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Climate and Diversity: It's All About Communication

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02 June 2014

Climate outside the office can affect us everyday, whether it is winter weather making transportation difficult or a warm sunny day lifting the mood. But what about the other type of climate? People experience climate everyday in the workplace, in school, and in social situations; the atmosphere in each situation has a profound effect on a person’s mood, productivity level, and mental well-being. So what can be done to improve this type of climate?

Enter the Dean’s Climate and Diversity Committee. Every month, this committee of people from all over the college, including faculty, staff, students, and postdocs, meets to talk about issues of climate in the Eberly College of Science.

How do they define climate? Climate is how someone would describe the atmosphere in the college. Climate encompasses how a member of the college feels in regard to acceptance, safety, and support. Do you feel that your background and beliefs are respected in your work unit? Do you feel safe and comfortable? Do you feel you have all of the resources you need in your unit, and would be comfortable asking for them if you didn’t? All of these factors contribute to climate.

The Dean’s Climate and Diversity Committee, comprised of two to three representatives from each department in the college, meets frequently to discuss ways to improve the climate and diversity of the college, and to ensure that every faculty member, staff person, and student feels safe, comfortable, and accepted.

Dean Larson formed the college’s Climate and Diversity Committee in 1999, charging the committee “to develop and sustain a welcoming environment that is inclusive of all groups with an emphasis on underrepresented populations and inter-group relations.” The dean’s plan was to gather information that could help further the college’s vision of providing a supportive and welcoming environment where all members can carry out missions of research service, teaching, and learning to the best of their abilities.

In addition to the committee members from each department, the committee includes other staff around the college. Hank McCoullum, director of the Office of Diversity Initiatives and Multicultural Programs, and Amanda Jones, manager of the college’s human resources office, sit on the Climate and Diversity Committee on behalf of their areas in the college. Other representatives on the committee not from academic departments include staff from the dean’s office and delegates from Science LionPride, the college’s student ambassador program. In addition to the college’s main committee, each department has its own Climate and Diversity Committee.


Improving Communication

CD digital signDigital signage like the one shown here in Thomas Building, is one way the Climate and Diversity Committee communicates initiatives to the college community.

No matter what issues the committee tackles, committee co-chairs Chuck Fisher and Melissa Rolls say that communication is their biggest issue.

“All of the issues we deal with are ultimately about bettering communication,” said Fisher, “whether it’s letting someone know about existing resources, dealing with a difficult situation, instituting best practices in mentoring, or getting the word out about a new policy.”

One method the committee uses to communicate is the embedding method. They use their committee members, ombudspeople, and departmental committees to help spread the word about an important policy or initiative in their area.

At the request of the committee, the college purchased digital signage for nine buildings frequented by the college’s faculty, staff, and students. Digital signage will be a primary means of disseminating information about the committee’s initiatives, the college’s Code of Respect and Mutual Cooperation, and information about policies that can make staff, faculty, and students feel more comfortable in the college. Buildings with digital signage include Chemistry Building, Davey Laboratory, Frear Building, McAllister Building, Mueller Laboratory, Osmond Laboratory, Ritenour Building, Thomas Building, and Whitmore Laboratory.

“We hope that by putting the information in spaces people pass through every day, we can get them information on things they may not have even thought to look up,” said Rolls.  

Another way to communicate the importance of work in climate and diversity is to reward individuals for their achievements in this area. Since 2009, the Climate and Diversity Awards have been recognizing three individuals per year for their work to improve the college’s climate and diversity. In addition to recognizing the winners, the committee also recognizes every person who was nominated for a Climate and Diversity Award at the annual awards presentation, even if they did not win.

Rolls believes these awards are important: “Hearing about what our college members have worked on is inspiring. We have recognized accomplishments ranging from increasing recruitment of underrepresented students to the chemistry graduate program to working to improve the postdoc community.”

So what are some of the committee’s big initiatives? What are some examples of their work in action?


College Climate Survey

One of the most important initiatives of the committee is the College Climate Survey. In 2007, the committee conducted a survey to assess the climate in the college. The results of the survey helped to inform the committee’s initiatives in the years following the survey. In 2012, a follow-up survey was developed and given to the college community. The committee compared the results from 2007 to the results from 2012 to determine where progress has been made in relation to the college’s climate, and where attention should still be focused to improve climate.

A few areas that the 2007 and 2012 surveys identified as areas in need of improvement included postdoctoral and graduate student mentoring, graduate student and staff confidence in our commitment to protect them from harassment, and the general lack of knowledge about existing resources. The climate committee has taken these results to heart and have initiated activities to address these needs on several fronts.

Ombudspeople
Each department in the college has its own ombudspeople, which is the result of an important initiative of the committee. The committee’s goal was to identify people in each department who were trusted and approachable, someone who all members of the department would be comfortable talking to about climate or other job-related issues. Rather than letting a minor issue fester or waiting until an issue escalates to the point that serious intervention is needed, the ombudspeople are available for counseling, to intervene gently, or sometimes just to be a sympathetic ear.

Working with an ombudsperson is a confidential process. Unless a crime has been committed or there is a risk to someone’s health or wellbeing, the ombudsperson does nothing without the permission of the person seeking their help. The ombudspeople have been trained by the college’s human resources office to best serve the faculty, students, and staff in their department and are aware of the range of resources available to assist people in need. The ombudspeople work with those who approach them to solve problems, or more often, to head potential problems off early.

How are ombudspeople chosen and vetted? Each department nominates their ombudspeople, and the nominations are brought to the college’s human resources office. The human resources office then reviews the nominations. What is the most important quality they look for in an ombudsperson?

“Whether they are approachable,” said Rolls. “We want you to feel comfortable coming to the ombudsperson with any issues you might have, so they need to be approachable.”

There is one tenure-track and one non-tenure–track faculty member in each department to help diversify the ranks of ombudspeople.

Fisher, who is an ombudsperson for the Department of Biology, said, “Fortunately it is not a very time-consuming job, as we are rarely needed. I’ve met with only 3-4 people a year in my roll as ombudsman. In most cases, the problems were still minor and were taken care of quickly by clarifying misunderstandings or miscommunications. In a couple of cases, more serious situations were identified early and also dealt with quickly and productively.”

Mentoring Programs
Puzzle pieces and handsThe Eberly College of Science employs more postdoctoral researchers, fellows, and scholars than any other college in the University, with 52 percent of all University postdocs working in the college. The large number of postdocs in the college made the concern about insufficient mentoring a priority for the committee.

To improve postdoctoral mentoring, the committee first formed a postdoctoral subcommittee in 2010 to investigate the needs of postdoctoral fellows, scholars, and researchers in the college. When the subcommittee discovered an inconsistent approach to mentoring postdoctoral fellows, researchers, and scholars, they decided to do some research to see if a better model existed somewhere else.

After reviewing recommendations from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Postdoctoral Society, and a number of peer universities, the committee concluded that development and use of Postdoctoral Individual Development Plans was a centerpiece of the best practices in the nation. They then worked to modify instruments developed by these other groups to best fit the needs of postdoctoral scholars in the college. The result is an instrument that helps postdocs to identify areas of personal and professional development that would benefit them while providing a mechanism to facilitate open communication between a postdoc and his or her mentor about their individual needs and aspirations.

According to Will Horton, a postdoctoral scholar in neuroscience and member of the committee’s postdoctoral subcommittee, not all postdocs want the same things out of their experience, which can make mentoring a postdoc challenging. “Postdocs can have different goals: some may want to teach, some may want to perform research, some may want to go to industry,” he said.

Opening up a line of communication about what is desired from the experience is key, which he says the Individual Development Plan helps to do: “The Individual Development Plan gets you to communicate with your mentor even if you are shy.”

The College Climate Survey also brought up concerns about the lack of consistent mentoring for the college’s graduate students. Using a similar process as they did with postdoctoral mentoring, the committee researched best practices for graduate student mentoring from peer universities, such as the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University. The committee then took those best practices and customized them for the diverse needs of the students in the college, based on information from the College Climate Survey and with help from the committee’s graduate student subcommittee.

Department of Mathematics Graduate Student Workshop
After the release of results from the 2012 College Climate Survey, some individual departments decided to take action on the items they saw in the survey results. One of these departments was the Department of Mathematics. Diane Henderson, faculty member in the Department of Mathematics and college Climate and Diversity Committee member, helped to arrange a town hall meeting in the Department of Mathematics to have a discussion of some of the survey results.

After the town hall meeting, a few students approached Henderson privately to talk about some of their personal concerns about climate in the department. One of those students was Diego Chaves, now a third-year Ph.D. student in mathematics.

“We discussed some inappropriate comments that we’ve heard in the department,” Chaves said. These comments included sexist jokes and slurs against homosexuals, as well as some concern about cultural integration issues. Henderson suggested setting up a student-given workshop to address these issues.

Chaves and seven other graduate students in the Department of Mathematics identified eight major issues of climate that they wanted to raise awareness about and start a departmental dialogue on. The issues were: inclusion, humor in the workplace, sensitivity to human identities, reactions to behaviors, academically disparaging attitudes, respecting our students, gossip, and professionalism.

Each graduate student on the small team prepared a presentation and discussion on one of the eight issues. The students then put on four workshop sessions, each session combining two of the eight issue areas. The students who signed up were randomly assigned to a workshop rather than choosing it, which meant that first-year graduate students were often in workshops with third- and fourth-year graduate students, creating a more well-rounded discussion.

The students who gave the workshop also created a social contract for the department which students could voluntarily sign, stating they would respect other students and their cultures, identities, and beliefs, with suggestions for how to handle difficult situations.

Chaves had personal experience with the workshop topic of inclusion. Chaves, who is Brazilian, said that as an international student, there is a tendency to stick with students from your own nationality or background when you come to graduate school. He himself experienced this during his first year of his Ph.D. program. Because the Department of Mathematics attracts students from many countries around the world for whom English is not a first language, language can be a huge barrier to integrating with other members of the department.

“It’s so easy to go back to your first language,” Chaves says, admitting that for his first year, he did this rather than socialize with those outside his culture. It wasn’t until a chance encounter with fellow graduate students outside of campus that he began to try to meet other people from the department and truly integrate.

The workshop on inclusion encouraged international and American students to get to know each other. The workshop included strategies for native English speakers to help non-native speakers and encouragement to make learning about other backgrounds a priority. A key message in the workshop was that “talking to someone from a different part of the world will enrich your life,” says Chaves.

Both the team of graduate students and Henderson were awarded a Climate and Diversity Award for this work to improve the climate in their department.

The Department of Mathematics would like to continue the workshops every year, with the hope that participation by first-year students will help to quell some of the issues brought up by the climate survey.

Workshops like the one created in the Department of Mathematics embody the spirit of the Climate and Diversity Committee, said Fisher and Rolls.

Chuck Fisher and Melissa RollsClimate and Diversity Committee co-chairs Chuck Fisher and Melissa Rolls speak at this year’s Climate and Diversity Awards reception

“We want to inspire all members of the college to do their part to create a good climate in the college,” said Fisher.

Without an inclusive climate and fair treatment for all members of the college community, the college would not be recognized as one of the premiere institutions for science across the country; a healthy climate is imperative to the overall success of the college.  While the committee is pleased with the success that they have had with their climate initiatives in the last 15 years, they continue to work hard to identify areas that need improvement. With support from the dean and other administrators in the college, the committee will continue its efforts to improve communication and make the Eberly College of Science a positive place for all members of the college community.