Building a better environment: efforts in CSE, CoE expand to meet culture and climate needs

A trio of faculty and staff leaders behind these efforts share their thoughts on how to strengthen the culture and climate of the Division.

The College of Engineering recently announced plans to educate all members of the College community on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) starting with a focus on race, ethnicity and bias. 

The plans include changes to the undergraduate curriculum that will be developed and piloted over the coming academic year. All graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, faculty and staff members will be strongly encouraged to participate in programs designed specifically for them. The team that developed faculty plans was co-led by Director of CRLT Dr. Tershia Pinder-Grover and Richard H. Orenstein Division Chair of CSE Michael Wellman.

This announcement presented an opportunity to reflect on how this training and other ongoing efforts within CSE can help strengthen the culture and climate of the Division. A trio of faculty and staff leaders behind these efforts share their thoughts below.

Prof. Westley Weimer is the chair of CSE’s DEI Committee, Jonathan Merrill is the CSE DEI Program Manager, and Dr. Amir Kamil is a lecturer and chair of the undergraduate Computer Science Program Committee.

How does the newly announced training at the College level plug in to ongoing efforts in CSE to promote a better student experience and inclusive environment?

Amir Kamil: We have the opportunity and the responsibility to customize inclusivity efforts to our context. Both CoE in general and CSE in particular suffer from low participation with respect to women and minorities, making it more challenging to build an inclusive environment that is welcoming to those groups. We also have a culture that tends toward overwork and competitiveness over collaboration. These issues mean that we have more work to do in building a positive climate than other communities. It’s great to see that both CoE and CSE are moving to address these issues.

Wes Weimer: The announced training is in line with one of the things the CSE community has been asking for. From Town Halls discussing Inclusive Teaching Training and requesting more training for staff to the Open Letter specifically calling on the College and University to follow through with training, including for all CSE faculty, there has been a desire for this sort of action for quite some time. Faculty, staff and students alike are vulnerable to unconscious biases, and we all benefit from training to consider multiple viewpoints, make CSE accessible and inclusive, and to speak up when we see something that goes against our values.

Jon Merril: I really appreciate the comprehensive nature of these new initiatives. I believe that sustainable and high impact DEI work requires buy-in and participation from all levels of an organization, and I think that is definitely reflected in some of the work being done in Computer Science and Engineering. My position, CSE’s DEI Project Manager, is new in the department and the impetus for it was to have someone who would focus on creating an inclusive community for staff, students, and faculty. 

Since I started this position, I have noticed that there is a very clear effort being made by faculty and staff to better understand the undergrad and graduate student experience which is a good start. I think it can be challenging to get feedback that we are falling short in some areas, but there is an energy and drive towards making our community better for everyone. I feel that these College-level initiatives will help us gain momentum in creating a more inclusive environment in CSE. 

What are ways that we can continue to build off these efforts, and systemically push for an inclusive community in CSE or the College?

Wes Weimer: CSE can choose to hold itself to a higher standard and go beyond College-level requirements. For example, the Inclusive Teaching Training (organized by Computing CARES) was ranked by the community, in the recent Climate Assessment Committee Survey, as one of the top five activities and interventions carried out by CSE. CSE has been building on that strength by increasing the number of courses involved and providing new material for IAs to take the training a second time and cover more advanced topics. I would love to see all teaching assistants for all CSE classes enrolled, and I think it would only benefit our faculty to take the training as well.

Jon Merril: I immediately think about buy-in and getting broad participation. In my experience doing DEI work in other areas of the University, oftentimes the same individuals or groups will participate in DEI workshops or programming. One way we can continue to push or build upon these efforts is through having clear systems of accountability to ensure broader participation – especially for our staff and faculty populations. I also know that this is much easier said than done. 

Amir Kamil: Inclusivity training is not a one-time activity. Rather, it should be an ongoing effort, where each of us is continually trying to learn and implement better techniques for improving climate. CSE should design multiple levels of curricula for inclusivity training, both to keep it fresh and engaging for those who undergo training as well as to encourage constant improvement.

What do you hope to see these efforts accomplish in the long term?

Jon Merril: At the student level, I think these efforts have the capacity to produce engineers who are especially mindful about the impact their work has on the community. As we have seen with the pandemic, the work of engineers has a connection to so many different threads in society. More locally, I hope that by centering things like stereotype threat, imposter syndrome, and systemic racism, it alleviates the burden that some underrepresented students feel to initiate the conversation or teach others about their experience. Overall, I see these efforts as the “inclusion’ and “equity” part of DEI work – creating spaces where someone feels like they belong and have access to the resources they need to be successful. 

Amir Kamil: I hope that they establish the expectation that improving exclusivity is the responsibility of all members of our community. We can’t improve our climate by concentrating inclusivity efforts with the handful of faculty and staff who are on DEI-related committees. Instead, we all have to work towards building a better environment: faculty in how we teach and mentor, staff in how we support students, and students in how we interact with each other. That the CoE efforts are targeting all three groups is a positive step towards making this happen.

Wes Weimer: While there are many positive experiences in CSE classes, we still have significant room for improvement. To take just one example, I hope these efforts will improve classroom and laboratory interactions between faculty and students as well as between groups of students. In my role as DEI Committee Chair I have a chance to see some of the anonymized responses that students provide for the climate questions in semesterly course evaluations. Students may feel alone or disrespected, faculty may be uncertain about how to manage larger classes and may make mistakes, and as we move to more team- and project-oriented collaborative activities, student interactions are an increasingly critical part of CSE. This sort of training can help us be mindful of better ways to interact, as well as to help us be less adversarial and more forgiving of well-intentioned but slight mistakes. I really do think that an authentic compassion for others and a respect for others as people are key here, and learning more about the circumstances and experiences of others, such as through DEI education, is one way to obtain that. I hope these efforts will help us all see each other, and our shared values, a bit more clearly.

To learn more about other efforts underway within CSE to improve the climate and culture, read about Computing CARES, the RENEW2 CS initiative, and see the DEI and Climate Initiatives website.