IDEA Institute: on diversity as a prerequisite of excellence

8/24/2020 Kimberly Belser

The Institute for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access encourages diversity across science and engineering through academic resources, including blogs, reports, and seminars. IDEA also facilitates events such as workshops, town halls, and the anti-racism series, held in June, where 400 attendees joined for at least one of the sessions. 


Written by Kimberly Belser

Students study for finals in the lobby of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, ECE, at the University of Illinois.
Students study for finals in the lobby of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, ECE, at the University of Illinois.

It was snowing hard on the February day of the Institute for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access’s (IDEA) kickoff town hall meeting. The meeting would introduce the concept and mission of the IDEA Institute, but the weather conditions threatened its turnout. 
Institute director and electrical and computer engineering professor Lynford Goddard said that despite the weather conditions, approximately 65 people attended that day. IDEA’s next major event would be an anti-racism series in June, where 400 attendees joined for one of the sessions.
The goal of the Institute’s events all share a theme, a message that appears on the Institute’s home page: Diversity is a prerequisite of excellence. 
“My interpretation is that in order for us to be excellent as a university in our integrated mission to educate, to conduct cutting edge research, and to serve the community, we must bring in the experiences and voices of a diverse group (whether it is students, staff, or faculty),” said Goddard. He said the phrase came from Grainger Engineering Dean Rashid Bashir.

Lynford L. Goddard (Photo by L. Brian Stauffer)
Lynford L. Goddard (Photo by L. Brian Stauffer)

According to data from the American Society from Engineering Education (ASEE), there was an uptick in the percentage of bachelor's degrees earned by Hispanic students and Black/African American students.
The Institute encourages diversity across science and engineering through academic resources, including blogs, reports, and seminars. IDEA also facilitates events such as workshops, town halls, and the anti-racism series, held in June, where 400 attendees joined for at least one of the sessions. 

“Given the recent unfortunate events around the country, and the necessary and very much needed increased attention to the matter of social justice and racial equality, the IDEA Institute is even more critical for us,” said Dean Bashir.

In a 2012 statement from the American Council on Education, the organization called diversity a factor that “enriches the educational experience” and “strengthens communities and the workplace,” among the reasons that racial and ethnic diversity should be considered a factor considered in admissions.

“Diversity on college campuses is not achieved through quotas. Nor does diversity justify or warrant admission of unqualified applicants,” the statement read. “However, the diversity we seek and the future of the nation do require that colleges and universities continue to be able to reach out and make a conscious effort to build healthy and diverse learning environments that are appropriate for their missions.”
Goddard said IDEA is something that the college can grow into, and is an area with “definite momentum.”

“It's something that has been progressing and evolving over several years now,” he added.
Bashir said having the Institute form when it did turned out to be “very timely for us.” He said he is committed to IDEA’s success as dean and as a faculty member within the institute. 
“I couldn’t be more than pleased that we were able to get Lynford to be the inaugural director of  the Institute”, Bashir said. “He also joined my cabinet, and I meet with him regularly to discuss how we can advance the institute to greater heights.”

One of the primary goals of the institute is to measure the effectiveness of various efforts, and to publish scholarly papers on best practices for diversity initiatives as they define them. There's definite interest, Goddard said, not only from engineering faculty, but from partners around the University and members of the Institute to participate in this research.  
“The idea behind the IDEA Institute is very unique,” Bashir said. “To do scholarship and research on diversity, equity, access, as it relates to engineering and also to collaborate with partnerships across campus to increase diversity and to create a very welcoming, inclusive climate for people of all backgrounds.”
The institute’s anti-racism task force, which is led by Professor of Computer Science Tandy Warnow, is a committee which consists of different sub-groups, that focus on faculty, climate, allyship, inclusive classrooms, engagement with the rest of campus and community engagement, respectively. 

Unlike Grainger’s Diversity Committee, the anti-racism task force, which completed its course on August 21, is charged with helping to define college leadership for departmental heads. Goddard believes the development of policies and procedures by the task force will naturally spread to other units on campus and perhaps to other universities. 
The task force has worked to identify key issues and studied best practices in order to recommend high priority action items for the college in its final report to the dean. 
“This is personal,” Warnow said. “Anti-racism is necessary. Always has been, but now it is urgent. I care, and I know many people care deeply enough to try.”
Warnow said the task force was asked to propose specific actions that the College could enact to make a difference to the lives of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) within the University community, including students, faculty, staff, and postdoctoral researchers. 
Warnow said the task force hopes that these action items will lead to improvements, though they do not expect all our suggestions to be followed, as “some will be difficult and not everyone will agree with every suggestion!”
The task force won’t develop or enact policies, but members of the force expect for the lessons they learn from various approaches to improving the well-being of BIPOC students, staff, and faculty will be lessons that others will benefit from.  And that includes, Warnow added, when the force learns what doesn’t work.
“The [anti-racism task force] is amazing,” she said. “So many students, for example, with insight and courage. I really appreciate them, and their kindness and generosity towards me. Also, Dean Bashir has been an ally throughout, which is tremendously encouraging. So I am actually optimistic.”

IDEA recently participated in #ShutdownStem, a national effort made by faculty, staff, and students from universities across the country to step away from their usual roles for a day to focus on the issues of anti-Black racism. #ShutdownStem was discussed as part of the anti-racism series, which Goddard said was created to enable people to consider how they can address racism in their own roles. 

A 2018 study from the Pew Research Center found that African Americans in STEM jobs are more likely to report experiencing workplace discrimination due to race, as opposed to African Americans in jobs unrelated to STEM.  

“We wanted an opportunity for people to examine their roles in the university and examine how they can individually and collectively address racism,” he said. 

Professor Goddard leads a webinar in June 2020.
Professor Goddard leads a webinar in June 2020.

Goddard said IDEA members would like to continue advertising learning opportunities like the anti-racism series to the campus community. The institute hopes to provide a centralized listing of resources through the website. IDEA also plans to collaborate with other diversity programs such as Women in Engineering (WIE) and the Morrill Engineering Program (MEP). 

“I think just the interests of the people in the IDEA institute, and having a wide diverse range of undergraduate, graduate staff, and faculty in the task force have been important in identifying the key areas that can have impact,” Goddard said. 

“So I see this as an opportunity to really have or utilize the momentum that exists to see significant improvements in policy and procedure,” he said. “A lot of times, you find the fight for a little bit of time and then you retire on to something else. And I feel that our leadership is really committed to this and that fading interest won't happen. It'll be something where sustained effort over adequate time takes us to where we want to be.”

Goddard said that in five years, he would like for the IDEA Institute to be a unique and highly visible exemplar program that is developing and institutionalizing best practices and policies for diversity and anti-racism, disseminating scholarly research results, and enabling students, staff, and faculty to jointly lead successful efforts to improve university culture and climate.

“Grainger Engineering members (faculty, staff, students) have changed the world for the better in so many ways,” he said. “We won’t be able to continue to address societal needs unless we embrace a commitment to diversity and inclusion, and make the world not just technologically advanced but also socially just.”

To this end, the institute launched the Grassroots Initiatives to Address Needs Together (GIANT) program in March 2020. Seven team projects, including 3 led by graduate students, 2 led by staff, and 2 led by faculty, have begun studying topics ranging from support systems for undergraduate and graduate students to family-centered community engagement in engineering.

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This story was published August 24, 2020.