Town Hall on Race, Diversity and Equity

On July 27, 2020, the College of Sciences held a virtual town hall with Dean Chris McGahan on race, diversity and equity.

Below is a summarized and paraphrased transcript of the town hall (including additional information for many of the answers), as well as answers to questions that were posed but could not be addressed due to time constraints. Members of the college’s leadership team helped provide the additional information included in many of the responses.

Question: A key recommendation of a recent American Institute of Physics report is to create a $50 million fund to support Black physics students nationwide. Can the College of Sciences begin a fundraising campaign to provide a dedicated fund, on campus, to financially support Black and Indigenous scholars, in recognition of the 500 years (and counting) of injustices they have suffered at the hands of a white government? Their struggles are ongoing, and while money isn’t everything it does solve some pressing issues.

Answer: This is a critical area and I agree that we need to do all we can to support Black and Indigenous students. The College of Sciences has 25 funds related to diversity and inclusion that fall within the guidelines above. They include 15 scholarships with a total endowment market value of $802,000. The College of Sciences Diversity Program Endowment was established in December, and we have already raised $46,000 of our $50,000 goal.

All that said, there are rules governing how scholarships can be awarded. NC State cannot restrict gift awards based on race, color, gender, sex, or national origin. Any such restriction likely violates the university’s Equal Opportunity and Non-Discrimination Policy, POL 04.25.05, as well as federal and state law. As a public institution, NC State is subject to the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As a result, any race, color, gender, sex or national origin-based awards would likely be deemed or struck down as unlawful discrimination. However, NC State may be able to include other criteria or preferences which will closely align with the donor’s desire to promote diversity. For more information, please visit A Guide to Preferential Language within a Gift Agreement.

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Q: Why did the college hold two town halls — one for colleagues of color and one for the entire community?

A: We announced the two sessions a few weeks ago. This second session is the town hall for the entire college. The first was a listening session for our colleagues of color, and it was held June 30 and facilitated by Dr. Stephanie Helms-Pickett, NC State’s associate vice provost for inclusive excellence and strategic practice. The intent of that session was to give people of color the privacy and space to talk amongst themselves. I didn’t join the meeting until I was asked, which was about 45 minutes into the meeting. We then talked for over an hour. At least one other college at NC State held a similar session that was well-received by participants. The attendees at our session found it helpful, and I know it was helpful to me as well.

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Q: I’ve heard the College of Sciences talk in the past about increasing our diversity and becoming more inclusive, but it seemed just that — talk. What is the college’s five, 10 and/or 20-year vision for what it means to be diverse, inclusive and equitable (at multiple levels — students, staff and faculty)? Where do you see pitfalls in the Sciences community diversity? What tangible, actionable steps are we taking as a unit and can we take as individuals? 

A: The college’s Human Resources office has assembled and provided to college leadership the specific numbers and percentages for groups and genders across the college. We’ve gone through this process for both faculty and staff. We are meeting with the academic department heads to go over the data from their areas and specifically defining where the recruitment process is failing and identifying what we can do to fix it. We’re also developing specific strategies to address these failures and I see much room for improvement and am excited about implementing change. For example, we are taking a hard look at posting and advertising language, reviewing our outreach and marketing strategy in attracting diverse candidates, and evaluating how each search committee chair is chosen along with how the committee makeup is developed. We also are reviewing where bias could creep in during interview day visits. These are examples of our immediate actions. Our long-term actions will be developed as we go through our listening sessions and climate assessment with Tidal Equality, the firm we have secured to develop our college strategic plan. There is continued work to do and I am committed to doing that intentional work. My vision is to create an increasingly diverse workforce with tangible goals that we set out in our strategic plan.

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Q: Recognizing that the Sciences community may not realize its lack of diversity and inclusion, how can voices speak up to identify it? For example, our leadership team is a great blend of gender, race and ethnicity. Therefore it may be viewed that the college is in great shape! And how can the Sciences community sit to listen and understand?

A: We need to establish more permanent lines of communication about these issues, and work with the units to help us gather this information and devise mechanisms for taking action to make our college a more diverse and welcoming place. On the leadership team, we now have a permanent agenda item on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, so we are discussing these issues at length at each meeting. The team has set aside an hour out of each week to discuss literature relevant to equity and diversity issues. We’ve also engaged two racial justice and equity consultants to guide us in our thinking as we read and discuss the literature. The goal is to make sure these ideals and goals are passed out to the rest of the college community.

We currently do not have a Diversity and Inclusion Committee in every department but our goal is for each academic department to develop a committee. Each committee, which should include both faculty and staff, will have specific goals. Once these committees are established we will create a new committee at the college level with one member from each department. This committee will report to the college’s leadership team and we will work from there to improve our community culture.

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Q: I would like to see a panel discussion of Sciences leaders discussing “uncomfortable” issues like race, microaggressions, recruitment downfalls, gaslighting, systemic similarities in recruitment and “fit” in specific College of Sciences situations.

A: We are currently doing a lot of work in this area as a leadership team, and I like the idea of broadening our reach to the entire college. We will have the opportunity to discuss uncomfortable issues as our community develops our strategic plan over the next several months. Addressing our culture will be an important part of that document and everyone in the college will be invited to participate. We have hired a firm called Tidal Equality that will guide us through the strategic planning process, which will begin in September. The Wilson College of Textiles used this firm to help craft their strategic plan and they were pleased with the results. We are looking forward to working with them, as they are known for their ability to weave improving community culture, including issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion, throughout these documents. I agree that sharing leadership perspectives can be valuable, and think it’s important for everyone in the college to be part of the process of addressing these uncomfortable but important issues.

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Q: What are the college’s plans for hiring Black, Indigenous, and people of color for tenure-track faculty positions?

A: We are working as a team with each department head to examine hiring practices. This includes how search committees are formed and how they function, where we are advertising, and how we can take a deeper look at how we operate in this area. The ultimate goal of taking this deeper dive is for every department to have a written Recruitment and Retention Strategy, which will outline the efforts they plan to take to attract and actively recruit for the populations underrepresented in that department. Each department has different data reference points, and therefore we are looking at each department individually, which will impact the college’s overall representation. Habit plays a role in the ways things have been done in the past. We can change that and improve.

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Q: My department has created a diversity-related committee. I’m sure other departments have done the same. What is the goal of these department-level committees? What kind of top-down guidance will be provided?

A: The college’s Human Resources office has gathered a lot of information from the departments on their diversity-related efforts. Two departments have formalized committees and our goal is for the other departments to have them as well. One of the goals for these committees will be increasing communication to the Dean’s office. We are also working on adding a prominent section on diversity and inclusion to the college’s website.

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Q: What is the college doing to be more inclusive? The focus I’m hearing regarding the college’s long-term plans for diversity, equity and inclusion seems to be on increasing our racial and gender diversity. This is a step (and a good one), but that doesn’t solve systemic issues around inclusivity.  It also, worryingly, can put the onus on those “diverse” individuals being recruited to make the decision to join us. What efforts is the college taking to be more inclusive?

A: I agree that diversity alone is not a sufficient goal — addressing and improving inclusivity and equity is necessary for us to achieve the culture we want. The work we are going to do with Tidal Equality will help us understand what we need to do to build an inclusive culture in the college. This includes both recruitment and retention — we want our college to be a place that diverse people want to join and in which they want to stay.

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Q: CHASS has mandated that each department develop a plan for recruiting and retaining diverse faculty. This has been a successful mechanism for many of the departments in that college. Would the College of Sciences be open to following that model?

A: We are already working on that and have discussed it with all the department heads. Each department will have a Recruitment and Retention strategy that prioritizes diversity, equity and inclusivity. Those strategies will contain best practices for such activities.

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Q: Diversity is a broad term. Just counting faces and races isn’t enough. Will the college undertake a study to count, for example, how many management positions — at all levels — are filled by white men and white women, while their direct-reports are people of color, LGBTQ and so on. My 20-year NC State experience suggests that we have MANY areas where white folks supervise “diverse” people who actually do the work. It is a consistent pattern (again, only my experience) and it doesn’t make NC State look good.

A: I agree with this. It isn’t good and I hope that our leadership team shows by example that it doesn’t have to be that way. I support studying these issues in everything we are doing regarding hiring. We will work to fix this situation in our college.

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Q: In Biological Sciences, we held a series of listening meetings with students. Students feel that diversity, equity and inclusion training for faculty needs to be mandatory, immersive and ongoing. A one-time or even annual online training is insufficient. Can we as a college commit to a requirement that goes beyond the university-wide requirements?

A: I really want to have this type of training be more than a “check-the-box” activity. It should be meaningful as well as mandatory. We can do more and go above and beyond the university requirements. We intend to include a section on DEI activities in SFRs and activity reports.

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Q: Does this mean that better-qualified applicants should be bypassed in order to hire less qualified applicants that fall into the needed-for-diversity category?

A: No. I would never say that. We’re looking for qualified applicants of all races and ethnicities, and we have to hire the best. When we hired the leadership team I didn’t go out and find just women or people of color. I found the best people for the job. We need to get out there and find the best-qualified individuals and seek them out. We know that the best-qualified applicants often aren’t even seeing the advertisements for positions because of systemic race-based inequities in our society, so we are taking a first step of looking at our hiring, outreach and training practices across the college.

We also need to think about bias when we’re asked questions like this, in which the question implies that diverse candidates are less qualified. There is implicit bias in the assumption that hiring diverse candidates means hiring less-qualified candidates. That is demeaning to our faculty and staff of color, and it creates an environment that increases a particular pressure to prove oneself that white colleagues do not experience.

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Q: Is there funding available for departments to conduct climate surveys, or is the College of Sciences planning on conducting one?

A: The UNC System office conducts an Employee Engagement Survey for all system universities every two years. The 2018 results for our college were pretty bad. The 2020 survey results will be released soon. We will use the results of these two surveys to inform our strategic planning process.

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Q: Students are concerned about retention of students from minoritized groups in majors and programs in College of Sciences.

A: A lot of work on this is being done by Jamila Simpson and others in the Academic Affairs office. We’re always concerned about the retention of minority students and have a dedicated class, workshops, alumni activities and a senior banquet that help make diverse students feel welcome, included and comfortable. The college also hosts the Diversity in STEM Symposium and Diversity in STEM Dinner, both of which offer great networking opportunities. We can send out the long list of these activities to everyone if that’s helpful. And we’re always looking for more ideas about programming, so if you have them please let us know. Finally, we also need to improve the way we recruit diverse students, including more effective outreach to communities of color.

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Q: Are the previously discussed (diversity and inclusion) committees only at the faculty level?

A: At the college level, the diversity and inclusion committee will include both faculty and staff. We encourage the departments to also include staff on their committees.

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Q: Minoritized graduate students expressed that having a diverse thesis defense committee is important. This can be achieved in some cases through the Graduate School representative. Students suggested that this representative should be paid or otherwise compensated for their work.

A: Serving on a thesis defense committee is an honor and an important job to do, and serving as a graduate representative is a faculty responsibility. We think the Graduate School would be open to suggestions from students about how to add more diversity to committees. But the unfortunate reality is that there aren’t many diverse faculty members. That’s something we need to address; we need to hire more diverse faculty. One way to potentially add diversity is to seek out committee members from other universities; committee members can be drawn from any university or scientific entity worldwide. And we need to make sure the people who do serve on these committees are recognized. We don’t want what should be an honor to become a burden.

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Q: The proposed college bylaws contained restrictive criteria on participation in governance. Looking at the demographics of our college’s faculty ranks, these proposed bylaws exclude many of our Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) faculty. Can you please speak to if this exclusion will be allowed to move forward?

A: The bylaws are going out to our leadership team for review. The university changed the rules on what votes are required for tenure-track faculty and the language was also changed from “non-tenure track” to “professional track.” The language is more inclusive now — professional track faculty will have the chance to vote on their peers’ promotions — and all voting faculty will get the chance to read and vote fairly soon. Finally, I believe this is a faculty document. I don’t want to go in and make it mine. It is a faculty vote and we will see how that is going to work.

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Q: As we move forward in this work, we will encounter problems. There will be searches where statements will be made, or sentiments implied that candidates, and likely fellow faculty, will seem to be counter to the needed work of diversity and inclusion. How do we plan to intentionally address such problems without just stating “that perspective or action is inconsistent with our goals and mission?”

A: Membership on search committees is a privilege. The role of the search chair is extraordinarily impactful and chairs should model good judgment, have excellent collaboration skills and work hard to create an atmosphere of unbiased evaluation. If issues can’t be resolved by the search chair, then the department head should be brought in. I was a department head for 14 years and was very deliberative about the makeup of those committees, including working with deans on those appointments. It is important for the chair to create and maintain a committee atmosphere that is free of bias. The college will continue to look for additional resources to aid the committees in their work to minimize bias, including continuing to examine the recruitment process and making sure all committee members have the appropriate training.

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Q: Regarding “inclusion,” are there efforts to address work-life balance?

A: This will be part of the strategic planning process. I’m working on it myself, with my own work-life balance. We need to be flexible with faculty and staff, and it is especially challenging now because COVID-19 is going to bring unique challenges this fall, especially for higher risk groups, working parents, or people caring for their elderly parents or other people at risk. And we know that longstanding inequities put people of color at higher risk for illness and death from this disease. As a college, we are going to be sensitive to those situations and provide flexibility for things like work schedules and tenure timelines. The Protect the Pack site has lots of resources for faculty and staff, and those who feel like they’re not being heard should contact their department head or our Human Resources office

I should also mention that the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program (FASAP) is a valuable asset available to all employees. Among many other features, the program offers work-life specialists who will do the research for you, providing qualified referrals and customized resources for issues including child and elder care, college planning and more. The FASAP can also provide confidential referrals to professional counselors and will pay for three sessions at no charge to you.

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Q: How are issues of pay inequity handled in the college? Is there a mechanism for assessing equity in compensation based on productivity and merit?

A: If we could get some legislative increases, that would help. But there hasn’t been much in the way of financial resources to make raises available recently. We do review salary compensation and look at equity issues all the time with our college Human Resources office. The mechanisms for addressing pay equity are different based on employee classifications, but in all cases they are reviewed multiple times per year and as part of most human resources actions. Factors that go into compensation are availability of financial resources, competencies, the market rate for the position, and internal pay alignment, which is the equity piece. It is complicated and there are some large inequities that need to be addressed. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, there are some current restraints on some salary adjustment actions. When restrictions are lifted, we will continue to review the data and utilize the pay factors to help develop a plan to address any pay inequities.

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Q: If anything, minority faculty in our college are held to a higher standard. We have to prove our worth every single day, or our colleagues will make us feel like we are taking up a space that would be better used by a white man.

A: I’m sorry to hear that and I know that people are feeling that way. We know this is an issue in society at large as well as within the college, and I hate that our minority colleagues have to experience these perceptions. This is important for us to consider as we work with our Human Resources office and Tidal Equality on a culture plan for the college. We also need to work with the leadership team to pay specific attention to performance plans, activity reports and rating systems and then take a look to see if there are problems. Oftentimes people feel intimidated to approach their bosses, and this is especially felt by people of color. Anyone who feels unjustly discriminated against should meet with their department head. If that doesn’t work then meet with the Dean, Senior Associate Dean John Blondin or Assistant Dean for Culture, Talent and Human Resources Nikki Price. There is also NC State’s BIAS Impact Response TEAM (BIRT) and the Faculty Ombuds office, which is available to both faculty and staff for confidential, informal, impartial and independent discussions about work issues that concern you. If you are unsure where to start, call or email Nikki Price, who will help you find the correct resource.

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Q: Participating in diversity committees is something that takes time. Can we ensure compensation and recognition for folks who don’t typically serve on committees but whose input is important, such as graduate students?

A: When I was a graduate student and a postdoc, I felt privileged to sit on committees. It is a learning opportunity and a chance to make an impact. And when you graduate, it is expected that you sit on committees to move forward in your career.

That said, people of color are often asked to serve on more committees than others in order to try to diversify committees, which overextends them unfairly. Part of our goal in moving the college forward is to develop a healthy environment where white people in the college are able to fairly address these issues without having to rely exclusively on people of color.

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Q: There have been several instances of overtly racist and sexist actions by students and faculty at our university; the response hasn’t always been commensurate with the transgression. What can we, as a college, do to ensure that these individuals are held responsible for their actions, including being expelled or fired?

A: I have no tolerance for this type of behavior. I know that sometimes people who are targets of racist and sexist behavior feel that they have to face a high burden of proof and worry that they will not be believed. The college leadership team and I are firmly committed to listening, taking concerns seriously, reacting fairly, and protecting those making complaints from negative consequences for raising concerns. I am absolutely committed to doing that.

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Q: The American Institute of Physics spent two years studying this issue through their TEAM-UP task force. Appendix 8 of the report provides a self-evaluation for physics departments to do, and which we have started. Will the College of Sciences be able to commit resources (logistical and financial) so that all of the “Column 3” characteristics can be achieved by the Physics Department, or better yet, college-wide (adapted to their local context)? 

A: There are a number of very important and positive initiatives in this document. Most of these do not require additional financial resources. The main resource is the time needed to plan and accomplish these goals. This requires commitment, but mainly is really in the realms of responsibility of faculty and staff. I think all of the departments should look at these suggestions and start to incorporate them into their programs.

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Q: As a follow-up on what we are allowed and not allowed to do with endowment funds: Are we allowed to target a fellowship toward students from a specific HBCU?  As an example, would we be allowed to designate a Ph.D. fellowship to the best math applicant from, say, NC A&T?

A: We cannot restrict graduate fellowships based on the undergraduate institution attended. For more information, please visit A Guide to Preferential Language within a Gift Agreement.

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Q: Diverse faculty and perhaps staff will be of necessity called on to assume substantial burdens related to their roles as supporters, advisers and advocates for students of color. What mechanisms are being developed to provide appropriate rewards for these additional duties?

A: This is an important question. Perhaps the Statement of Faculty Responsibilities can be altered to reflect a greater percentage of activities in the Service area. However, this is a serious matter that department heads need to address, as we do not want promotion or even tenure decisions to be adversely affected by assigning too many diversity activities to faculty, especially junior faculty. Performance plans for staff can be altered to reflect work in the diversity and inclusion area, and should be rewarded by positive evaluations and ratings, which should then become part of the payroll raise criteria. 

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Q: The College of Sciences endowed professorships do not model the priorities we are discussing right now: Are there efforts underway to ensure that the selection to these positions are not biased?

A:  We are going to look at that nominating committee and diversify it if needed. We’re also going to look at creating another committee with a broader focus that could not only nominate women and people of color for internal honors like these, but also college-wide honors and beyond. These committees can be very effective and a lot of fun to serve on. Celebrating colleagues and promoting their excellence is really rewarding and community-building.

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Q: I disagree that inclusion in college governance is only tangential to “diversity and inclusion”. There are very few BIPOC in tenured positions, so excluding professional track and staff from college decisions and organization, it is inherently EXclusive. The last time we had a discussion about the bylaws, we were subjected to a 20-minute lecture about how professional track faculty are less than. Please consider this moving forward. Sometimes the loudest voices are not the most needed.

A: The bylaws are moving forward towards a final draft to be discussed and voted on by the voting faculty which, according to the university, includes all full-time faculty with a greater than 0.75 FTE, tenured, tenure-track and professional track. We are working so this will happen in the near future.

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Q: The college has a faculty diversity committee, but it has never met. Will this committee be convened soon?

A. We will be considering the make-up of this committee, making changes and appointing new members this semester. They will have a charge and regular meetings with reporting of activities.