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  • Department of Global Development
  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Plant Biology Section
From hiring Cornell’s first female faculty member — Anna Botsford Comstock — in 1898, to instituting Cornell’s first undergraduate course requirement in diversity — more than 15 years ago — the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) has supported Cornell’s enduring commitment to building an equitable and inclusive community for faculty, staff and students.

Now, as students complete the spring semester from off-campus locations, CALS’ efforts to make sure that they feel safe and supported are more crucial than ever. 

“It’s very important that a sense of belonging envelops our Cornellians who are now scattered across the globe,” said Chelsea Specht, associate dean for diversity and inclusion at CALS. “We need to reach out in ways that are effective in providing open access to learning, and broad opportunities for supportive and meaningful engagement with faculty, staff and fellow students.”

Specht, a Barbara McClintock Professor of Plant Biology in the School of Integrative Plant Science, began her two-year term as CALS’ inaugural associate dean for diversity and inclusion on July 1, 2019. The college created the leadership position to oversee college-wide efforts and to align with Belonging at Cornell, the university’s framework for making Cornell a more diverse and inclusive environment.

Since stepping into the role, Specht has assessed existing diversity and inclusion programming, and she is working to provide more resources to CALS community members.

During the global COVID-19 pandemic, CALS is seeing how the power of its diverse community is continuing to support an equitable environment, both on campus and from afar. Cornell’s Center for Teaching Innovation has offered best practices for building inclusive virtual classrooms, and peer mentoring programs are encouraging personal connections through virtual communities. 

Specht is focused on increasing diversity both in faculty recruitment and in graduate admissions — relying on administrative partnerships to advance these priorities. For faculty recruitment strategies, she is collaborating with CALS’ senior associate and executive deans, department chairs and Cornell’s Office of Faculty Development and Diversity(OFDD). For graduate admissions, she is working closely with the Office of Inclusion and Student Engagement in the Graduate School.

“We really want to have a diverse faculty at CALS that represents our incredibly diverse student body,” said Specht, associate dean for diversity and inclusion at CALS.

Specht said, “Undergraduate students don’t see themselves reflected among our faculty and administrators. How do we get everyone engaged in thinking about equity and inclusion in faculty hiring in ways that reflect the goals, initiatives and efforts we’ve used to build excellence through diversity in our undergraduate community?”

One approach is to make sure that everyone participating in faculty search processes understand how to combat unconscious bias in hiring. Training offered by OFDD and the Cornell Interactive Theatre Ensemble does just that.

A workshop called Depends on the Lens addresses the impact of unintended bias and microaggressions, and it provides an opportunity to examine the behaviors, perspectives, emotions and assumptions that can undermine fairness in the hiring process. Graduate students who serve on search committees also participate in the training, which, Specht noted, is another way to help build more inclusive environments in academia.

“If everyone on a search committee has done this training, it empowers them to have the language to address bias without becoming confrontational,” Specht said. “By the time they go through the training they’re thinking about the entire hiring process — writing job descriptions, evaluating applications and conducting interviews — from the perspective of what biases might be inherent, and how to remediate those biases to attract and recruit the very best colleagues to Cornell.”

Specht is also working with the Graduate School to review all aspects of the admissions process. Based on recommendations for holistic review promoted by Sara Xayarath Hernández, associate dean for inclusion and student engagement at the Graduate School, Specht said that asking applicants for a personal statement can help. Having applicants detail their contributions to diversity and inclusion or describe obstacles they worked to overcome can signal how much they value efforts to build an inclusive campus.  

Additionally, Specht works closely with the college’s long-standing, faculty-led Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Sarah Evanega, a faculty member in the Department of Global Development, currently serves as the committee chair.

“Although not a new committee, we are re-energized by the college’s emphatic commitment to ensuring the diverse and inclusive educational environment that is so fundamental to Cornell’s founding principles,” Evanega said. “We want to move beyond the talk and work toward actionable change that will help us realize the just vision of ‘any person, any study.’”

While Specht and the CALS Diversity and Inclusion Committee remain focused on currently identified priorities, new areas and opportunities keep them excited about the direction and culture of the college.

“In CALS,” said Specht, “so many students, staff and faculty are ready to improve, facilitate or execute their ideas on inclusivity and to increase belonging across a more expansive version of Cornell. It’s so inspiring.”

This article was originally published in the CALS Magazine.

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