Attention at final LSA diversity forum for faculty turns to low attendance

Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 2:55pm

While various praises and concerns were voiced by faculty at the fourth and final LSA Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion plan’s feedback forum last Friday evening, most of the night’s attention was on the lack of faculty in attendance.

The large MLB Auditorium was mostly empty with about 40 LSA faculty were present.

Liz Cole, associate dean for social sciences, led the forum as she had the previous three by guiding the audience through the main faculty goals of the plan, though she also addressed the issue of her colleagues’ absence, saying, “The size of the audience does raise concern.”

LSA Dean Andrew Martin said he was disappointed with the faculty turnout, but assured those in attendance that he was committed to doing the work to ensure the implementation of DEI is successful.  

“To be frank, I wish we had a couple hundred more colleagues with us today,” Martin said.  

The three main goals of the plan Cole focused on included improving faculty climate and retention, establishing stronger mentorship programs among faculty and strengthening faculty recruitment.

Cole said the administration found female professors often felt excluded from significant faculty policy discussions and that faculty who were committed to implementing diversity wanted more recognition.

Faculty in the audience agreed with this discussion. Mathematics Prof. Roman Vershynin said a sense of belonging among minority faculty can be improved.

“There are people in departments who reject diversity, so it is important to bring awareness to this topic,” Vershynin said.

To improve mentoring in particular, the plan outlines new LAUNCH mentorship programs for all departments, which would provide faculty with a support system by incorporating the department chair, a mentor within the department, a mentor outside the department, and a convenor, or someone who is trained for the role to implement mentorship programming.

Cole noted that a focus of the overall DEI plan is also on the recruitment and establishment of a postdoctoral fellowship program. University President Mark Schlissel is expected to explain the postdoctoral fellowship plan in more detail on Oct. 6, when the DEI initiative is officially launched. Cole only briefly outlined the plan to the audience stating that the goal is to hire 50 postdoctoral fellows to LSA over the next five years who have the skills, backgrounds and commitment to enhance diversity on campus.

Faculty in attendence questioned the postdoctoral fellowship plan and how it would be successfully implemented.

“The proposal to have postdocs is complicated because different disciplines have different ways they use postdoctoral fellows” said Prof. Jim Penner-Hahn.

Another point of controversy among the attendees centered on potentially creating a new position of associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion and faculty development.

As it stands in the plan, this dean would be responsible for communicating between different departments on campus. In response to faculty concerns, Martin acknowledged finding a place for the position would be complicated.

“We want to make sure that this person has real responsibility and authority in this organization and how that works in the way we are already structured is complicated,” Martin said. “We don’t know what the answer is, but we will have to make a decision within the next four to five months.”

Along with discussing the steps DEI planners are taking to achieve the plan’s goals, Cole also emphasized the importance students influences, citing #BeingBlackatUM movement, or #BBUM, which began in 2013 when Black students took to Twitter to describe experiences of estrangement and exclusion on campus.

“We think it is really important to also acknowledge in the planning process the fundamental motivation of the students who participated in the Being Black at the University of Michigan movement,” Cole said.  

Two of the four forums held to discuss the plan have also been geared toward graduate and undergraduate students, another way administrators and faculty hope to include student voices in the plan’s creation.

In closing the forum, Martin reiterated that the purpose of the DEI initiative is to create a better University of Michigan.

“The goal is for LSA to be the absolutely best place in the world to be a faculty member or student,” Martin said.