Diversity. Equity. Inclusion. Not only are these words becoming increasingly prevalent across the University of Michigan and in society generally, but the concepts carry deeply held beliefs along with them that are being translated into concrete actions. The Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology has had a Diversity Committee since its inception in 2001 – if not the first committee of its kind in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts – then one of earliest. 

In recent years, the committee has taken an increasingly active role in developing activities to help improve the overall climate of the department. This has happened in conjunction with increased diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts university- and college-wide. The DEI webpage on the EEB website states, “Our philosophy is that the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology are enhanced when practitioners represent the full range of human experiences. We also feel that addressing present inequities is the responsibility of all academic fields.”

Dr. Jo Kurdziel, the Beverly Rathcke Collegiate Lecturer and chair of the Diversity Committee, credits the creativity of EEB graduate students for the first in a series of recent efforts. Katherine Crocker learned about a program called You Are Welcome Here that originated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that features rainbow themed signs and stickers posted on office and lab doors throughout the university in support of LGBTQ students.

Rainbow reef. Image: EEB alumnus Alison Gould (Ph.D. EEB 2016).

Crocker shared the idea with Jordan Bemmels, a committee member in 2015, who took the idea to the committee and organized the logistics. “A lot of our students who are gay or transgender thought that would be a really good thing. It sends a message that you don’t have to be uncomfortable or hide who you are, because this is an environment that welcomes and respects you,” said Kurdziel.

Since then, graduate students have written in their applications that the welcome stickers posted on EEB office and lab doors factored in their decision to apply to the EEB program. Some of the students Crocker mentors said that the stickers have had a strong impact on them and how welcome they feel in the building. “That's very encouraging,” Crocker said.

In January 2016, the committee organized a town hall meeting to bring the entire EEB community together to express their opinions and ideas regarding the department’s climate. The event was well attended and sparked many conversations and realizations that have led to concrete actions. A committee member joined each table and summarized key discussion points. The event was facilitated by two graduate students from the Program on Intergroup Relations.

The committee reviewed meeting notes to help guide an action plan. “While many feel that EEB is a welcoming department, others feel there is more we can do,” said Kurdziel. “All of us are most comfortable with people like us. Some of our words or actions may make people feel unwelcome and we may not even be aware we’re doing that.”

Town hall comments brought to light that some graduate students didn’t know how to share concerns, particularly if they didn’t want to go directly to a faculty member or the department chair. To help remedy this, the committee created an online climate drop box. Everyone in the department can share concerns via the drop box. The report can be anonymous or not and the reporter decides how they want the issue handled. “The climate drop box gives us an informal check on what’s happening in the department, so we can then target training,” said Kurdziel. “I’m happy to say there haven’t been many reports, but there have been some.”

Nature’s diversity is so beautiful. Image: Jacqueline Marsack.

As a result of town hall input and some drop box reports of microaggressions within the department, the committee organized skills training for EEB on how to mediate tense situations and how to be a good ally in January 2017. If people hear something said that could be interpreted negatively towards oneself or others, the presentation discussed what can be said or done to make it better rather than being silent. “These are skills we all need more experience with,” Kurdziel said. The committee’s main future focus will be on arranging for more training opportunities for the department.

In late January 2018, the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) Players performed a skit called “Cuts: Responding to Student Climate Concerns” that explored the many forces that shape campus climate with an eye toward developing or refining skills to be able to respond productively and compassionately to individuals who have negative experiences at the university.

Other department activities have included book discussions. A couple of years ago, an EEB reading group focused on inclusive teaching began as a result of a CRLT grant that a graduate student at the time, Susan Cheng, received. The department read a groundbreaking book with practical solutions, “Whistling Vivaldi,” which is about stereotype threats and what can be done to dispel them.

“That was a wonderful opportunity,” said Kurdziel, who managed the group with Cindee Giffen, a lecturer in EEB and the Comprehensive Studies Program, and EEB grad student Marian Schmidt. About 70 people expressed interest and in addition to six evening meetings, discussion summaries were shared online.

The current EEB read is “The New Jim Crow,” selected from a list of books recommended by the LSA director of DEI initiatives. The book was discussed at the fall retreat in September 2017. The book, subtitled “Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” makes the case that many of the gains of the civil rights movement have been undermined by the mass incarceration of black Americans in the war on drugs.

“We have a much more diverse graduate student community than we did 10 years ago,” Kurdziel noted. “Graduate students are looking at faculty and they don’t see people who look like themselves. The faculty also recognize this.”

As a result, the committee revised faculty search guidelines to take into account faculty candidates who have shown support for DEI issues and are going to be great mentors to a diversity of students, not just those who come from a background like their own. The new guidelines were enacted in 2017. “The last three faculty searches for ecologists were some of the most diverse applicant pools we’ve had. That’s a real important thing we’ve been able to do.”

Harlequin grasshopper. Image: Ivan Monagan.

“Diversity issues in STEM are still a long way from being solved or properly addressed, and students in our community directly and indirectly deal with the effects of these inequalities every single day,” said Teal Harrison, a graduate student on the committee. She hopes that the committee can continue making EEB a more inclusive community in order to disrupt the narrative of STEM and academia as fields only accessible to and inclusive of people from specific subsections of the population.

Harrison also noted that the committee is developing a policy against all forms of harassment for field sites as well as protocols and resources to ensure everyone is protected and empowered.

The 2017 – 2018 committee includes faculty: Jo Kurdziel, committee chair, Lynn Carpenter (fall), Liliana Cortés Ortiz, Vincent Denef (winter), Nyeema Harris (fall), Tim James, Dan Rabosky (winter), graduate students: Stephanie Alcala, Teal Harrison, Tamara Milton and staff: Kati Ellis.

Kurdziel understands personally how important climate is to an individual’s productivity and ability to do their best work.  “I came into science as a woman, as an immigrant, someone who didn’t come from wealth, with no academics in my family.”

If it hadn’t been for professors in college encouraging her to get an advanced degree, she probably wouldn’t have thought it was possible. “There are small things we can do to let students know they have the ability to do whatever they want and that they can make an impact in science.”

“I want to help make EEB a place where everyone feels respected, valued and welcomed,” said Kurdziel. “If you’re in an environment like that you can do your best work, and that, ultimately, leads to great science.”

Read more on the EEB DEI webpage

Curently featured on the U-M DEI website