Research Universities Empower Diverse Students, Faculty to Engage in Scholarship

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By fostering communities of diverse scholars, research institutions are able to produce innovative ideas and solutions informed by a variety of identities and perspectives. Recognizing the societal benefits of engaging and supporting underrepresented and marginalized groups in these endeavors, colleges and universities are becoming more equitable and inclusive.

[Above: Female faculty members participate in a seminar as part of the first annual Women of Color Conference at Northeastern University.]

The following research universities stand out for their efforts to encourage and empower underrepresented students and faculty to contribute to the ideas, discoveries, and inventions that shape our world.

Ball State University
Ball State University (BSU) in Muncie, Ind., takes a proactive approach when it comes to helping scholars conduct diversity-focused research. The university’s Office of Institutional Diversity (OID) provides funding, mentors, and peer support groups to encourage the study of issues related to equity and social justice. The OID’s Diversity Associates Program, for example, supports up to 20 faculty members annually in their efforts to conduct research, develop pedagogy, and create campus programming that promotes diversity awareness.

Students on Ball State’s campus in Muncie, Ind.

“Our Diversity Associates Program is so successful because it brings people together to work across different disciplines and experience levels,” says Melinda Messineo, PhD, interim director of the OID and interim associate provost for diversity. “It’s a great example of a faculty learning community being effective across different colleges and departments.”

To be selected for the program, faculty members must submit a proposal for a campus event, curriculum redesign, or research project related to the study of different identities, which includes race and ethnicity, sexual identities, and socioeconomic disparities. Those accepted into the program are awarded funding and appointed a senior faculty mentor who provides expertise and guidance. The associates also regularly meet as a group throughout the academic year to offer each other assistance, feedback, and support on projects.

Messineo says the program was originally created because a number of BSU professors’ research interests aligned with the university’s mission around equity and inclusion. “[Without a formal platform to support this scholarship,] there was some concern that if you were doing research related to diversity, it might not be considered an appropriate pursuit if that wasn’t your primary area of research,” she says. “But diversity can be a relevant topic across many different fields, so the purpose of the Diversity Associates Program is to acknowledge that such scholarship is very important to us as a university.”

In its 20 years, the program has given rise to a substantial body of scholarly work on topics such as mental health support for minority students and Universal Design for Learning in the classroom. “We talk a lot about the concept of [UDL] and inclusive pedagogy on our campus, and those philosophies inform a great deal of how we think about our work and what we’re trying to do as we move forward,” says Messineo.

Beyond assisting faculty members in their scholarly pursuits, the OID seeks to empower the next generation of scholars. The BSU PhD Pathways Program enrolls roughly 70 high-performing undergraduate students annually from underrepresented backgrounds who have expressed an interest in pursuing post-baccalaureate education. “This is one of the ways we try to increase the pipeline of underrepresented students going into academia,” Messineo says. “It started in our communications college and was so successful that [we expanded it] across campus.”

Participants are assigned to an employee, alumnus, or community member mentor with whom they meet regularly, and the OID hosts events for the students throughout the year focused on topics such as stress reduction, professional networking, and ways to obtain research funding.

These programs are just one way BSU strives to go the extra mile to foster a community of diverse thinkers, says Messineo. “We always want to be moving toward more inclusion, toward greater representation,” she says, “because that’s how we know our campus is headed in the right direction.”

Georgia Institute of Technology
The Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), one of the nation’s top-ranked research universities, has devoted many resources to supporting research by and about diverse scholars. While the university’s primary focus is the study of technology, the campus community recognizes the importance of understanding the cultural and social contexts in which this research takes place, which is why Georgia Tech supports interdisciplinary research focused on “the impact and power of tech in society,” says Vice President of Institute Diversity Archie Ervin, PhD.

“There is a great desire to make sure that there is an understanding of how social issues impact tech and vice versa,” he explains.

The Office of Hispanic Initiatives at Georgia Tech hosts its annual Hispanic Heritage Month Discussion Panel.

One social issue Georgia Tech is especially committed to is the representation of female scholars and innovators in tech and other STEM disciplines. In 1995, the school created the Women, Science, and Technology (WST) minor — the first academic program in the U.S. focused specifically on understanding the interplay of “issues in the study of science and technology with those of gender, culture, and society,” according to the university’s website. Following the creation of the minor, the university established the WST Center to oversee the program and other academic endeavors focused on increasing gender equity in STEM.

“The center was started as a way to promote the interest of and persistence of women in STEM,” says Ervin, “because we as a tech-focused institution have struggled historically with acquiring gender balance in student enrollment.”

One of the center’s longest-running and most successful programs is the WST Living Learning Community, a cohort of roughly 50 female undergraduates who are able to assist faculty with and even lead research projects related to the study of women in STEM. The mission of the program is to provide participating students with a strong foundation of academic and social support and to increase the visibility of female role models on campus, Ervin says.

“Creating this community ensures that our female students see other women who are successful role models in STEM disciplines, where women aren’t very visible in many cases,” he says. “By providing this support system of mentors and peers who nurture students’ interests, we are actually increasing the number of women who successfully matriculate and complete STEM degrees.”

According to Ervin, more than 1,200 women have participated in the WST Living Learning Community since it began in 2000. In that time, Georgia Tech has become the foremost school for women earning undergraduate engineering degrees in the U.S., as well as a leading source of research and best practices for supporting women and girls in STEM. Ervin attributes these accomplishments to the success of the living learning community and other programs overseen by the WST Center.

“We spend a lot of energy on advancing and leveraging the talents and capacity of all of our people here at Georgia Tech, and that includes gender equity,” he says. “We’ve seen the results of these efforts over the years, and they continue to bear fruit in that we are producing female graduates who are making significant contributions to our world and society.”

Northeastern University
A leading research institution, Northeastern University (NU) is located in the heart of Boston, within minutes of the city’s many other research-intensive schools. As such, NU’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion (OIDI) values programming, scholarship, and learning opportunities that benefit the region’s entire academic community, says John Armendariz, PhD, vice provost for institutional diversity and inclusion.

“We’ve worked very hard to build collaboration and broaden the impact of the work that we do,” he says. OIDI, Armendariz adds, partners with and provides funding for NU employees and students to lead projects that are sustainable and interdisciplinary and that will provide new insights and support to scholars and students across the Greater Boston area.

In March, OIDI worked with faculty members from the university’s English and linguistics departments as well as the law school to host a conference titled The Syntax of Justice: Law, Language, Access, and Exclusion, which examined “how language plays a role in discrepancies in the outcomes of the law that disproportionately affect minority communities,” Armendariz says. The conference featured law and language scholars from not only NU, but also Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other area institutions.

“What we’re really looking for is [collaboration] across diverse groups, and this was one thing that allowed us to show our commitment to supporting those partnerships and to having those conversations around issues that matter to the broader community,” says Armendariz.

Faculty members from various institutions at the Women of Color Conference

Similarly, at the suggestion of NU faculty, OIDI hosted another conference in the spring that welcomed members of the surrounding academic community — specifically, women of color. “Two of our professors came forward with an idea for faculty who are women of color to come together to address some of the obstacles to their success,” Armendariz says, “whether that means getting a permanent tenure-track position or going into administration.”

During the planning process, the idea for the event gained so much attention that it quickly became a campus-wide project and eventually expanded to other area institutions, he explains. “It was such a simple idea, and given that Boston is an epicenter of higher education, we realized that other schools might have small pockets of underrepresented women who don’t have the resources or the numbers to build a network on campus,” Armendariz says. “We ended up working with other local institutions like Harvard, Tufts University, and Boston University, and it’s been so successful that it will occur again next year.”

Titled Women of Color in the Academy: Strategies for Career Advancement – The Time is Now, the conference provided action-oriented information for underrepresented women across all academic disciplines, professional tracks, and experience levels to take charge of their careers. The concept aligns with OIDI’s overall mission to achieve academic excellence through inclusion — which NU does on its own campus and across the region’s academic community.

Armendariz believes NU will continue to serve as an example for other institutions to work together for the benefit of all students and scholars. “One thing I hope that comes out of our efforts,” he says, “is how universities can better collaborate to support diversity — not just on one campus, but on many.”●

Mariah Bohanon is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. Ball State University is a 2016 HEED Award recipient. The Georgia Institute of Technology is a 2014-2016 HEED Award recipient. Northeastern University is a 2016 HEED Award recipient.