Written by Dr. Dre'Von Dobson
Earlier this year, Springer Nature published its first diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) report, titled “Insights into diversity, equity & inclusion in the global research community”. The report examines how diversity, equity, and inclusion are understood in the research community, identifying barriers to achieving greater DEI, and highlighting opportunities for change. In this new blog series, early career researchers who participated in the report, share their own personal stories and views about DEI in academia, and ways to further advance diversity and inclusion.
The ivory tower, the metaphorical bastion of academic research and higher learning, has been in serious need of renovations for some time. An alarming number of academics are “quiet-quitting”, social media ranting, or changing career fields altogether, suggesting that our academic home is struggling to meet the needs of the average occupant. The discomfort in academia is particularly felt by minority individuals, who are often unwelcome in and/or unfairly treated in academic spaces. Here, I hope to use my own observations, opinions, and experiences as a black man in the world of higher education to highlight DEI efforts currently addressing the problem, while also suggesting strategies that may prove useful in our attempt to spruce up the ivory tower. Let’s examine some of the repairs and updates that need to be made for a successful renovation.
To increase the value of the ivory tower, obviously the skeletons in the closets have to go. Academia has a rich tradition of brilliant discovery and intellectual prowess, but unfortunately it also has a dark past of inequity and discrimination. The first step of any truly transformative change is to admit you have a problem. For this confession to be effective, it is also important to be as truthful and transparent as possible about what the primary problem really is. Academic institutions built on slavery, Jim-crow era legislation, and discriminatory hiring/admissions policies need to admit it and own it. After that, we are able to examine how these mistakes happened and build mechanisms specifically designed to prevent similar mistakes being made in the future. Implementing a process of acknowledgement, apology, and deliberate action to right the wrong-doings gives us a clean slate to build from and move forward.
After we clean up the messes we’ve already made, we can move on to repairing the foundation and basic operating systems of academia. Simply put, the ivory tower has some really bad plumbing, creating an urgent need to repair the leaky academic pipeline. Most of the diverse students shuttled into the ivory tower are not choosing to stay there permanently. Although I hear many reasons listed, the overwhelming reason seems to be an overall negative experience as a graduate student.
Repairing this damaged foundation will require changing our overall approach to increasing diversity in academia. We made the mistake of pumping as many diverse students into institutions as possible, without ensuring the students’ experience would be equitable, inclusive, and positive. We can improve our efforts in equity and inclusion at all academic levels by protecting diverse individuals from harm while simultaneously rewarding their extracurricular work in helping to improve the situation. Corrective consequences for mistreatment and damaging the work-place environment, along with career-enhancing rewards for DEI and mentoring efforts could help repair the academic foundation and shift the stereotypical narrative of how it feels to be a minority in the ivory tower.
In addition to improving some of the more structural elements of our collective academic dwelling, it would also benefit us to update the internal aesthetics. The old ways of academic advancement and achievement were predicated on a certain level of cloaked anonymity. All of the closed-door conversations when discussing procedures for promotions, compensation, and toxic cultural practices failed to create an environment of mutual trust and respect. Conversely, the newest generation of academics have started to call for a more modern, open-concept layout. Implementing openness and transparency reduces hidden frustrations and “quiet-quitting” by offering everyone the opportunity to address concerns and issues before the damage is beyond repair. Mandating policies that promote psychological safety in academic spaces can empower diverse individuals to identify their oppressors and their problems. Hopefully, making the interior of the ivory tower more comfortable will result in its residents deciding to stay longer.
Having addressed the inside of the ivory tower, let’s talk about how it looks from the outside. Many outsiders look at academics and see stressed out, overworked, and underpaid employees who spend their lives in front of whiteboards in depressing situations. However, the power and transparency of social media present a unique opportunity to change that narrative. The same social media apps that are being used to show how dissatisfied many academics are with their jobs can be used to highlight some of the advantages to an academic career. We can highlight the inherent flexibility of academia, showcase the fun of traveling to conferences or external lecture series, and increase the base academic salaries to improve the academy’s curb appeal. These are things we can do to attract people, especially more diverse minds, to the ivory tower once we know we’ve made it surprisingly nice inside.
Fortunately, many of these efforts are underway. Social media movements like “BlackInX” on Twitter are transparently highlighting the lives of black academics. The work of Frankie Heyward and many others on the National Black Postdoc Association is already starting to address issues with post-graduate retention in academia. Systems are being put in place by Avery August and his team at Cornell University to hold faculty responsible for misconduct and reward faculty for helping to solve DEI problems. If we can extend the current efforts to more academic spaces, the overall results of this renovation will be an amazing and inspiring ivory tower.
Dr. Dre'Von Dobson is a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma, and Lung Biology at UNC Chapel Hill. He has a background in researching thrombosis, lung pathology, and cardiovascular disease. His overall research interest is in exploring the relationship between respiratory environmental exposures and cardiovascular disease. Dre' is a passionate advocate for DEI, serving on committees in several organizations in hopes of making the world of academic science equitably accessible for everyone."