Welcome to Race on Campus. When colleges set out to tackle their lack of faculty diversity or problems with their campus climate, they often take the same steps they’ve always tried, seemingly in search of a quick fix. The American Association for the Advancement of Science seeks to help colleges take a slower, more systemic approach, our Sarah Brown reports.

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What Is a ‘Change Trap’?

Diversity training. Task forces. Committing to a diversity initiative, but making one office entirely responsible for it.

These are what Shirley Malcom and Travis York like to call “change traps” — things colleges seem to do over and over again to try to solve their diversity problems, with limited success.

Malcom is head of education and human-resources programs at the AAAS. York is director of an association program, Inclusive STEM Ecosystems for Equity and Diversity, that aims to support underrepresented groups in STEM.

After years of watching colleges fall into change traps, Malcom and York have come up with a long list of them.

One is dependence on a charismatic leader: A college president makes faculty diversity a top priority, but when that president leaves, the diversity commitment leaves too.

Another is moving straight from awareness of a diversity problem to trying to fix it, without taking the time to understand the root causes. A department might realize there are no faculty members of color on its roster, so it recruits one senior Black professor — without reflecting on whether the department’s culture might be the problem. “Are we surprised when that person walks out the door in three years?” Malcom asks.

“You think you’ve fixed something, but it isn’t fixed,” she says.

Malcom has a firsthand understanding of how deep racial and gender inequity runs in higher education. After growing up in the Jim Crow South, she earned her Ph.D. in 1974, becoming one of the few Black women in science.

“I was struck by the fact that I didn’t see anyone who looked like me,” Malcom says. “I think I’ve been trying to answer that question — why wasn’t there anyone who looked like me? — for the rest of my life.”

Malcom has worked at the AAAS in various capacities since the 1970s. In that time, she says, she’s seen a whole lot of diversity programs. While the programs might have helped a handful of students of color succeed in STEM, they didn’t change the systems that had put up barriers to the students’ success.

More recently, Malcom says, colleges have begun to grasp what it takes to make sustained progress on diversity. But something, she says, has still been missing: a way to hold the higher-education sector accountable.

Enter SEA Change

SEA stands for STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) Equity Achievement. Through SEA Change, directed by Malcom, the AAAS enters into long-term partnerships with universities, helping them craft data-driven action plans on diversity, equity, and inclusion that focus on the structural barriers — like implicit bias in hiring and pay inequities — for people of color and women, particularly in STEM fields.

Thirteen universities have signed on since 2018, SEA Change’s first active year. Most are large research universities, like North Carolina State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but the group also includes small institutions like Eckerd College, in Florida, and the Olin College of Engineering, in Massachusetts.

Once a university decides to join SEA Change, the institution does a self-assessment, sets goals for faculty diversity, and creates a plan and a team across the campus. The plan is then peer-reviewed by external experts who decide whether to recommend the institution for an initial bronze rating.

The AAAS offers bronze, silver, and gold SEA Change awards for institutions, and will soon offer them for individual departments. Every five years, institutions must prove that they’ve continued to move forward on their faculty-diversity plans to maintain their bronze rating or move up to silver.

Colleges involved in SEA Change aren’t off on their own, York says. They’re talking once a month with SEA Change leaders, they can share ideas with other institutional members, and they go through training on issues like faculty recruitment and legal constraints on diversity.

SEA Change is based on a program in Britain called Athena Swan that focuses on gender diversity in STEM. Until last year, academic departments in Britain had to maintain a silver Athena Swan status to be eligible for funding from that country’s National Institute for Health Research; today, departments just have to show a commitment to diversity and equity.

Malcom isn’t sure the U.S. government would use something like SEA Change to determine allocation of research dollars. But she hopes that some private philanthropic organizations will embrace it.

SEA Change is different from other diversity programs because it has teeth, says Philip H. Kass, vice provost for academic affairs at the University of California at Davis, which is a SEA Change charter member and holds one of its first bronze awards. SEA Change drives institutions to analyze their data and be aware of their faculty-diversity gaps, Kass says, and then prove that they’re doing something about them. The faculty at UC-Davis is 34 percent people of color, compared with 63 percent of California’s population.

At doctoral research universities, he says, it’s challenging to help senior scientists who control hiring and promotion decisions to understand that increasing faculty diversity isn’t incompatible with merit — publications in top journals and major grants. That perception will take time to fix, he says.

At UC-Davis, a team of 15 people is leading the work. Kass says the SEA Change team is examining faculty hiring, pay equity, and campus-climate issues, such as properly equipping lactation rooms for women who are nursing. Another recent step for UC-Davis has been hiring its first-ever vice chancellor for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Tiffany Lopez, vice provost for inclusion and community engagement at Arizona State University, another SEA Change charter member with a bronze rating, says the model helps institutions break out of their silos. That is especially important for Arizona State, a vast university with four campuses and about 17,000 employees. Diversity initiatives often exist in one part of the institution, without acknowledging how every office and department is interconnected, Lopez says.

Arizona State’s faculty is 22 percent people of color, compared with 46 percent of the state’s population.

Success as part of SEA Change doesn’t just mean increased faculty diversity, Lopez says. “It means that we talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging as an organic part of the strategies of everything that we do.” —Sarah Brown

Read Up

  • Attending college is setting back many Black millennials financially. The percent of college-educated Black households in their 30s with student debt is up by 49 percentage points compared with 30 years ago. Today, the incomes of Black college grads grow more slowly compared with other college grads’ incomes, according to Federal Reserve data. (The Wall Street Journal)
  • In rural Virginia, Black activists are trying to stop Wegmans, the grocery-store chain, from building a warehouse in their community. Here’s why. (The Washington Post)
  • Headlines usually focus on what happens when a police officer kills a civilian — often, a person of color. But why don’t we hear as frequently about other forms of violence that don’t result in death and that also often involve people of color? This podcast focuses on those instances that don’t go viral. (NPR)
  • In this advice column, a white woman promoted to a high-level position asks whether she should challenge leadership over the qualified Black women who were passed over for the job. (The New York Times)
  • Lynchings are not only tragic events of the past. Since 2000, there have at least been eight suspected lynchings in Mississippi, according to police reports and court documents. (The Washington Post)