Spotlight on Diversity

As a college and institution of higher learning, it is our mission to promote intellectual inquiry and effective civic engagement within the context of respect for diversity. Our ability to educate is one tool for making change in the world. We can demand change in our community, but first, we have to educate our community on why that change is necessary.

In 2020, we launched our College Conversations series to highlight research by faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences that aligns with our initiatives to address racism and encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion in all its forms. Our Allyship and Antiracism series featured faculty whose research focused on identifying racism and topics related to allyship and antiracism.

For the 2021-22 academic year, we turned our focus to diversity initiatives in a variety of disciplines in our college with a Spotlight on Diversity series. We kicked off the series with faculty in our Department of Religious Studies who shared information about religion, race, and ethnicity, which continue to play a significant role on the national and international scale. They also promoted the new religion, race, and ethnicity concentration, which students can major or minor in for their undergraduate studies.

Next, we turned to our Department of Physics and Astronomy and featured Nadia Fomin, associate professor of physics, who talked about the Nuclear Physics in Eastern Tennessee (NPET) undergraduate internship program at UT and the Oak Ridge National Lab designed to increase diversity in physics. Mentored by UT professors and ORNL scientists, students in the program can make contributions to leading research in neutrino physics, quantum information sciences, nuclear astrophysics, and more. Program mentors believe the teams required to solve the nation’s most pressing science challenges are those that bring together a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives.

We wrapped up the fall semester with Suzanne Lenhart, professor of mathematics, David Ndiaye, director of UT Disability Services, and Alex McCorkel, graduate student in math, who discussed the UT STEM Alliance. Based at Auburn University, the program was funded by the National Science Foundation INCLUDES  program (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science). The new alliance began at UT in January 2022 with a goal to significantly advance a collaborative approach to improve the success of students with disabilities in the STEM disciplines.

Annette Engel, professor of geochemistry, joined us from Hawaii in January to share information about the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences’ participation in URGE – Unlearning Racism in Geoscience. The community-wide program, funded by the National Science Foundation, helps geoscientists unlearn racism and improve accessibility, justice, equality, diversity, and inclusion.

“There were 4,500 participants internationally, ranging from small school liberal arts programs to large government organizations and oil and gas companies,” Engel said. “This made the URGE initiative the largest initiative of its kind in geosciences in history.”

Our theatre department has several diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to highlight Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) plays and playwrights, including a special topics course taught in fall 2020 that is now a regular offering.

“Let’s not just talk about the fact that we would love to have more diversity in our department, but let’s actually start doing the work,” said Tracey Copeland Halter, lecturer of acting, who joined us in February to talk about these initiatives and a play that opened in March called Blood at the Root, which was inspired by the true story of the Jena 6.

In March, Kirsten Widner, assistant professor of political science, joined us to discuss her award-winning research on the unique representation women of color bring when they are elected to public office and will highlight the crucial role Black women play in promoting the interests of marginalized communities.

“The growth in women’s representation has been driven largely by women of color and the representation growth has really been among Black and Latino women,” Widner said. “Black women were more likely to introduce bills targeted at the ways different types of inner disadvantage intersect. We saw them as particularly active in the areas of economic justice and social welfare. Our research consistently showed that women of color were distinctly attuned to the needs of marginalized communities.”

Finally, we wrapped up our Spotlight on Diversity series with faculty from our Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures. Yen-Chen Hao, associate professor of Chinese, and Dan Wang, distinguished lecturer of Chinese, shared the work faculty and staff are doing to highlight Asian-American and Pacific Islander heritage and experiences.

Interested in watching the presentations? You can find most of them posted on our website. If a video is not available, we were unable to obtain permission from the speaker to share the information or the slides.