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Robert Sellers, the vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, opened the Minority Serving Institutions Disciplinary Hub Plenary and Reception at the Ross School of Business Tuesday afternoon. The event, attended by dozens of students and faculty, was the conclusion of a conference between the University of Michigan and minority-serving institutions intended to cultivate relationships and develop strategic goals moving forward.

Sellers began by discussing the University’s current five-year Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan. The plan, which is currently in its third year, aims to recruit more minority faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students as well as cultivate solutions to improve retention rates.

While Sellers acknowledged the plan’s successes, he believes the University and the country’s academic system, in general, is still deeply lacking minority inclusion. Students have challenged the DEI plan in recent years, saying it has failed to create a safe campus environment. Sellers called for better cooperation between institutions within the University and more focus on developing the skills of minority faculty and students instead of just recruiting them.

“We, like many other predominantly white institutions that have had these relationships, have tended to think about them in a model that is more consistent with what happened in terms of the negro leagues,” Sellers said. “When we integrated baseball, we didn’t fully integrate baseball … what we said was we will let the talent play everywhere, but not the management. … We have to change that paradigm.”

Edmund Graham, the Minority Serving Institutions coordinator at Rackham, hosted a panel following Sellers’ speech that featured Dina Stroud, the executive director of the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-PhD Bridge Program. The program helps Vanderbilt University graduate students, specifically underrepresented and minority students, complete their master’s degrees and place them in a position to later acquire a Ph.D.

Stroud highlighted some of the measures the program has taken to better suit minority needs, including the need to tailor the graduate program to the students’ needs and career ambitions. Stroud also encouraged students to take part in committees pertaining to minority students and share their thoughts on how the programs can better suit their needs. Providing consistent mentorship and mental health services was also of utmost focus. Despite this, Stroud said the program’s efforts are met with massive obstacles. Stroud noted lack of funding from institutions as a key issue, in addition to problems with the application and acceptance process.  

“We have made the most progress in terms of holistic admissions… but we are still pushing back against GREs and numbers,” she said. “And I feel like we even took a bigger step backwards, actually, this last year when we … had no fee for our graduate application, and now we have a fee … It’s a push all the time.”

Stroud also pointed to systemic racism as a persistent issue.

“You get frustrated at times opening doors to a place … that’s still not welcoming all the time, and you have to tell them, ‘This is the systemic racism that you are going to have to encounter,” she said. “Are you going to get treated differently because you are at Fisk? Yes.”

The panel also featured Brian Beckford, a presidential postdoctoral fellow at the University who served as the Bridge Program project manager in the Department of Education and Diversity for the American Physical Society in College Park, Maryland. The Bridge Program focuses on increasing the number of physics Ph.Ds awarded to underrepresented minority students at Maryland.

Beckford stressed the importance of supporting diversity inclusion programs until academia is more inclusive of minority and underrepresented communities.

“These efforts are going to be continued, in my opinion, to be overlooked at times, to be unrewarded, to be under volunteered … and it’s going to fall on a specific group most of the time to continue these efforts,” he said. “Until there is a larger participation and until access to participating in academy is changed, I think you have to have these programs in place.”

Beckford called for the need to focus on sustaining these programs through funding and participation. Beckford specifically highlighted the importance of support from tenured professors when creating one of these programs.

“You have to (have) 20 percent at minimum tenured faculty that are willing to be involved,” he said. “If you are smaller than that, I think you are starting with one leg cut off. It’s just going to be new junior faculty. … It’s really hard to get going.

Naomi Wilson, a Ph.D candidate at the University and President of Rackham student government, asked the panel how graduate students can play a role outside of recruitment in assisting minority graduate students.

Stroud responded by encouraging a student mentorship program for minority and underrepresented students and increasing graduate student involvement through activities and workshops meant to educate other students.

“You can do professional development type of presentations, you can put abstracts in some places to do workshops, or you can be designing some things … really start brainstorming as to what we want to see and how you can make that happen, and faculty listening to them when they tell you what they want to see and how you can help them make that happen,” she stated.

Beckford responded by encouraging graduate student involvement in the admissions process, and requesting review of the graduate program’s professional development.

“In part of your annual review… request to have a large component where there is a professional development component or something that is discussed,” he said.

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