By SUSAN JONES
Fostering diversity and inclusion is one of the six goals of the Plan for Pitt, and it’s one the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences is taking very seriously.
“There’s a considerable body of scholarship that shows you can’t be an excellent employer or an excellent educational institution unless you’re diverse,” said Dietrich School Dean Kathleen Blee. “And the University of Pittsburgh can’t be an excellent university unless the Dietrich School is diverse. That’s really the bottom line: We’re the big behemoth in the University.”
The school houses 30 departments and several centers; enrolls 57 percent of all undergraduates and 20 percent of graduate students on the Pittsburgh campus; and employs 41 percent of all non-medical school faculty, according to the University fact book for 2020.
Last spring, the Dietrich School invited an external review team to evaluate where the school stands on diversity, equity and inclusion issues.
The school already had a task force on diversity and inclusion, along with faculty and staff diversity committees. But the goal of the review was to find concrete ways to move forward to improve diversity among faculty, staff, students and curriculum.
“It’s important to me that everybody sees diversity, inclusion and equity as part of their primary charge,” Blee said. “Otherwise it becomes one issue among many, rather than a central issue that cross cuts everything that we do.”
The external reviewers found that although there were many positive efforts taking place in the Dietrich School, there also were shortcomings. The school had asked the reviewers to identify “aspirational peers” to benchmark against, but the report said that “no university is currently achieving the level of this work to aspire to and the key indicators to consider more importantly are those that measure the Dietrich School’s growth over time.”
Two key findings included, “the need for broader participation among faculty and leadership in engaging in DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) efforts,” and the lack of accountability and monitoring of diversity programs.
How to proceed
There were several more recommendations in the 26-page report, and it has taken some time for the Dietrich School’s executive team to develop a plan for moving forward.
“There were so many recommendations that were made that it was clear from the very beginning that there was going to have to be a focus and a phase in of some of these different initiatives, if we were going to move the bar and not trying to do everything at once,” said Kay Brummond, associate dean, Faculty Affairs, co-Chair of the Dietrich School Faculty Diversity Committee and a member of the Dietrich School Diversity Review and Task Force.
The task force played a big role in moving this process forward, first by doing several climate surveys and then requesting the external review.
“We had lots of things and we have lots of things going on in the school that contribute to a diverse and inclusive environment, but they’re sort of situated in their own units across a large school,” she said. “The idea of organizing this around a few themes that Kathy laid out was, I think, one of the things that will be helpful going forward.”
One key recommendation was to name an associate dean for diversity. Blee feared that naming one person permanently to such a position would “really risk draining the diversity focus out of everybody else’s work.” The other concern is that no matter who was selected for the post, they would have strengths and knowledge of some areas, but not in others, such as the many non-academic units and centers connected to the school.
“We went to a different model, which is a rotating senior advisor who will be brought on specifically targeted to focus on the goals laid out for that particular period of time,” Blee said.
“We’re focusing first on actually diversifying our faculty, staff and graduate student populations — we don’t control undergraduate admissions,” she continued. “Focusing on diversifying those using tried and true research-proven methods. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are clear ways that one can make hiring and graduate admissions produce more diverse pools and more diverse people coming into the University.”
In January, Tara Meyer, a professor of chemistry, became the first senior advisor to the dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, to specifically focus on diversifying faculty and graduate students, “with the idea that you can’t really create diversity and inclusion across all those recommended areas in the report, until you actually have a diverse population,” Blee said.
Meyer is the perfect fit, the dean said, because she is the founder of the diversity committee in her own department and she was the assistant dean of graduate studies. The natural sciences, including chemistry, have been particularly challenging to diversify, nationwide, Blee said, and at Pitt the chemistry department is very large and extremely complicated.
They have set a goal of moving the needle on this first initiative within 18 months. “Then we need to decide, do we want to stick with that plan a little bit longer, move the needle further, or is it time to expand out to do something a little different,” the dean said.
Meyer said the chemistry diversity committee has tried to making hiring more diverse by moving to an “open search model,” where you don’t specify someone who has a very specific disciplinary background. “And when you do that, studies show that you get a broader applicant pool, and we have seen that,” Meyer said.
When hiring, the chemistry department also has decided not to read recommendation letters first, but instead focus on the candidate’s submitted materials, because “recommendation letters encode lots of bias,” she said. It allows hiring committees to focus on the qualities of the candidate and not on who their connections are. The search committees also received mitigating bias training from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
The department, when Brummond was chair, also started a program to bring in undergraduate researchers from other schools who then potentially might apply to Pitt’s graduate program to try to diversify the student population.
The lack of diversity is evident on all levels — faculty, staff and students — but particularly in staff, said Michelle Montag, executive director for staff personnel and senior assistant dean. “Even if we can say the Pittsburgh region itself is not particularly diverse, we are less diverse than that.”
Montag said there have been some very rigid requirements for entry level positions, such as bachelor’s degree for administrative assistants. “You’ve eliminated a large pool of applicants who not only would be great applicants but then also don’t have the ability to take advantage of the education benefits we have and become part of the Pitt community that way.”
Staff hiring is handled by divisions — natural sciences, social sciences and humanities — instead of by each department. They’ve now been asking those who hire staff to think clearly about what skills are really required for a position. Training in mitigating bias and broader search committees have been used to help widen the candidate pool.
Each of the 30 departments in the Dietrich School and the administrative units were to provide by the end of January an assessment of what diversity and inclusions issues they need to address. Then Meyer will review these “reflections” and give advice on what the units should be working on.
Draft plans on ways to increase diversity in faculty, staff and grad students and to enhance the inclusive environment within each department are due by the end of February, with final plans due in March.
“The idea is we want to know what steps the individual departments are going to be doing to move the needle on these two issues,” Brummond said. And those plans need to have measurable actions, so they can be assessed year after year.
But the plans are only the beginning, Meyer said. “It should go back into the structure of every departments’ goals and not as a standalone effort that is handled only by the two or three people who are diversity people.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 412-648-4294.
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