentions do not understand the whole story.

In this time of converging crises, as task forces and committees form to address the incredibly important and timely issues of racial justice and health-care inequities, the same underrepresented faculty members will undoubtedly be asked to do more and more. They will be asked to spend time helping advance the very system that, when it comes to tenure and promotion, does not value the work they are asked to do.

Underrepresented faculty, including female faculty members in STEM, have already been paying a high “service tax” in academe. Proving one’s value and right to belong manifests through the drain of committee work and other activities that repeatedly draw on the same few underrepresented faculty members. Many of these faculty members feel compelled to serve; who else would represent the needs of the marginalized groups? Meanwhile, their peers have the privilege to devote their time and energy to research on their road to tenure and promotion.

Underrepresented faculty members also experience a cultural tax for invisible work. They are more likely to engage in activities that promote diversity compared with their overrepresented peers. They often feel personal responsibility, while many overrepresented peers show disinterest or even disdain. There are typically few, if any, faculty of color available to mentor and support students who look like them. Students’ connections with like faculty improve their experience and success, and the same is true for faculty and like mentors.

Thus, while the messaging from the academy is that diversity, inclusion and equity are important, valued and drive excellence, the reality is quite different, especially when it comes to awards, tenure and promotion. Women in STEM and people of color are less likely to win the awards or get invited for the talks that are so valued for tenure and promotion. They are less likely to self-promote, also important to career advancement. The extra time and energy expected for service and the commitment to diversity and inclusion are not valued as much as teaching and research during evaluation for tenure and promotion, even though they take time away from those efforts. Despite the constant institutional messaging that such service and other related activities are important, many people will argue that they are not fundamental to scholarly work but merely provide lip service for academe or are otherwise simply extracurricular activities.

And it is not up to our Black colleagues to explain it to us. If we are to truly make progress, we have to be willing to know more and to work hard to get there. Inclusion should mean everyone contributes and that the efforts are valued, or even required, during evaluation for tenure and promotion, and even for some awards. The people who are overrepresented, and even those, like me, who are underrepresented in STEM but are not faculty of color, must be willing to know more.

What might we do to get there?

There must be vigorous, sustained institutional efforts to know more. Colleges and universities should provide deeper, in-person, intensive and sustained programs to educate administrators, faculty members and students on the origins and persistence of structural and systemic bias. The online annual antibias training available at some institutions is not sufficient.

There must be vigorous, sustained institutional efforts to do more. More higher education institutions should require their executive officers and other leaders to participate in programs on diversity, equity and inclusion, as described here. Those who are unwilling should not be in leadership positions. Administrators, faculty members and students should also be strongly encouraged, if not required, to participate in similar programs or courses to increase awareness and to increase the number of allies who might appropriately shoulder some of the service and cultural burdens.

To be sure, such programs might not yet exist, but a host of resources are becoming available, such as here and here. Institutional leaders, faculty and staff members, and students should take the initiative now to self-educate. In my case, #shutdownstem on June 10 empowered me, a mechanical engineering professor, to get a taste of all there is to learn so I could begin the process of knowing more.

Overrepresented groups should be expected to contribute to the stated institutional goals of enhancing diversity, inclusion and equity. Related service should not only be valued, but expected. Faculty members should not be excused because “they are busy doing research” and for fear that they might be lured away if they are burdened with service, as I have heard more than once in STEM. The lack of service by some people is a burden to others. This burden frequently falls on the shoulders of underrepresented groups.

All faculty members should do more and demonstrate commitment to these efforts. Institutions should require everyone to write diversity statements. Some institutions already ask faculty members who apply for jobs to submit them, but colleges and universities should mandate similar statements from all faculty members in their annual activity reports and in evaluations for raises, awards, tenure and promotion.

Underrepresented groups should be coached on service choices and be given guidance about high-quality service opportunities where they have access to leaders and can then themselves have leadership opportunities. Programs like the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity can be useful resources.

Some institutions are in distinct positions to innovate and lead change. The Institute for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Grainger College of Engineering, established in fall 2019, is the only institute in a college of engineering addressing the topic. The University of Michigan has led in programs for recruitment and retention of women and underrepresented minorities for more than a decade with its ADVANCE program and led a conversation for leaders in higher education recently about diversity, equity and inclusion. Other colleges and universities can draw on some of these examples to tailor programs to their campus’s needs.

Paraphrasing the late Maya Angelou, we simply are not doing the best we can. We know better, so we can do better. What will you, and your colleagues and leaders, do differently? Ask them. Push them. Help make the changes necessary to truly provide an equitable and inclusive environment where administrators, faculty members and students of color can experience inclusion and success. And make sure to do this in a way that energizes rather than exhausts them.

Bio

Amy Wagoner Johnson, a University of Illinois Public Voices fellow, is a professor in mechanical science and engineering in the Grainger College of Engineering, department head in the Carle Illinois College of Medicine Department of Biomedical and Translational Sciences, and a faculty member of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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