UMass Advance

Innovative Program Hits the Mark for Faculty Equity
umass amherst advance team

UMass Amherst does neither better nor worse than most large research universities in recruiting, retaining, and promoting women faculty in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Average is not good enough to meet the campus commitment to diversity and inclusion. Consequently, the university has put major muscle behind ADVANCE, a collaborative quest begun in 2018 to transform UMass Amherst into a place where every faculty member, regardless of gender, race/ethnicity, or sexuality, feels respected and has equal professional opportunities.

ADVANCE will take aim at factors small and large: from who takes notes at faculty sta meetings to who is promoted to full professor.

A Culture Shift
Faculty equity may seem unobtainable when, as professor of sociology and public policy Joya Misra says, “Even in 2020, gender and racial inequality remain persistent problems.” But the ADVANCE team believes their strategy to tackle obstacles to equity systematically can lead to institutional transformation. Misra, principal investigator for year two of the project, explains that success will require both structural change (new policies and practices) and cultural change. “You can have structural change, but if people don’t buy into its importance, it doesn’t make a difference,” she says. “But when structure and culture change together, it’s mutually reinforcing.”

Misra explains that the ADVANCE program is built around three R’s. When faculty members have the resources to do their work, equal access to relationships with colleagues, and equal access to recognition for their work, they will be more successful, and the institution will be more inclusive and equitable.

“Advancing faculty equity through collaboration is our focus at UMass,” adds Laurel Smith-Doerr, professor of sociology and this year’s principal investigator. “We have a theme for each year of ADVANCE. Last year was the year of faculty peer mentoring, this year will be inclusivity in the time of COVID-19, next year we’ll work on equitable research collaborations, and in our final year, we’ll focus on departmental governance.”

Tools for Success
The ADVANCE program has a number of arrows in its quiver to help target these goals, the first of which is the ADVANCE team itself. The team is led by principal investigators from computer sciences (James Allan), engineering (Sergio Breña), natural sciences (Buju Dasgupta, Jennifer Normanly, and Gabriela Weaver), and social sciences (Misra and Smith-Doerr), who have the experience, the data, and the drive to power change.

Left to right: Laurel Smith-Doerr, Buju Dasgupta, James Allan,

Donna Baron, Jennifer Normanly, Sergio F. Breña,

Gabriela Weaver, Joya Misra.

Second, ADVANCE is backed by the funds and broad reach of the National Science Foundation, which launched the initiative in 1999. Two years ago, UMass Amherst won a competitive $3 million, five-year NSF ADVANCE Institutional Transformation grant that allowed the campus to consolidate and strengthen its efforts to promote faculty equity. With the grant, UMass set its sights on the initiative—hiring project staff, conducting research, and offering extensive programming and tools. The newest tool will help faculty document how COVID-19 has affected their work to ensure they aren’t disadvantaged by child care responsibilities and other pandemic impacts. “Inequality can get ratcheted up in times of crisis,” points out Smith-Doerr.

Another ADVANCE advantage is its network of powerful campus allies: “We have the buy-in of Provost John McCarthy and Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, who support inclusion, diversity, and equity,” says Misra. “We also have a number of super-supportive deans, and a wonderful partner in the faculty union.”

Signs of Change
Some changes are already policy, including new rules regarding peer mentoring, which research shows is critical to faculty retention. The university now requires departments to have mentoring plans for newly-hired faculty, annual faculty rewards for mentoring have been established, and faculty mentoring is part of annual faculty reports. “Mentoring is now something that is rewarded on campus, something that gets counted when we are evaluated,” says Misra. “That was an enormous win.”

ADVANCE deploys an annual cadre of faculty fellows who foster cultural change within their departments. Elizabeth Sharrow, associate professor of public policy and history, was one of last year’s fellows. She sees her role as bringing equity issues to the forefront. “We signal to colleagues that there is a lot of work being done around campus—not just
regarding gender, but regarding race and intersectionality— and there’s a network of us who are figuring out ways to do it,” she says. One of Sharrow’s priorities is encouraging research collaborations. “In the natural sciences and social sciences, collaboration is increasingly important to our research. Who gets to be part of the research team and who gets left out? That matters a lot and is a metaphor for how well departments function in other non research-related work.”

Professor Michele Cooke, an ADVANCE fellow in the department of geosciences and a faculty member since 1999, says that starting conversations around equity at UMass Amherst has become easier. “In the past, issues related to faculty gender and equity didn’t always gain traction,” she says. “Now that we have the data on these issues, and we have ADVANCE at our back, faculty can be more comfortable raising these issues; it gives power to our voices.”

Smith-Doerr notes that greater faculty equity will benefit UMass Amherst as a whole. “Faculty are the foundation of higher education,” she says. “When we support women and faculty of color, we support women students and students of color. A more diverse faculty will also result in better research—we know that through research on science itself.”

In 2023, at the conclusion of the NSF grant, the ADVANCE team will examine the data to assess how well UMass Amherst has succeeded in reducing gender, race/ethnicity, and other disparities among faculty, and they will work to extend and expand their efforts throughout campus. And they will push on. As Smith-Doerr notes, “Equity and inclusion is not something that you can take your eye off of. It’s a continual effort. It’s unending work.”

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