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NSF grant to help OU welcome more women faculty in the sciences

Thursday, December 1, 2011
NSF grant to help OU welcome more women faculty in the sciences
By Dave Groves, contributing writer

A team of Oakland University faculty and administrators recently embarked on a four-year initiative that has an ambitious goal to increase the number of women faculty members in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. At present, women represent a much higher percentage of Ph.D. graduates in these disciplines than is reflected in the faculty ranks at universities across the country, including OU.

The Women in Science and Engineering at OU (WISE@OU) project, supported by a $518,000 National Science Foundation grant, will employ a comprehensive and proven strategy that includes an institutional assessment in the first year, and reform of faculty recruitment processes and advancement of career development initiatives for women in the second through fourth years.

“We’ve got the right people in the right places to accomplish a very ambitious agenda, so that’s what we’ve set for ourselves,” said Dr. Kathleen Moore, associate dean for the College of Arts and Sciences.

In addition to Dr. Moore, the leadership team includes Dr. Fatma Mili, professor of computer sciences; Dr. Brad Roth, professor of physics; Joi Cunningham, director of Office of Inclusiveness and Intercultural Initiatives; Dr. Jo Reger, associate professor of sociology; and Dr. Julie Walters, associate professor of political science.

At present, just 18 percent of Oakland’s faculty in the STEM disciplines are women. That number has grown slowly despite a number of advancement efforts the university has implemented over the years.

“This kind of growth is much harder to achieve than it sounds; otherwise it would have been done long ago.” Dr. Mili said. “The hurdles are subtle, cumulative and persistent.”

To Oakland’s advantage, Dr. Mili added, “Our ADVANCE proposal was strengthened by letters of support written by 70 percent of women STEM faculty. Their very enthusiastic expressions of interest and support to the WISE@OU program made the proposal much stronger and created a very compelling case for funding it."

Based on the success of other initiatives funded by the NSF’s Increasing the Participation and Advancement of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Careers (ADVANCE) program, including recent efforts of sister universities such as Wayne State, Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, the WISE@OU team expects STEM faculty diversity to increase significantly as result of this project. This will be welcome news for many reasons.

“The wellbeing and advancement of diverse faculty in STEM translates into the recruitment, retention and success of diverse students,” Dr. Mili explained. “It also leads to diversity in research ideas and educational approaches.”

Dr. Moore noted that because Oakland is relatively young and growing, it has an advantage relative to efforts to increase diversity among STEM faculty – before a lack of momentum begins to protect the status quo.

“We are a dynamic institution,” she said. “We’re not set in stone, so I think there is great opportunity to have a very significant impact in terms of reaching these goals.”

Part of the efforts to advance career development for women faculty will be the creation of mentoring relationships and increased educational opportunities focused on writing and submitting research grants – a critical part of career success in the STEM disciplines. Dr. Moore said the ADVANCE initiatives will benefit all faculty through efforts to improve family and life policies at OU.

In addition to addressing its own faculty diversity issues, Oakland intends to share the strategies and interventions it finds successful with other educational institutions looking to achieve the same goal.

"There are three necessary ingredients for change to be effective and sustainable; supportive administrators who fully comprehend the needs and benefits of these initiatives; buy in from all constituencies, which includes willingness to self-examine and eagerness to improve and change processes; and STEM women faculty with the awareness, the coherence, and the commitment to help each other and invest in this initiative,” Dr. Mili explained. “We have all three ingredients at OU.”

Moore said the initiative would not have been possible without the strong endorsement of the university community as a whole, including the OU chapter of the American Association of University Professors and the Office of Grants, Contracts and Sponsored Research.

“We really had a strong outpouring of support, and that was critical to the success of our application,” Dr. Moore said.

While the WISE@OU team’s primary goal is to broaden the diversity of STEM faculty here, a secondary effect will have beneficial impacts far beyond the Oakland campus. That, Dr. Moore said, is because the female student population at OU will see clearly that should they be interested in the STEM disciplines, they need not worry about obstacles preventing them from making their career goals a reality.

“It’s really important that they see by way of our current faculty that there are opportunities for them to succeed in STEM careers,” Dr. Moore said. “In that sense, what we’re doing could have an exponential impact for women looking to work in the sciences.”