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“The only way to address the lack of diversity in the historical legacy of southern institutions is to bring yourself to spaces that have been able to avoid you.” – Juan Gilbert

Dr. Juan Gilbert, the Banks Preeminence Endowed Professor and Department Chair of Engineering at the University of Florida, who served as one of the two keynotes at the 2018 Diversity in STEM Conference, made this simple, yet powerful statement about the deeply entrenched structural and systemic issues in advancing faculty diversity within higher education. The 4th annual Diversity in STEM conference, a partnership between the Chancellor’s Science Scholars program and the UNC Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD) took place on Nov. 8, 2018 at the George Watts Hill Alumni Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. The theme of this year’s conference was “Faculty Diversity: Climate, Challenges and Solutions.” The conference focused on topics related to the impact of diversity on STEM research, funding and development; connections between STEM faculty recruitment, retention, development and diversity; the importance of scientific communication; and the University’s efforts to increase diversity and promote inclusion.

Gilbert further offered that universities need to work on demystifying the sciences for minority students by shifting focus to developing pipeline programs in partnership with middle schools in their districts. He also spoke of the need for convergence between the grassroots efforts of the faculty and leadership interest in diversity as a crucial step towards departmental change in the recruitment and retention processes.

Dr. Jabbar Bennett, the associate provost and chief diversity officer and associate professor of Medicine at Northwestern University and the second keynote of the day, supported Gilbert’s statements and added that “Inclusion makes us think about how we can support everyone uniquely and intentionally.”

The daylong event also featured a student poster session with over 20 presentations by graduate and undergraduate students as well as a panel discussion on Diversifying the STEM Pathway. During the discussion, sponsored by the University Office of Diversity and Inclusion and moderated by Dr. Ashalla Freeman, Director of Diversity Affairs and Co-Director of IMSD, panelists shared strategies from their institutions that advanced faculty diversification efforts.

Solutions included supporting networking and mentoring programs for minority graduate students and post-doctoral scholars that would allow them to form strong external networks to advance their careers, publishing and their science. In addition to the keynotes, panelists included Dr. Raphael Valdivia, professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, Duke University; Dr. Sibby Anderson-Thompkins, special assistant to the vice chancellor for research and the director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs; and Dr. Ron Strauss, executive provost and chief international officer.

The Q&A portion of the panel discussion was an engaged dialogue about ways the University could communicate about its efforts and commitment to faculty diversity. Dr. Valdivia stated that there needs to be more work done related to retention and many scholars do not see academic careers as a viable career track because of the training period and loss of earning potential. This systemic barrier privileges those who have the social, cultural and financial capital to sustain the length of the training period. In response to an audience question about how he framed the need for faculty diversity, Dr. Bennett replied, “We are competing in a global society where the U.S. will have the edge because research and teaching excellence are compounded by diversity of identity, thought and experience.”

Written by Sharbari Dey

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