Overview of Priorities
While there are many significant challenges and issues of systemic inequity that UConn BIPOC graduate students face, The Graduate School has set three areas of priority for our office:
- Improving graduate student advising experiences
- Analyzing Graduate School policies for racially disparate outcomes (with a focus upon admissions and fellowships)
- Building The Graduate School staff capacity for supporting BIPOC graduate students
Improving Graduate Student Advising Experiences
Advisors, particularly doctoral advisors, have tremendous power over their graduate students, often serving not only as their advisor but often serving as their supervisor, their professional mentor, and their faculty member; additionally, they are sometimes directly responsible for the graduate student’s funding. Although all graduate students are vulnerable to abuses of power from their advisors, students who hold marginalized identities are disproportionately vulnerable to abuses of power from their advisors.
Improving advising will require significant work. Being an excellent advisor is not heavily emphasized in the promotion and tenure review process for faculty. White graduate advisors, by nature of their identities, lived experiences, and academic training, oftentimes have minimal training in either advising or antiracism. BIPOC graduate advisors, by nature of their identities and lived experiences, are sought out for mentorship and support by BIPOC graduate students; as a whole they are overburdened and undercompensated for their labor in supporting these students. Departmental systems of governance often place peers in the role of overseeing fellow peers, making it hard to remedy poor advising skills and racist harm through oversight.
The Graduate School intends to focus upon three aspects of graduate student advising. We want to improve graduate faculty awareness of resources related to racism, both within and beyond the UConn community. The Graduate School is also committed to increasing and improving graduate advisor training. Training initiatives will focus upon advising in general and inclusive advising specifically. Finally, The Graduate School aims to diffuse advisor power. We will be exploring policies, practices, and advising models which improve advising experiences for BIPOC graduate students.
Knowing what needs to be addressed and selecting what issues to focus upon are only the first steps in actually addressing issues of racism. While these priorities are good to state publicly, The Graduate School also needs to know how they will attempt to address issues and bring about improvement.
In order to improve faculty awareness of resources for students addressing racism, The Graduate School will utilize our position as departmental steward to share the information. Knowing that department faculty and staff receive such a volume of communications that information can get lost, we will additionally look to utilize our relationships with departments to meet, share information from our survey, and emphasize the need to improve collective knowledge of resources. Finally, our staff is analyzing how we can better onboard graduate faculty and staff so they know information, such as resources related to racism, that will improve their advising.
The Graduate School has previously created advising training for graduate advisors for advising conferences at UConn, working with Undergraduate Advising to structure a graduate advising track at the conference. However, optional advising training will only do so much. Our staff’s onboarding efforts will aim to make some of the advising information we have more widely and universally shared with new graduate faculty and staff.
In order to diffuse advisor power, The Graduate School team is invested in looking at alternative advising structures that spread the responsibility and power in advising. Co- or multi-advisor models help to diffuse the advisor power dynamic for graduate students while also creating a more communal approach to student advising, which allows students to draw upon the strengths of multiple mentors. Our team plans to explore a variety of advising frameworks and practices in order to promote more equitable advising relationships.
The Graduate School will not be able to do this work alone. We plan to strategically partner with the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, the Provost’s Office, Departmental leaders, and the graduate student community to most effectively adjust graduate student advising to better serve racially marginalized students, as well as graduate students as a whole.
Analyzing Graduate School Policies for Racial Disparity
As we collected feedback from campus partners and students, they reminded us that The Graduate School needs to look within to address the systemic racism inherent in our own office’s practices, processes, and policies. We are not immune from racism in our work, and it is certainly our scope and responsibility to address what is already within our office’s sphere.
Based on the responses to the survey and the feedback we have received, The Graduate School has many areas they need to assess and then address including recruitment, admissions, fellowships, retention, and evaluation. To focus on all at once in a year would not be feasible. We will be focusing on two areas for 2021-2022: admissions and fellowships.
We selected admissions as it came up most frequently as an area which our community members felt had differential outcomes based upon race. While many admissions policies are determined at a department-level and not directly decided by The Graduate School, we are uniquely positioned to make recommendations for equitable admissions practice, in addition to analyzing the policies that are within our sphere. We also selected fellowships as we hear about how our diversity-based fellowships are not meeting students’ need in a timely manner. Specifically, the fellowship payments are often late, leaving students scrambling to meet their financial obligations.
In order to analyze these areas adequately, we need to capture the data that is available to us and determine what the current outcomes are of our policies and practices as they stand. We will select and utilize a framework to analyze our policies and adjust them with the aim of remedying these differential outcomes.
Policy assessment and adjustment is a deliberate and lengthy process. In addition to our year of assessment of the current outcomes and adjustment, we will follow up our policy changes with a period of implementation and assessment the following year. The process of policy change should also be iterative, as our policies should change as our community, our society, our outcomes, and our knowledge changes. As we undertake our 2021-2022’s policy assessment, we should develop a long-term assessment and adjustment plan that will include all of The Graduate School’s policies on a rotating basis.
In order to create and implement changes to policy, we will need to work with our partners throughout the process. Partnership will be especially important as we form new policies, and we will look to partner with community members who have different areas of expertise and different identities to join us in this work. Policy changes need to be reviewed and approved by the Graduate Faculty Council before we can implement those changes.
Building Staff Capacity to Support BIPOC Students
Throughout our information gathering stages, we heard the need for better representation of BIPOC people in the staff, faculty, and leadership at UConn. We cannot ignore that The Graduate School itself is composed of a majority white staff. Our visibly BIPOC members of staff currently are our graduate assistants, who hold more temporary employment and less power than full-time employees. If we are calling upon graduate departments to value representation and racial diversity in their hiring practices, we need to be setting a positive example in this area. Unfortunately we know that we will be unable to hire any new professional staff in the near future. As we continue to feel the financial impacts of consistent budget cuts and the extraordinary financial strain of the global pandemic, we are challenged to think creatively about how we diversify our staff and ensure diverse perspectives are represented.
However supporting BIPOC students is not only the responsibility of BIPOC faculty and staff. We do not need to wait to hire a more representative staff to build our capacity to support the BIPOC graduate student community. In order to build our capacity, we need to prioritize BIPOC student support in our strategic planning initiatives. We also will invest in education and professional development for our team. By becoming more informed, culturally competent professionals, we can increase our capacity for serving BIPOC students.
Additionally in the meantime, The Graduate School is committed to ensuring diverse voices and perspectives are represented in our decision making. Our team will analyze how we currently make decisions and seek out diverse perspectives. As a predominantly white team, we need to look for where BIPOC graduate students, faculty, and staff are telling their stories, such as through social media accounts and hashtags like #BlackintheIvory. We need to read the works of BIPOC researchers and research that focuses on the needs of BIPOC graduate students. We need to attend events and go to spaces where BIPOC community members have decided to speak in rather than asking them to come to us. When we have funding for projects, consultants, or training, we want to employ diverse, talented people.
As with our other priorities, we will be looking to ensure our community is involved in the implementation and assessment of this priority.
Recommendations to UConn at Large
Systemic racism and injustice is not unique to The Graduate School, the University of Connecticut, or even higher education; racism is embedded in all aspects and institutions in the United States and beyond. The Graduate School team knows our commitments and our work must be part of a larger movement of change at UConn and beyond. Based on the responses from graduate faculty, staff, and students to our work over the past months, our team has also identified areas that the University as a whole could work to address in order to make a more equitable experience for BIPOC community members. We would recommend that the University consider the following priorities:
- Hiring and retaining more BIPOC faculty and staff.
- Strengthening the communities for BIPOC students, faculty, and staff.
- Investing in structures that support BIPOC student well-being and belonging.
As we heard calls for our staff to be more representative and racially diverse, we heard that this was an issue across the institution. Furthermore, it is an issue that The Graduate School does not have purview over beyond our own staffing. The University has similarly identified this as a priority as they are embarking on a cluster hiring process. As this cluster hiring process begins, we recommend that the institution also embark on a parallel BIPOC faculty and staff retention plan. Continuing to hire racially diverse, talented candidates will not fix UConn’s systemic racism issues alone; we must work on our environment and climate for BIPOC individuals if we are asking these individuals to invest in the institution and remain with the institution.
The effort to retain BIPOC individuals at UConn feeds directly into our second recommended priority of strengthening community for BIPOC students, faculty, and staff. This priority encompasses many different suggestions we heard from our community members. Currently many organizations and individuals work with minimal material support to provide community to the BIPOC individuals at UConn. For example, the Graduate Students of Color Association (GSCA) has built a strong presence and offered community and programming to BIPOC graduate students. However, these students are not paid and are volunteering in a student leader capacity to do this challenging work. Furthermore, their status as students means that there is often turnover and a loss of institutional knowledge, relational capital, and continuity. In addition to the efforts to recruit and retain BIPOC students, faculty, and staff needed to strengthen the community for BIPOC individuals at UConn, our respondents and partners noted that BIPOC mentoring opportunities needed to be created and funded; they suggested that more targeted and culturally responsive events and professional development needed to be offered; partners and respondents suggested curriculum needed to be more attentive to the needs and work of BIPOC communities.
Finally we recommend that UConn financially and materially invest in structures and initiatives that support BIPOC student well-being and belonging. Repeatedly we heard from partners, respondents, and students alike that equity work is not fairly compensated. Work on diversity, equity, and inclusion often falls into faculty’s service responsibilities, which are not heavily weighted in the Promotion and Tenure Review process. Diversity, equity, and inclusion work is regularly not accounted for when staff members are evaluated. Student-based equity work is often done by BIPOC volunteers and activists who are not compensated for their labors. In order to shift this pattern, we need to invest money and support into the existing equity and inclusion efforts. Additionally, UConn should be looking to provide funding to new initiatives and work that supports BIPOC student well-being, such as university-wide BIPOC mentoring programs and new staff positions focused upon BIPOC student support in multiple key offices such as The Graduate School, the Center for Career Development, and Student Activities.
A lot has happened since The Graduate School embarked on this work, both at UConn and in the world. UConn has undertaken a variety of initiatives related to BIPOC student support. The University created a course on Anti-Black Racism, which garnered the largest enrollment in a course in the history of the University. President Katsouleas created an Advisory Council on Policing.
The University administration also encouraged all departments to close for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, after years of requesting some student services remain open, as a symbolic gesture in the recognition of the civil rights work of Dr. King. Steps toward more racial equity at UConn were also undertaken by other departments. The ScHOLA²RS House Learning Community in Werth Tower graduated its first cohort of Black men with one of the highest 6 year graduation rates in the country. The Neag School of Education and the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) enhanced focus on equity and inclusion in their workshops and faculty development series. Multiple graduate programs removed using the Graduate Readiness Examination (GRE) as an admissions requirement. The Humanities Institute received a grant for their work expanding their Faculty of Color Working Group. Opportunities for mentorship for junior faculty of color were expanded.
While all these initiatives are much needed and worth celebrating, celebration must be tempered with the knowledge that there is still much more that needs to be done. Racial injustice did not start with and does not end with the death of George Floyd, which prompted The Graduate School’s actions this year. Since Summer 2020, the United States has seen multiple instances of justice not served, such as the lack of charges against officers involved in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor. The pandemic has continued to disproportionately impact communities of color, communities that are skeptical of vaccinations due to a history of racism and abuse by the medical community. Incidents of anti-Asian/Asian-American/Pacific Islander hate crimes have risen about 150% since 2019 in the wake of the pandemic and damaging rhetoric about the origin of the coronavirus. Furthermore, insurrectionists who also hold white supremacist, anti-Semitic, and hateful ideologies attacked the Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of an election. UConn needs to continue to address racial inequity because racism continues to be a powerful, dangerous, and life-threatening presence in the United States and in our community.
Moving Forward to 2021-2022
The remainder of the Spring 2021 semester will be utilized to share these priorities and get public comments from those who wish to submit comments. We will adjust these priorities based upon the feedback we receive and prepare a strategic plan for how to address these areas of focus.
Spring 2021 will also be a vital time to prepare for the work we intend to undertake in 2021-2022. We can collect and organize data we intend to use, research frameworks for analysis, build relationships with key stakeholders, and engage in outreach to the community.
Additionally Spring and Summer 2021 gives us another chance to reach partners in the community that we did not successfully connect with during our Summer 2020 conversations or think to connect with previously. We will look to speak to more faculty, staff, and students who are invested in improving the experiences of BIPOC graduate students at UConn. We additionally can partner with external partners like the NAACP who might be able to provide us non-UConn and non-higher education perspectives.
We will also be considering how we thoughtfully incorporate BIPOC community members, whose voices are needed to do this work, without counting upon their uncompensated labor. As we continue to think about this issue, we are reflecting upon what our students shared in a feedback session: BIPOC people might not inherently feel burdened by the act of sharing their stories and their views. The burden comes when those stories are consumed without any ensuing change to the racist systems and structures that caused those stories. In Spring 2021, we will deeply consider the obligation we have to make change when we ask for collaboration from marginalized people.
Finally, we will be coming up with a means for our community to hold us accountable to doing the work we outline here in this report. A report means very little if it is not acted upon. We hope to create concrete goals under our priority areas and publish regular updates on our work towards those goals for all community members to view, along with contact information to allow community members to communicate with us about this vital work.