Addressing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Academia

May 20, 2021

In order to bypass institutional roadblocks to school-wide diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, departments can work independently to implement smaller-scale initiatives with far-reaching implications.

Over the last year, many institutions around the nation began to, finally, genuinely address the inequities pervasive in science and academia. Articles and open-letters circulated online and around universities last summer, which listed specific action-items that can be implemented to address the most glaring injustices preventing scientists from underprivileged backgrounds from succeeding in academia. Oftentimes, these calls for action are met with institutional red-tape and buck passing by school leadership; however, certain action items can be implemented at the department-level, bypassing these common deterrents.

Elimination of the GRE requirement for graduate student admissions.

The Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) has many built-in biases that put a burden on prospective students. Firstly, the test costs $200, thus students from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds may struggle to afford it, let alone take it multiple times or pay for a tutor. Secondly, the timed aspect of the test biases the final score against students who may have English as a second or third language. While the company does encourage admission departments to consider English proficiency when reviewing scores, this requires another test for the student to pay and submit  This extra burden becomes even more troublesome when you consider the growing amount of research showing that the test is not a good predictor of success in graduate school as measured by publications, first author publications, time to degree, predoctoral fellowship awards and faculty evaluations.

Addition of student representatives to faculty search committees.

Students are the backbone of academic institutions. In a lot of ways they understand the current campus DEI environment more than the faculty do, and they are the ones who interact with the new faculty hire from a subordinate position. Faculty may not come across a number of diversity and equity issues directly due to their authority or higher socioeconomic status compared to students at the same institution. Students also typically come from a younger generation and will provide a unique perspective on DEI not already on the search committee. In order to ensure that the faculty being hired into an academic institution value the importance of diversity and inclusion in science as well as the lived experiences of students, a student representative is essential during the hiring process. 

Establishment of partnerships with local schools.

A career in science may not be on the radar of many K-12 students. It may also seem out-of-reach to those who come from a working-class background or don’t know the process of how to get involved in research. First-generation students especially are not properly exposed to the ins and outs of higher education such as how to apply to schools or seek out research opportunities. That is why it is important to conduct outreach with the local community in order to break down the systemic barriers preventing so many people from a career in science. Offering lab tours, guest lectures, or mentorship to local students may end up changing the path of someone’s career. Early exposure and access to a supportive science mentor is one proposed way of addressing the racial disparities within the STEM field.

Consolidation of funding opportunities for prospective students.

Professors receive an influx of emails every year from prospective graduate students inquiring about a position in their lab. Oftentimes these students are promptly told that there’s no funding currently available to support them in the lab and are sent on their way. An alternative to this swift rejection would be for the professor to provide the student with a list of funding opportunities available through the university or field-related non-governmental organizations for the student to apply for. This takes minimal effort on behalf of the faculty, while providing a steppingstone for first-generation students who may be unfamiliar with the opportunities available to them. The University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science has consolidated a resource like this including many funding opportunities specific for minorities in STEM and have provided it to faculty so that they may include it in future emails with prospective students. A simple spreadsheet attached to an email can be a difference maker for many prospective students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, hoping to pursue a career in science. 

Inclusion of speakers from more diverse backgrounds for department seminars.

Diversifying a department seminar series not only increases the scientific perspectives being shared, but also provides a platform for potential role models for students who may not see themselves in the usual array of speakers. It has been proposed as a way to promote a more inclusive environment at an institution by increasing students’ sense of belonging. Additionally, an array of paths may lead a person to a career in science and it is important to highlight this diversity in education and upbringing. Diversify STEM Conferences has compiled an online resource of underrepresented/minoritized scientists which seminar planners can utilize to find guest speakers to invite.
The above recommendations can be enacted at the department-level and allow for a more inclusive culture at an academic institution. Addressing DEI at this level allows for cross-departmental implementation of initiatives and minimal red-tape, which facilitates the improvement of DEI institution-wide. An environment where all students and faculty are empowered and included is one where learning can flourish and science can thrive.
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Author: Anthony Bonacolta

Anthony Bonacolta
Anthony Bonacolta is a second year Ph.D. student in the Marine Biology and Ecology Program at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.