NSF grant aims to expand diversity, inclusion for ASU STEM faculty

By

Alisa Reznick

Growing up in East Los Angeles, Erika Camacho, an associate professor in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences at Arizona State University, saw education as a portal to a better life.

“My mom and my dad were janitors who didn’t really have many opportunities, the pinnacle of what I thought I could be was a cashier,” she said. “I didn’t realize there was so much more until mentors in high school told me I should consider going to college.”

Camacho earned a doctorate in applied mathematics from Cornell before heading into teaching and professorships in institutions across the country. But the more she advanced, the slimmer the support became.

“I’ve had people tell me that once you get tenure, you’re golden because you have so much freedom,” she said. “But the reality is that if you’re a minority woman, academia still feels like you’re a guest in someone else’s house.”

Diversity in higher education faculty and leadership is a conversation that’s been mounting for the last two decades, especially in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. But disparities remain.

A 2017 National Science Foundation report showed a lag in female professionals in those fields, while black, Hispanic, American Indian and Alaska Native individuals continue to be underrepresented in both the workforce and university faculty.

Now, backed by a $2.9 million NSF grant, Camacho will join a project led by Elizabeth Wentz, dean of social sciences at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, that aims to balance the equation.

Last September, ASU received the esteemed ADVANCE Institutional Transformation award. The five-year grant supports the development of pathways to leadership for STEM academics, particularly women and under-represented minorities.

“Our goal is to see changes in the leadership makeup,” said Wentz, principal investigator for ASU ADVANCE. “We want to see fewer years for women at the associate professor rank, more women taking on leadership roles, and more recognition for the workload of our women leaders.”

Wentz and four co-principal investigators, including Camacho, will develop online professional development services, expand digital platforms and conduct promotion, recruiting and evaluation reviews for a multi-pronged update of STEM faculty opportunities at ASU.

At the helm of the project’s institutional transformation core, Wentz will also work with ASU’s highest administrative figures. Biannual meetings will include ASU President Michael Crow, Executive Vice President and University Provost Mark Searle and Sethuraman Panchanathan, executive vice president and chief research and innovation officer at ASU.

“Increasing the representation and advancement of women and faculty of color in academia enriches ideas and impactful research as well as promotes a culture of best practices, resulting in superior advancement and strong leadership,” Panchanathan said. “This grant provides an opportunity to continue to advance ASU’s fundamental commitment to inclusion, which is essential for innovation in higher education.”

ASU is committed to finding sustainable solutions to increasing diversity university-wide. Robust support networks have transformed the undergraduate experience and generated higher graduation rates across the board. ASU ADVANCE envisions a similar reboot for faculty.

“Our success rests on the belief that inclusivity and excellence are not mutually-exclusive ideals, but vital, complementary pieces to a vibrant future for academia,” Crow said. “We have already proved the immense potential of that combination at the student level, ADVANCE is an opportunity for that same equilibrium to reach university leadership.”

An age-old institution

Sculpting a new roadmap requires an examination of frameworks that already exist. Monica Gaughan, who leads the grant’s social science research component, says modern higher education derives from a model designed to keep people out, not accept them in.

“The question now is, 'how do we think about changing an institution that was built for an extremely privileged set of people making a set of rules for themselves?' ” said Gaughan, associate professor at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

Gaughan’s team collected data about faculty makeup and trajectories across ASU campuses during the grant’s application process last year. She said strict promotion timelines and early-career mentorship programs have helped level the playing field among pre-tenure faculty members, but more needs to be done.

“We found that being promoted to associate professor in most units is kind of like falling off a cliff,” she said. “The support just stops.”

Aligned with national accreditation policies, ASU’s tenure-track faculty must have promotion reviews within six years of employment. After that, Gaughan said further advancements can be hindered as deciding committees have more discretion. On average across STEM fields at ASU, her team’s research showed men being promoted from associate to full professorships a year and a half earlier than women.

Gaughan said the disparity reflects how issues of unconscious bias can come into play as careers move forward. ASU has been a leader in improving other facets of the tenure track over the last decade, including implementing pauses in its six-year timeline to account for maternity or paternity leave. Similarly, Gaughan’s team will use what they’ve learned about promotion discrepancies to make improvements that further close the gap.

The data set the stage for a social science research plan rolling out in phases for the duration of the grant. By examining programs at other institutions and conducting interviews with staff and faculty, they’ll propose ways to foster more diversity in leadership.

Ensuring the success of future policies also rests on insights from female leaders already on campus. As the director of ASU’s Fulton School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, Lenore Dai is ready to help.

“I’m working with the other teams to understand their needs to structure top-down accountability,” said Dai, a co-principal investigator for the ADVANCE grant. “This is the seed needed to implement equity policies on a university-wide level.”

Dai leads the grant’s administrative accountability wing, which includes leaders from the Office of the Provost, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Fulton Schools of Engineering. She’ll work closely with Wentz and other ASU leaders to help change promotion and recruiting policies and put them into action as they develop.

Identifying barriers  

Navigating advancement within academia is a challenge Camacho knows well. She struggled to find support as a student and professor. Now heading the grant’s professional development team, she wants to help faculty find a better way.

“I think my drive was born out of frustration,” she said. “It’s been very painful having to find ways to advance, you find you’re always having to overcompensate to get the same outcome as everyone else.”

Her plan aims to battle that norm by tackling some of the logistical hindrances female STEM faculty face throughout their academic lives. For example, professional workshops often take place in Tempe, Camacho said, making it difficult for instructors caring for children or based at other campuses to take part. Working with ASU’s digital learning platform EdPlus and ASU Online, Camacho’s team will create digitized versions of in-person development resources for faculty to access on-demand.

Digital platforms for faculty success

Digital coordination and vigorous online systems have been essential to bringing more than 100,000 students across five campuses and a host online programs under one umbrella. ASU ADVANCE will tap into that same network to create a digital landing pad for new faculty resources.

“EdPlus has immense experience working with underrepresented minority students,” said Phil Regier, university dean for educational initiatives at EdPlus. “We can build on some of those parallels to create a platform for faculty.”

As the ADVANCE teams come together, EdPlus Social Impact Officer Erin Carr-Jordan, also part of the grant as director of online operations, said creating such an expansive ecosystem has the potential to reach faculty beyond STEM.

“We all understand that one of the keys to success is to approach this not from a siloed fashion, but from a collaborative point of view,” she said. “These programs could be for every faculty person interested in advancing in their fields, and I think the likelihood of this reaching across disciplines university-wide is high.”

The last decade has seen interdisciplinary collaboration and community inclusion become centerpoints of ASU’s charter. Provost Mark Searle sees ADVANCE as an opportunity to create new tools for faculty growth.

“ASU is always striving to improve processes and harness the potential created by a truly inclusive institution — this is another opportunity to do just that,” he said.

Top photo: (top row, left to right) EdPlus Social Impact Officer Erin Carr-Jordan; Phil Regier, university dean for educational initiatives at EdPlus; Monica Gaughan, associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change; ASU President Michael Crow; Lenore Dai, director of the Fulton School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy; (bottom row, left to right) ASU ADVANCE Program Manager Lillian Ruelas, Elizabeth Wentz, dean of social sciences at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; ASU Provost Mark Searle; Erika Camacho, associate professor in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences.