Michigan Engineering News

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Engineering seeks to educate on societal racism, bias through new proposals

‘We have seen, both through our own data and through the divisive issues society is facing, exactly how urgent this issue is.’

Two new initiatives proposed at Michigan Engineering aim to educate everyone in the community on race, ethnicity, unconscious bias and inclusion, and establish a reimagined center for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).  

College leaders presented proposals for the educational components on Thursday at a webinar for students, staff and faculty. The EnginTalks virtual event was the first of several planned opportunities for community members to ask questions and offer input.

The initiatives, announced Oct. 2, follow a summer when the killing of George Floyd sparked racial tensions, and issues of systemic racism, bias and cultural disparities in our society were brought to the forefront of public discourse.

“As engineers, we have as much of an obligation as others to tackle this systemic problem,” said Alec D. Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and professor of aerospace engineering. “We have seen, both through our own data and through the divisive issues that society at large is facing, exactly how urgent this issue is. Our education and research must be as free from bias as is possible to ensure our products, systems and solutions – which reach and affect so many people – do not create additional barriers.” 

New DEI education proposals and center

The education proposals include separate, coordinated plans for engineering faculty, staff, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and undergraduate students, as well as an additional bystander-intervention workshop for the community at large. The College has chosen to begin with a focus on race, ethnicity and unconscious bias, but the intent is for this to create a framework to educate on many issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in the future.

Under the education proposals, faculty would engage in a continuing education program on racial equity, inclusive teaching and broader issues in diversity, equity and inclusion. 

“This will help equip faculty to engage in constructive dialog with students and colleagues on matters of equity and inclusion, and inform their ongoing practice in teaching, research and service to the institution and society,” said Michael Wellman, the Richard H. Orenstein Division Chair and the Lynn A. Conway Collegiate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, who co-leads the faculty education team.

Staff would participate in professional development focused on anti-racism, ethnicity issues, social justice and communication skills needed to develop and maintain an equitable, diverse and inclusive environment, said Deborah Mero, senior executive director of resource planning and management.

“Graduate students and postdocs would have additional formal DEI educational experiences, beyond what we provide during Fall orientation, with an emphasis on race and ethnicity issues,” said Mary-Ann Mycek, associate dean for graduate and professional education and a professor of biomedical engineering. The College will work with the Rackham Graduate School to develop both capacity and content for the proposed education through workshops offered as part of the DEI Graduate Certificate.

Undergraduates would see a change to the curriculum, with modules added to engineering classes that address identity and systemic anti-Black racism in the context of engineering, and potentially a new course that would satisfy existing intellectual breadth degree requirements.

“We would like to create an experience for undergraduates that is multi-layered,” said Joanna Millunchick, associate dean for undergraduate education, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and a professor of materials science and engineering.

This approach would enable students to learn not only the historical context and common forms of modern discrimination and prejudice people of color experience, but also connect it to their work as engineers.

For the community at large, the Change It Up workshop would be available to all. The workshop has been running for several years, teaching students, faculty and staff ways to recognize common forms of exclusion that occur in classrooms, conversations among colleagues and other common scenarios. Participants also learn about ways to interrupt these incidents, address harm done and try to ensure the incident doesn’t repeat. 

The new DEI center is designed to work horizontally across units, rather than in a vertical silo, to ensure that its efforts are pervasive. It will combine the current Center for Engineering Diversity and Outreach (CEDO), which previously focused primarily on K-20 student outreach programs, and the DEI Implementation Committee — a leadership team that was tasked with putting in place the College’s five-year DEI plan developed in 2016. It will coordinate with all departments and College leaders to provide consistent standards and expertise as the new education plans roll out.

Feedback from the community 

The first question raised at the webinar dealt with the recent White House executive order “combating race and sex stereotyping.” 

Sara Pozzi, College director of diversity, equity and inclusion and a professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, expressed support for the statement from President Schlissel and Provost Collins conveying concerns about the order. Later, she added context.

“We are not seeking to ‘inculcate stereotypes,’” Pozzi said. “Quite the contrary, we are seeking to expose these stereotypes and work on mechanisms to counteract them. In our society there are stereotypes as to what a scientist or engineer looks like. These stereotypes are based on our past experiences and history. As we look towards the future and seek to make our profession more diverse — more representative of our society — we must become aware of how stereotypes negatively affect recruitment and retention in our profession.”

Another community member asked whether people of color would be expected to participate in education on topics they already know well and that may trigger memories of traumatic experiences around racism and discrimination. To this, Mycek responded that the graduate student and postdoc proposal will begin as an opt-in model, providing choices for participation while the College collects feedback from participants. For undergraduates, Millunchick said that the modules are still under development, and that larger courses are being designed to avoid compounding trauma for students.

These proposals are the culmination of work done through the College’s DEI strategic plan, the culture pillar of its Michigan Engineering 2020 plan and a direct charge from Dean Gallimore to engineering leaders this summer. Over the next several months, the College is actively engaging faculty, staff and students in the design of the final programs, which it hopes to implement within one year.

“There are going to be some suggestions that we haven’t thought of,” said Lyonel Milton, managing director of the Center for Engineering Diversity and Outreach. “We want to hear all perspectives and angles to shape the best way forward. Without broad support, we cannot be effective.”

William Spraggins, a junior in naval architecture and marine engineering and treasurer of the U-M chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers is one of the 120 Michigan Engineering community members who attended the webinar.

“I know many of the people talking on the panel personally. Based on where I’ve seen them and what they do, I know that they’re invested,” said Spraggins.

As for concerns about resistance to the new requirements, he said, “I understand that people who may not initially want to hear it, or feel they don’t need to hear it, may feel overburdened. But there is more to this. There are human beings who have been mistreated who need you to fully comprehend and act accordingly.”

“I believe that, at Michigan Engineering, the job of creating a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community rests not within one organization or group of people, but with all of us,” said Gallimore. “The path forward is aligned with our mission to serve the common good. That must be and is our guiding principle in enacting true, lasting progress – not just a few superficial changes. That cannot be done without continuing to weave the tenets of diversity, equity and inclusion into the fabric of our culture.”

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