For many diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) practitioners in Higher Education (HE), a focus on student diversity can come at the behest of focusing on the equally important matter of teaching staff diversity. Erica Cooper works to highlight and rectify this issue in her role as Assistant Provost for Faculty Diversity at Virginia Tech.
Chris Mansfield sat down with Erica to discuss her time in academia, the importance of anti-racism, and the projects she has pioneered to widen faculty diversity at Virginia Tech.
When I was a kid I thought I was going to be a lawyer. As an undergraduate, I was a political science major for a while, then I realized it wasn’t interesting enough for me and I had some ethical concerns about the trajectory I was taking. I took a communications class and it fundamentally changed my life.
Midway through my undergraduate studies, I changed institutions and had the opportunity to take several classes that permanently changed my whole professional trajectory. One was on the psychological effects of racism. It sparked my curiosity in the intersection between race, culture, and society. This ultimately led to a graduate career in exploring that question and then sixteen years spent as a professor. I wanted to continue to do this work with faculty support.
I went to a predominantly white institution and was one of the few students of color as an undergraduate. It was formative to be the lone student of color in a class, being asked to be the spokesperson for Black people when questions of race come up, and experience attempts to mute my position within that space.
I often had to justify why I was studying race. People claim that we live in a post-racial society and that race no longer ‘matters’ as a concept. As I wrote my dissertation, I saw the same racist practices that happened in the 19th century recycling themselves in the present day. We don’t have to stay in this vicious cycle of destruction, conflict, separation and segregation — we can change the trajectory if we take the time to understand the experiences of other people.
My communications background is the greatest gift I could have given to myself, and I fell into it unexpectedly! One of the first things you learn is the importance of your audience. Whether it’s a one-on-one conversation, or the public arena, if you’re going to be a successful communicator, you have to know who you’re talking to: what drives them, what scares them, what makes them happy and sad.
Much of the work we do goes towards understanding how to show the importance of DEI work to people with different opinions, feelings, and sometimes inaccurate perceptions about what the work is trying to accomplish.
Whether it’s a one-on-one conversation, or the public arena, if you’re going to be a successful communicator, you have to know who you’re talking to: what drives them, what scares them, what makes them happy and sad.
For some in the classroom, they’re having to contend with something that they’ve never really thought about before. We aim to challenge their mindset and experiences in a way that causes them to become a little bit uncomfortable, but crucially, is not threatening to the point where they shut down.
The Future Faculty program is designed to provide professional development, but it’s also a recruitment strategy we use to diversify our faculty. Virginia Tech has a very ambitious diversity goal with specific deadlines. The program acts as a support to the normal hiring process.
Sometimes it’s hard for research committees to adequately diversify their application pool. Because this program is direct in its approach and encourages people from underrepresented backgrounds to apply, it brings forward candidates that wouldn’t typically be part of an applicant pool. It supports all nine of our colleges, so a cohort is created for all those that are invited to participate.
We’ve been successful in getting many fellows of the program into tenured roles. This has also created a community that would not usually spring from a normal hiring cycle.
For the participants that have accepted faculty positions, I’ve created an early career program that continues to support their journey, so we’re really looking to support recruitment and retention.
Yes, and definitely with underrepresented students, as they themselves have been underrepresented. Those that join faculty have been mentored at very different scales. Some have received great mentoring, others haven’t. The early career program attempts to bridge some of these gaps.
The program also builds their capacity to be good mentors themselves. It’s paying it forward: recognizing that some people are underprepared reduces the disparities going forward. We share resources that will ensure their success and work with colleges to advance their own mentoring initiatives, so that they can be more mindful of the challenges underrepresented groups face.
It takes patience and thick skin, as the nature of the subject creates so much tension. Recognize that in HE, institutions have long-standing structures that create isolation and marginalization. These structures have been in place for a long time and ultimately create a certain culture and mindset at all levels of the institution. Dismantling this mindset takes time. Change sometimes comes slower than you want it to come, but it does happen! Accept those small gains as big ones.
Difficult question! There are so many doing amazing work. One example would be Dr. Barry Brummett, who has just retired from the University of Texas in Austin. He challenged me to think outside the box, consider graduate school as a career, and tackle what I thought would be an impossible feat — delving into cultural and racial theories of rhetoric that didn’t exist in our discipline at the time. Secondly, my dissertation chair Dr Carolyn Calloway-Thomas at Indiana University, is a real pioneer in our discipline. She was one of the first Black students enrolled in a Ph.D. program and one of the first Black faculty members. This was at a time when Black students were not allowed to stay at the same hotel as everyone else when academic conferences were happening.
I read a lot. The one that stands out the most right now is How To Be Anti-Racist by Ibram X Kendi. It’s a fantastic read that provides you with foundational work on how to challenge and dismantle racism within different structures, and crucially presents ideas in ways that are non-threatening.