Practical Steps for Supporting Social Justice & Addressing Inequities
The following are practical steps Directors of Graduate Studies, Department Chairs, and other faculty and administrative leadership can take to support social justice and to address inequities within graduate fields and academic departments. This is not a comprehensive list, but the actions provided are ones that can help to guide progress as faculty and others seek to support meaningful and positive change.
Recognize Trauma and Make Students Feel Safe
- Silence can be deafening; don’t avoid discussing racism or events that you know are painful for many students.
- Go beyond communicating support, identify actions the field or department will take to advance diversity, equity, access, justice, and inclusion.
- Create space and opportunities for supportive dialogue.
- Practice phrases such as “I don’t know what you’re going through, but I’ll always be willing to listen and support you in any way I can.”
- Approach discussions with humility; actively listen and seek opportunities for empathy.
- Avoid any situation in which a student might be asked to place their trauma on display for the learning benefit of others. #BlackInTheIvory is one example of where you can access many public narratives about the experience of being Black in the academy.
Acknowledge & Interrupt Words and Acts of Aggression
- Learn to recognize, acknowledge, and address when an act of aggression occurs (Though such actions are often termed micro-aggressions, recognize that they are experienced as acts of aggression by those to whom they are directed.)
- Have a plan in place of how you will respond if faculty, staff, postdocs, students, or invited speakers use language or demonstrate behaviors that are racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise discriminatory or oppressive. This goes beyond reporting and includes how you will address aggressors, support individuals, and respond to your community.
- Become comfortable with having discussions about intent versus impact – due to the influence racism, sexism, and oppressive systems and structures, well intended words or actions can result in negative impacts.
- Provide avenues through which anonymous feedback can be provided. For example through a Qualtrics survey that does not include identifying information.
Diversity Recruitment & Equity Based Holistic Review
- Consult with the Graduate School Senior Director of Recruitment in the development of your strategic diversity outreach and recruitment plans.
- Engage in intentional recruitment activities with diversity focused societies, associations, and graduate pathways programs (for example, McNair Scholars, Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows, CSTEP, LSAMP, etc.).
- When faculty and graduate students are invited to speak at other schools, ask if they may also have the opportunity to meet with undergraduate and/or graduate students who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color). Focus on making this not just a recruitment activity, but a “Power Mentoring” opportunity where students have the opportunity to engage in a candid discussions with faculty on professional and personal development topics of interest.
- Regularly evaluate your admission practices to ensure you are taking deliberate actions to mitigate bias, support equity, and fairly assess applicants within the context of their personal, professional, and academic circumstances (for example, evaluating them within the context of their current/previous institutions and what was available to them).
- Develop and utilize well defined rubrics to evaluate applications.
- Regularly examine your application requirements – ensure you are clearly asking for what is most important to informing your selection process; and eliminate requirements for information not critical to informing selection.
Create a Sense of Belonging
- Use written and spoken language to communicate zero tolerance of racism.
- Use written and spoken language to signal the intentional inclusion of students who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color) and/or with other identities historically excluded from academia. For example, explicating stating and striving to adhere to your field or department’s community values. See the Community Values Statement for astronomy as one example.
- Make an effort to establish connections with students who identify as BIPOC and/or first generation. You can begin to do this by simply expressing your notice of their academic progress and/or their contributions to the field.
- Meaningful representation, not tokenism, matters. Consider how you are signaling aspects or inclusion (or exclusion) by who you invite as speakers, whose work is included in your syllabi, whose pictures adorn your halls, whose work or accomplishments are highlighted in newsletters (ex. student awards and spotlights), etc.
Address Issues of Inequity & Justice in the Discipline
- Regardless of your discipline, find ways to address issues of racism, inequities, racism, access, and justice within your local field or department at Cornell as well as in your discipline as a whole. (For example, see this talk on the problem with race-based medicine.)
- Examine your curriculum to identify whose voices and which communities have historically been excluded and why.
- Ask students for their input on whose voices are missing and whose work they would like to see included in your curriculum.
- As an act of justice, commit to including the voices of scholars who identify as BIPOC in your curriculum, seminars, etc. And don’t only do so in association with activities deemed as related to diversity and inclusion. Ask BIPOC speakers if they would like to meet with any specific groups while on campus – including faculty leaders as well as grads who are BIPOC.
- Examine any problematic attitudes and behaviors of scholars and/or alumni who are upheld by your field or for whom awards, honors, etc. are named. For examples, see Science’s “Amid protests against racism, scientists move to strip offensive names from journals, prizes, and more”.
Culturally Aware Advising & Mentoring Practices
- Identify and recognize your own culturally shaped beliefs, perceptions, and judgments.
- Develop both intrapersonal and interpersonal cultural awareness, and skills to recognize and respond to cultural diversity related issues that may arise in your advising and mentoring relationships.
- Become aware of your own implicit biases and how to mitigate them.
- Regardless of a student’s background, do not make assumptions or generalizations about students based on any aspect of their social identities or lived experiences.
- Avoid making assumptions about the lived experiences and social identities of students by listening and learning from students about what they choose to share with you about their individual lived experiences and needs.
- Express interest in students as whole individuals, listening to what they choose to share about their experiences, and asking about their specific interests, concerns, and goals. Use these insights to make informed suggestions on which opportunities and resources might best meet their academic and professional development interests and needs.
- As you learn more about your advisees and mentees as whole individuals, be cognizant of the cultural differences and similarities between yourself and them.
- Learn how to have meaningful conversations about identity and difference with graduate student advisees and mentees. (For example, use the LARA method taught by the Intergroup Dialogue Project– Listen, Affirm, Respond, and Add information/Ask questions.
- Become more familiar with the potential impact of social identity in challenging conversations, and to learn how to engage empathetically with conflicting perspectives.
- Help advisees and mentees identify resources within and beyond their graduate programs to support their development of a sense of belonging and community at Cornell within and beyond their graduate field. (This is especially critical for students identify as BIPOC and/or first gen.)
- Demystify the unwritten rules, language, expectations, and sociocultural norms of graduate education (especially within the context of your specific graduate field and discipline) through your field handbook, professional development seminars, and other means.
- Make formal and informal professionalization and socialization activities more accessible to all advisees and mentees.
Ongoing Learning Opportunities
- Create avenues for ongoing learning opportunities for graduate students and faculty around issues of diversity, equity, access, justice, and inclusion.
- Consider what levers you can use to influence faculty to engage in such opportunities. For example, embed such learning opportunities in activities in which all or most faculty participate such as faculty meetings, faculty retreats, department seminars.
- Consider whether it would be possible to require faculty to participate in mentor training before they are able to take on additional graduate students.
- Embed learning opportunities for graduate students into field structures such as orientation, first year seminars, TA training, mentor training, etc.
- Signal to graduate students that their engagement in activities such as the Intergroup Dialogue Project Short Course for Graduate Students, Diversity Preview Weekend, diversity and inclusion focused graduate student organizations, and other related activities is important to the field. (Appreciate that engagement in such activities are often vital to the wellbeing and sense of belonging for students that identify as BIPOC.)
Institutionalize Structures & Action Plans
- Develop a committee, council, or workgroup focused on advancing diversity, equity, access, justice and inclusion in your field and/or most closely aligned department(s).
- Set up the group so they have actual power and influence on policies, structures, and other activities of value and importance to the field or department.
- Develop a clear structure and term of commitment for service.
- Seek to mitigate power differentials between group members (esp. between faculty and students) and help ensure there is equity in whose ideas are heard & acted upon.
- Do not expect students who are BIPOC to lead or participate in the group. However, provide the opportunity for them to do so if they choose and ensure there are mechanisms for them to provide feedback regardless. (For example, through focus group discussions and/or community dialogues.)
- Develop a public website where you communicate your community values as well as short and long term action plans.
- Use tools such as the following to help inform the assessment of your field (or department) on various aspects of diversity and inclusion:
- Graduate School Intranet – for access to field level data from sources such as the Doctoral Experience Survey.
- AAS Diversity Taskforce Report (Appendix X for Departmental Self-Assessment Rubric).
- UC Berkeley – Academic Unit Strategic Planning for Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity toolkit.
- College of the Holy Cross – Anti-Racism Action Plan Guidebook
- Publicly document areas of progress as well as opportunities for improvement. (Transparency is an asset for many reasons, including in the recruitment of prospective students, postdocs, faculty, and staff.)
- Publicly acknowledge and highlight the contributions of graduate students toward the advancement of diversity, equity, access, justice, and inclusion. (Not just current contributions, but past contributions. Student advocacy and leadership has been essential to many areas of historical progress.)
- Make sure that work in this arena is not just the responsibility of this group, but rather ensure that aspects of this work are considered critical to other field or department committees (curriculum, academic policies, facilities/space, search committees, admissions committees, etc.).
- Consider creating opportunities for students to participate in faculty search committees.
- Recognize the additional emotional labor associated with this work and provide students with acknowledgment and support for example, via professional development or travel funds.
Use Inclusive Teaching Practices
- Be Reflective
- Create a Safe & Inclusive Learning Community
- Critically Examine Course Content
- Utilize Various Teaching Methods
- Be Prepared to Deal with Moments of Conflict
- Assess Classroom Climate
For more detailed guidance on inclusive teaching practices, visit the Center for Teaching Innovation’s Inclusive Teaching page.
- Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation. Inclusive Teaching.
- Cornell Graduate School. Faculty Guide for Advising Research Degree Students.
- Cornell Graduate School. Resources for Faculty Supporting Graduate Student Diversity, Inclusion, and Mental Health.
- Cornell Office for Faculty Development and Diversity. Resources to Engage in Conversations About Race and Anti-Racism.
- Domingues, E., Dukes, A., & Ivy, A. June 2020, Being Anti-Racist: Being a Better Advisor, Lab Mate, and Friend to Black Colleagues. Google Presentation.
- Sathy, V., Hogan, K., & Sims, C. “A List of Practical Ways Non-Black Faculty Members Can Help Dismantle Educational Inequities”, Inside Higher Ed, July 1, 2020.
- Subbaraman, Nidhi. “How #BlackInTheIvory put a spotlight on racism in academia”, Nature. June 11, 2020.