A two-day, six-panel Bicentennial symposium titled “Impact on Inequality” commenced Thursday afternoon with several sessions held that were dedicated to highlighting the work of social science researchers trained at the University of Michigan.

Sessions covered topics ranging from race, gender and empowerment to paths having an impact on society. 

The symposium united research experts in fields including psychology, political science, public policy, social work, education and sociology. On the theme of “Impact on Inequality: Contributions of Michigan Social Science,” panelists shared their research on the issues of education, gender, race, poverty, inequality and economic mobility.

Laura Perna, a University of Pennsylvania professor and University alum, shared her research on systemic and structural barriers to opportunities in higher education.

“I really focus on trying to understand what is the role of public policy in improving college access and success, especially for students in underserved and underrepresented groups,” Perna said.

Perna discussed her dissertation on understanding different forces, outcomes and opportunity in education.

Odis Johnson Jr., an associate professor of sociology and education at Washington University in St. Louis, discussed how the University laid the foundation for his research regarding how neighborhoods, schools and public policies relate to social inequality, youth development and the status of African American populations.

“There are very few barriers for you to go explore different disciplines and courses, and so (at the University) I just really flourished with all of the resources and the opportunity to craft a truly interdisciplinary vision of some of these social problems and some of their remedies,” Johnson said.

Johnson referenced research on the zero-tolerance policy in schools and shared a story regarding how some policies have backfired. He discussed how to circumvent automatic suspensions and expulsions from school systems and using discretion in doing so. 

LSA senior Lloyd Shatkin attended Thursday’s symposium as part of his Philosophy 244 class on democracy. He worked to connect the concepts from the symposium to the topics he had been studying in class.

“All of the policies put in place are very dependent on where they are put in place and who is interpreting them and who is performing them,” Shatkin said. “So the zero tolerance policy is obviously something that in theory sounds like a good idea, but when you put it in different communities, it’s implemented in very different ways that will end up having injustices that are not meant to arise — or maybe meant to arise depending on who is creating them in the first place.”

Public Policy graduate student Juan Jaimes also attended, and was drawn by the presence of Antonio Flores, president and CEO of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. Flores holds a doctorate in Higher Education Administration from the University of Michigan and has garnered nearly $3 billion in federal funding for Hispanic-serving institutions.

Jaimes currently studies policies regarding how institutions deal with minority groups such as Latinos and immigrant students. He eventually aspires to work in addressing disparities in the Latino community in order to help improve outcomes.

“I think a lot of the things that (the panelists) talked about are things that I am familiar with but it is just helpful for it to be re-emphasized by professionals doing work or faculty doing research on this topic,” Jaimes said. “I learned that even them as professionals don’t have all of the answers so it is going to require more students to get into that field to expand the research and focus on different areas.”

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