By DONOVAN HARRELL
The Office of the Provost has put new emphasis during the past year on strategies to recruit and retain more diverse faculty to the University.
John Wallace, vice provost for faculty diversity and development, and Lorie Johnson-Osho, director of faculty diversity and development, are spearheading the office’s efforts.
Wallace, who joined the provost’s office in July 2020 and is a professor in the School of Social Work, is working on multiple initiatives to attract more faculty of color to Pitt.
Johnson-Osho started at Pitt on Dec. 7, 2020, and reports to Wallace. She has been working to develop, refine and promote faculty programs designed to improve mentoring, networking, community-building, career progression and skill and leadership development.
The University Times talked to Wallace and Johnson-Osho about their new roles and priorities for advancing the University’s goals to improve diversity, equity and inclusion. The conversation has been edited for conciseness.
How have your experiences in your new roles been so far?
Lorie Johnson-Osho: So far, it’s been just a joy. I started back in December, and we had an opportunity before the winter break to become acclimated with various offices, individuals and different teams that I would need to work with. That was quite helpful coming back in January to get started. And then building our team, which is now complete — that’s been great. I think we all work well together. I’ve been feeling as though I’m being well received and the work is being well-received.
John Wallace: For me, it’s been a whirlwind. Transitioning from a faculty position to administration has been quite eye-opening. Frankly, I didn’t have a deep understanding of how the institution worked beyond my school. That’s been enlightening and very interesting. I had no idea of how much work goes on in the Office of the Provost. The opportunity to work on these issues of diversity, equity, inclusion and development has been a joy.
What role do you see yourselves playing in advancing the University’s overall goals for improving community engagement and institutional equity, diversity and inclusion?
Lorie Johnson-Osho: Our focus is on faculty. We have an amazing opportunity to expand the number of diverse faculty throughout the campus. Beyond the faculty coming to the University, they also come to the city of Pittsburgh, and to be able to diversify the city of Pittsburgh is also a tremendous opportunity. That’s one of the major goals.
Another goal is to elevate and celebrate the faculty that are currently on campus. There are numbers of faculty across campus that are working very hard on their research. They’re doing outstanding things, but we don’t always hear about the accomplishments that they’re making.
John Wallace: We know that faculty make a huge impact on our undergraduate students and our graduate students as well. The fundamental core missions for the University are to create knowledge, and, of course, to educate students.
The impact of faculty on student education — I did my senior thesis back in the ‘80s on Black student success. The single most powerful predictor was the relationship with a faculty member. And the data continue to bear that out, even today in much more recent and expansive research projects. Black students in particular and Hispanic students are more likely to persist, more likely to graduate and their experience is better when they have at least one faculty member that looks like them.
There’s something about having someone with whom you feel you can kind of connect and relate. And often, race is one of those kinds of master status variables that we connect around. Even in my own experience, one of my senior thesis advisors was an African-American man who I deeply respected.
He told me, “Hey, you’re good. You need to go to an elite graduate program, and you’ll do well.” And those words resonated with me, because it was someone who looked like me motivating and encouraging me, and as a first-generation college student, that was a huge deal to me.
I think that we’re recognizing, and the data, again, are bearing out that diverse institutions are simply more successful, whether we’re talking about profit or whatever set of outcomes. Having that diversity of thought, diversity of experience makes a positive difference in the institution.
And I think young people — our white young people as well — are expecting diversity. I think part of the challenge with Pittsburgh is this lack of diversity. We’re one of the least diverse metropolitan areas in the country.
Even when we look at our census numbers, despite Pittsburgh doing well on various measures of livability, either we’re flat or we’re still losing people. And the issue of retention of young people and African-American young people, in particular, remains a tremendous problem that we have yet to resolve. I feel like, if done well, if we reach our potential, even among our faculty, we will be able to not only attract but also to graduate and potentially retain even young people in the city and the region.
And so, with those challenges — the lack of diversity, the low retention and other historical hurdles to making institutions like Pitt more equitable and diverse — what are some of your strategies for overcoming some of those hurdles?
John Wallace: One of the first projects that we undertook in that space was called the IChange initiative. Research universities around the country have committed to a three-year planning process that is explicitly focused on changing the broader culture of the institution, increasing the diversity of the faculty, and equipping the faculty, irrespective of their race or ethnicity, to be able to teach, do research and to advise students inclusively.
And again, their real target is undergraduate education, with the notion being that as we change these institutions, we will actually improve the education that the young people receive, and therefore will increase the impact of the institution on the future of our nation. Our participation in the IChange initiative is a huge win as we think about forwarding our mission of being an anti-racist institution.
(We’re) trying to encourage us to move beyond our silos — and I get the disciplinary issues and research methods that explain why we have kind of these divisions, but it’s not helpful or productive, particularly given that we have relatively low numbers of African-American faculty who also have lives outside of their research.
Sure, I do my work and I write and all of that, but I also want to have a life. I want to have friends. I want a community, whether it’s a fraternity, sorority or its church, or whatever. And that’s a huge part of the experience.
We want to explicitly address, not just the issues of recruitment, but retaining folks, and then transitioning them as they come to the city. What are the things we should introduce them to, what are the places? What schools might people be interested in? What neighborhoods might they want to live in? And so forth. How do we connect people to the city as a place in which they in their entire families cannot just survive, but also thrive?
Another aspect of your new roles is faculty professional development. What are some initiatives in that area?
Lorie Johnson Osho: We want to continue to work with the University Center for Teaching and Learning. I think there are a number of important workshops and programs that they have, so I’ve been trying to get the word out. We want to look at what are the needs of our faculty. I know that mentoring, especially for junior faculty, tends to be one, and so I’m thinking of ways to try to build peer mentoring groups, especially as we start to attract more faculty here and junior faculty.
How would you describe your vision for the future of the University?
John Wallace: My vision is you’ll look at the Chronicle of Higher Education and in five years they’ll say, “Pitt is it. The University of Pittsburgh is the best in the country for Black faculty.” That’s the dream that’s driving the work for me. Of course, its broader than just Black faculty. … This moment in history (following the deaths of Black citizens George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others and subsequent protests) … was the motivation for me to become involved in the central administration. And the opportunity the provost and the chancellor have given our office to do this work on behalf of the University, I’m frankly honored and thrilled with the opportunity to try to change this institution and make it what I think the vision is.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905.
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