Skip to content Skip to navigation

Statement from Committee Chairs

Many of our graduate students and postdocs recently signed a letter strongly encouraging the Biology Department to adopt a number of policy changes as a starting point to becoming a more diverse, equitable and just environment in which to learn and do science. The letter raises very important issues about deep-rooted problems in academia, including systemic racism and the underrepresentation of many groups, that we urgently need to address. The letter suggests a range of specific approaches that would enhance the diversity of our department, address bias and racism, incentivize work on diversity and equity, create a more cohesive and transparent departmental structure, and create a greater sense of belonging for underrepresented individuals in our community.

The penultimate request raised in the letter (#14) was to “Publicize a list of concrete actions you will be taking to respond to and implement these changes by July 17, 2020.” In this statement, we’d like to let you know what actions have already been taken and to outline a plan for the coming months.

1. Creation of a departmental committee to address issues of diversity, equity and inclusion

The first action addresses point #9, to create a departmental committee to address issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion – indeed, this was already on the radar of our incoming Chair, Martha Cyert.  Two faculty members (Sue McConnell and Kabir Peay) agreed to co-chair this committee. They felt that its goals would be best served by a relatively large and inclusive group, which will consist of four additional faculty members (one each from CMOB, Eco-Evo, and HMS, and one lecturer), three staff members, three postdoctoral fellows, three graduate students, and three undergraduate students.

Faculty service on departmental committees is overseen by the Chair to ensure that individual faculty members, particularly those who are not yet tenured, are not overburdened by service, and that they are able to serve on the committees that best match their interests and skills. The following faculty members have agreed to serve on the committee:  Rodolfo Dirzo, Jamie Imam, Chris Lowe, and Ashby Morrison.

The co-chairs quickly reached out to graduate students, postdocs, and staff to establish procedures by which additional members of the committee will be selected. The graduate students and postdocs opted for a one-week nomination period followed by an election (also lasting one week) in which each group would elect its own representatives. Grad students and postdocs suggested that the undergraduates also hold an election; however, in light of the fact that our undergraduates are scattered all over the country and that rising juniors haven’t had much of an opportunity to get to know one another yet, it was decided to ask undergrads to nominate themselves or others, and that the committee co-chairs would select three students for the first year. After that point, the undergraduates will decide on a method for choosing their representatives. These processes are currently ongoing.

The co-chairs contacted Bettye Price, our department’s Director of Finance and Operations, to discuss procedures for selecting staff representatives to the committee. Bettye herself was keen to be involved (which is a special blessing, because Bettye has a deep and thorough understanding of all the workings of the department). Bettye solicited additional input from staff, which resulted in the selection of Mary Molacavage (Administrative Assistant, Liqun Luo Lab) and Melanie Barnett (Senior Research Scientist, Sharon Long Lab) as the two additional staff members on the committee.
2. Commitment to provide a stipend to recognize undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs on the committee for their service

Point #5 in the letter from students and postdocs requests that the department “create a compensation structure for graduate students, postdocs, and faculty involved in diversity efforts,” adding that “URM trainees in our department are pushed to do much of the DEI work, but are expected to produce as much scientifically as someone with none of these DEI concerns/efforts.”

We value the important contributions that graduate students and postdocs make to departmental committees. In particular, we recognize that work on the committee focused on DEI issues may require a significant and unusually intense time commitment. Over the next few months, as the 2020-21 department budget is clarified, our incoming Chair, Martha Cyert, will explore options for recognizing this work*. In addition, once the committee convenes, we are excited to explore other options for equally distributing service work, such as the inclusion of a service requirement as part of the PhD process, which has been successfully adopted at peer institutions  like Harvard and was recently approved in the Genetics Department at Stanford.

The department is not able to compensate staff members for service on committees, as such work is considered a normal job responsibility and is compensated as such. Likewise, for faculty, service on departmental and university committees is a normal job duty and is included in merit evaluations such as tenure and promotion.  We note that the letter from students and postdocs suggests (#12) that the department ought to “incentivize diversity, equity, and inclusion work as part of the tenure package for faculty [and] require a DEI statement or interview/review as part of the tenure package,” and we look forward to working on this suggestion.

*While we are committed to providing a stipend to students and postdocs, our ability to do so for some undergraduates may depend on University policy related to their financial aid status.

3.  Plan for the coming months

All three of us want to express our enthusiasm for the establishment of this committee and our determination to work productively and effectively for a more diverse, equitable, and just department that fosters a sense of belonging for all our members. We are intentionally leaving many details of the committee’s charge (and even its formal name) open so that its incoming members can work them out together. It is essential that this group embody the principle of inclusion, from the start. Once the committee convenes, we can work through in detail how to address each of the points raised in the letter from grad students and postdocs.

Several points identify steps we can take quickly. For example, the letter suggests “publicly affirming our shared values and commitment to anti-racism,” and one goal of the committee will be to develop content for the Biology Department webpage that states our commitment and publicizes our strategic plan (once the committee has established our short- and long-term goals).

Point #4 identifies anti-racism training as an important goal. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin are conducting a NIH-funded project to evaluate training methods in Culturally Aware Mentoring practices for faculty. Martha Cyert and José Dinneny, Chair of the Graduate Studies Committee, are pursuing steps that would include Stanford, and specifically the Biology Department, as a study site for this project. This would not only provide our faculty with outstanding mentor training, but also allow them to give critical feedback on the program.

Point #13 suggests that we “increase the number of Black seminar speakers…[and] analyze the demographics of the speakers who have been invited in the past 5 years, and adjust to increase the representation of URM scientists.” Indeed, a team of faculty, students and staff in our department recently completed an analysis of seminar speakers over the past 5 years, which revealed a striking prevalence of white male speakers. This report (which will be released to the department soon) includes specific recommendations about how to increase the diversity of seminar speakers in future years.

In addition to these steps, several other initiatives have been launched to enhance the diversity and experiences of our trainees: 

  • Molly Schumer and Lauren O’Connell are working to develop new Biology Department programming that will encourage underrepresented students interested in biology to apply to PhD programs (including, we hope, our own), and provide resources to support and guide them through the application process. The recruitment and retention of underrepresented students to our training program is an extremely important goal for the department.
  • Lauren O’Connell and Aurora Alvarez-Buylla have been awarded a Gilliam Fellowship from HHMI, which they’ll use to organize a DEI retreat for our BIPOC students and other trainees who care about DEI initiatives or who self-identify as being from an underrepresented group. This directly addresses the clear need expressed by our students from underrepresented groups for a funded DEI retreat.
  • The main mission of our department’s BioPOP program is to create community within and across tracks and reduce imposter syndrome in our first-year student cohort. This will help to address the desire for greater community and integration across tracks in Biology, and the committee will consider additional programs and strategies for the rest of our trainees.

Many requests outlined in the letter from students and postdocs – such as hiring new staff, recruiting new faculty, or providing additional services – will take significant resources to achieve, and members of the committee will require information about our current department finances to assess possible sources of funds. Incoming Chair Martha Cyert has already expressed a desire to fundraise to support diversity and equity initiatives. In addition, several independent faculty initiatives are currently attempting to identify opportunities to recruit new faculty and better support trainees.

We hope that this statement outlining the process of forming a new committee to address issues of diversity, equity, and belonging in Biology is a positive step toward increased transparency, engagement, and communication between faculty, staff, students, and postdocs. The co-chairs are currently assembling information on a variety of topics that the committee will likely find useful. These include ascertaining whether we can access data from university-wide climate surveys, learning how other departments have established strategic plans for achieving diversity and equity goals, and understanding the roles and activities of Diversity Officers in other departments and schools.

We welcome your ideas and suggestions and look forward to engaging in this important work. 

With best wishes,

Martha S. Cyert
Dr. Nancy Chang Professor of Biology
Thomas W. and Susan B. Ford University Fellow 
Chair, Biology 

Sue McConnell
Susan B. Ford Professor
HHMI Professor 

Kabir Peay
Associate Professor of Biology
Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment