Our Commitment to Social Justice: A Message from Dean Linda Mason
June 18, 2020
Dear Graduate Students, Postdocs, Staff, Faculty and Alumni,
As this nation struggles with the physical separation that COVID -19 requires, I would like to express my disgust with the very disturbing events that laid open the ugly truth of racism in this country and across the globe. The brutal deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery have been another gut punch to the community of color that for years has suffered painful traumas on a daily basis. I know that as a PhD educated, tenured, full professor, dean, and white woman at an institution like Purdue I occupy a position of extreme privilege. Over the past several days, I realize that I need to do more with the privilege I have been given. As a mother of two amazing daughters of a race different from mine and one that is gay, I believed I was doing everything I knew to make their educational and lived experience in this community one in which they could grow and thrive. We embraced, studied, and supported their heritage and lifestyles. However, recent soul searching has brought me to the conclusion that I need to do more to make not only my institution better, but also my community and my country better, for them and for you, the students I represent. I will do better for all of you, I promise. Why? Because Black Lives Matter, and we must achieve social justice for all humans.
When I became Dean of the Graduate School two years ago, I made a commitment during my interview to advocate, support, diversify and change graduate education for the better. Over the past couple of weeks, it has been painfully obvious that higher education needs to do more to eliminate systemic racism in the academy. We have made progress, but it is evident that we have much more to do. First, I think it is important to tell you what we have done to support graduate students and postdocs, so let me give you a few examples.
- Last year we reorganized the Office of Graduate Diversity Initiatives, and this spring we hired an outstanding individual, Julius Eason, as Senior Manager. Julius has done an amazing job of looking at what was working and what was not, and developing plans to improve how that office serves this campus.
- I created a new Faculty Fellow for Diversity position to support our efforts in educating faculty on minority recruitment, mentoring, and holistic admissions. Professor Kevin Gibson has a long history of working with Purdue’s Native American Educational and Cultural Center and Sloan Scholars, and advocating for admission changes. For example, over the past two years on behalf of the Graduate School, he has championed the effort to eliminate the GRE test as an admission requirement. As a result, more than half of our graduate programs have dropped the GRE as an admission standard. We continue to work with department graduate committees to eliminate or modify this and other requirements that potentially bring bias into the admission process. We educate new graduate faculty on eliminating bias language in letters of recommendations and on mentoring diverse students.
- We created numerous support services for graduate students, including tutoring and help with writing, which is still, for me, the hardest thing to do in my career as a scientist. The Graduate School supports three graduate students in the Purdue Writing Lab. So, if you need help, please go see them.
- We provide a graduate student assistantship to each of the five cultural centers, LGBTQ, Black, Latino, Asian American, and Native American, to do programing specifically for graduate students. I meet every semester with these remarkable students to hear their concerns and discuss what we could do differently. They give us tremendous insight and do a great job supporting the cultural centers’ missions.
- In the past 5 years, we have focused on growth of our diversity recruitment programs. We have more than doubled participation in the Summer Research Opportunity Program for underrepresented minority undergraduate students exploring graduate education and increased participation in our Graduate Diversity Visitation Program
- Last year, through our SLOAN grant, we brought in nationally known speakers to educate faculty on best practices for mentoring diverse students, and we provided additional training to all new graduate faculty mentors on unconscious bias and mentoring graduate students.
- Other programs for graduate students include the Graduate Parent Support Network, childcare and travel grants in partnership with Purdue Graduate Student Government GRAC Committee, a need based scholarship program that is matched by the colleges, and an office of graduate assistance with trained mediators to help students negotiate issues within graduate departments.
- Created a separate Office of Postdoctoral Studies led by Dr. Lisa Nielsen and continued support of the Purdue Postdoctoral Association to develop orientation, programing and support to the postdoc community on campus. I serve as a Co-PI on the Professorial Advancement initiative, funded by a $1.2 million National Science Foundation grant under the Alliance for Graduate Education and Professoriate Transformation (AGEP) program. Through cross-institutional mentoring and coaching, the program is preparing more than 100 Big Ten URM postdoctoral scholars to transition to tenure-track faculty positions, including an online professional development program and a national resource center that includes a registry of URM postdocs that search committees may access and search.
Obviously, we have done a lot, but we can do more. I would like to lay out my plan to work toward systematic change, inclusivity and equity in graduate education.
- As the Dean of the Graduate School, I want to help dismantle social injustice. I will do this by listening so that I can act on your behalf in a supportive manner. I will ask to see reports that students have submitted to the upper administration so I can start to understand issues that students have raised. I want to appreciate the issues from your perspective.
- To act on your ideas, I have proposed the Advancing Social Justice and Diversity in Graduate Education Grant Program. This is not to put more burden on graduate students, but to make sure I support your ideas. The call for idea proposals is for all graduate students, all campuses, all programs, online, distance, and professional. Graduate students across the entire Purdue University system will serve on the review panel and recommend which proposals should be considered for funding. All graduate students will have a voice in selecting the finalists. It will then be my job to implement the change.
- Next, I know that because of power differentials, graduate students and postdocs often feel they cannot speak of difficult subjects. However, I want you to know that I want to hear you, not just speak with you. I will provide numerous opportunities so that the Graduate School can hear your concerns, your stories, your ideas, and suggestions. We will then take what we hear and develop a plan to make the necessary changes. The plan will have actionable items. When I came in as dean, we looked at every policy and examined why we had it and what we could do to change. However, in examining those policies, we looked at inefficiencies, those that put unnecessary roadblocks in front of students, staff and faculty. One thing that the Graduate School did not do comprehensively was to look for policies that affected populations of students differentially. That is not to say that we did not look to change things, as I have already noted for our GRE departmental strategy. We need to review all of our other practices and policies with a social justice and inclusive lens.
- Lastly, a review of our existing diversity focused programs will be conducted to determine what we can do better, what we can eliminate, and what we can add to improve the lives of all graduate students and postdocs.
Now, as I tell my work colleagues all the time, I do not have a magic wand, well I do – they gave me one, but it does not always work. Some ideas will take people to move it forward, some ideas will take time to initiate, some ideas will take funds that need to be raised or realigned, but none of this should deter us. As I tell my kids, all things are possible with determination and patience.
My promise to you is that we will listen, and we will do better. I ask that you help us. It has been a long time since I was a graduate student, but I do remember the joys and struggles. My job is to advocate for you. I promise I will do that.
Linda J. Mason
Dean Graduate School and Professor of Entomology