As the campus community knows, our strategic planning effort has led to many new projects and initiatives relating to diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI. The DEI working group came up with 60 recommendations in all, many of which have already been implemented. Now, add to the list a new faculty fellowship from the Office of the Chancellor. In late September, a selection committee named Associate Professor of African and African American Studies Terri Laws and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Hafiz Malik as the first recipients of the new Chancellor’s Inclusive Excellence Fellowship.
Keisha Blevins, chief of staff in the chancellor’s office and UM-Dearborn’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, says one of the core goals of the new fellowship is to give faculty a more formal opportunity to use their expertise to improve and create DEI-focused campus initiatives. “We wanted to recognize the research or teaching that our faculty are already doing in this area,” Blevins says. “But we also wanted to provide them additional space and time to collaborate with administration in ways that they may not normally. Even though our faculty are engaged in a lot of this work already, I don’t think that, on an everyday basis, there was this kind of intentional, specific coordination between administration and faculty around DEI. We thought their individual expertise would be very helpful in carrying out our mission and making the university more inclusive for faculty, staff and students.”
Laws’ year-long fellowship zeroes in on the intersection of college preparedness, student retention and faculty satisfaction. As at many universities, students at UM-Dearborn come to campus with varying levels of classroom readiness. And we have a variety of support programs designed to help improve their skills so they can succeed in the classroom and persist in their programs. What Laws plans to investigate is whether we have a robust, evidence-based understanding of which supports are most effective at creating desired outcomes, like improved GPA, better retention rates or more desirable job opportunities. “I spent the longest part of my career in health care, and one of the things we rely on in health care is this idea of ‘critical pathways,’” Laws explains. “If someone is having a heart attack, there are dozens of possible treatments, but what you really want to know are the key interventions that create the best chance of the best outcome, so you can cut out the steps that aren’t necessary or don’t work so well.”
When it comes to academic interventions, Laws says faculty are often eager to help students who need extra support, but they don’t always have clarity about the “critical pathway” to deploy for a particular challenge, or whether the interventions they pursued ultimately had an impact. For example, Laws says the university’s Early Warning Program allows faculty to communicate with Academic Advising about students who are at risk so they can be connected to support services. “But it is often very complicated when a student is at risk of doing poorly in a class or leaving the university before degree completion,” Laws says. “After I submit an early warning request, I don’t know if that actually made a difference for the student, qualitatively, and across types of early warning interventions, collectively. I think that would help more faculty participate because they will see that reporting is easy — and that it is effective.” She’s hoping her work can help close loops like that, thereby boosting student outcomes and faculty satisfaction. Similarly, Laws will be working with UM-Dearborn Human Resources to evaluate new recruitment and hiring policies aimed at improving diversity in the faculty ranks. Blevins says Laws’ work will also dovetail with the university’s effort to establish Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs, that measure the effectiveness of DEI initiatives relating to representation, inclusion and experiences at work.
Malik’s fellowship is focused on the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program. Piloted just a few years ago to expand opportunities for undergraduate research, the program has been viewed as a big success. But Malik noticed that SURE’s ranks have tended to leave out one large segment of the UM-Dearborn community: students who have sizable work commitments outside of their studies. “I see it all the time — as soon as class ends, students rush off to work with no time to spare,” Malik says. “For them, how they’re going to put food on the table is their biggest concern, and that doesn’t leave a lot of room for things like working in a lab or doing an internship.” In a competitive work environment, not having those kinds of experiences on your resume can be consequential, so Malik came up with a straightforward solution: Do more outreach to working students so they’re aware that an on-campus job in a lab can actually be their job (or at least one of them). “Why wait tables, which is totally unrelated to their field of study, when they could come work in my lab, earn a wage and get an experience that’s going to help them in their career?” Malik says.
Malik’s fellowship year will focus, in part, on helping faculty understand what it takes to recruit working students, which is something he’s been doing successfully for years in his own lab. “Sometimes, we can’t pay as much as their off-campus jobs, so you have to help them understand that the experience has the potential to pay off big for them down the road, once they start their careers.” For now, he’ll be focused specifically on the SURE program, but he says the approach is applicable to grant-supported research in general, which often has funds earmarked for undergraduate students.
UM-Dearborn Chancellor Domenico Grasso, who helped launch a similar program when he was provost at the University of Delaware, says the close collaboration between administration and faculty can help ensure DEI initiatives are themselves rooted in diverse perspectives. “My view of this fellowship is that it’s a two-way enrichment,” Grasso says. “By teaming like-minded faculty and administration, they can see what we’re trying to do, help us see things differently, and maybe also understand what our limitations are. I’ve worked in administration now for a long time, and I understand that faculty evolve and often see things from a different perspective. So I want to learn from them, while they also learn from our perspectives.” Grasso has high hopes for both inaugural fellows and is looking forward to regular conversations with them in the months ahead. He says Laws’ data-driven approach and Malik’s focus on the unique circumstances of our students are both strong examples of how faculty perspectives can add rigor and creativity to our ongoing efforts to make the campus a more welcoming place.
Story by Lou Blouin