This is the fifth in a series of stories detailing actions CALS students, faculty and staff have taken over the past several years to make our community a more diverse, equitable and inclusive place for everyone. In fall 2021, CALS announced its first-ever faculty cohort initiative focused on hiring a group of scientists whose work explicitly addresses systemic challenges facing marginalized communities through transdisciplinary collaboration. The first search was received with great enthusiasm and 381 people applied for the six positions.
Michael Charles ’16 didn’t intend to continue in academia. While completing his Ph.D. in chemical and biological engineering at another institution, he had become increasingly frustrated with the traditional expectations and processes of academic life: the disciplinary pigeon-holing; the prioritization of academic publications over applied engagement with underserved communities; the requirement to bring grant money into universities when he wanted to base projects within those communities; and the thinning numbers of fellow indigenous scholars.
What changed his mind was being invited to apply to a faculty cohort initiative focused on hiring a group of scientists whose work explicitly addresses systemic challenges facing marginalized communities through transdisciplinary collaboration. The cohort is the first-ever such initiative for Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).
“I couldn’t imagine how to carve out what I really wanted to do within academia, but when this cohort popped up, it was exactly what I wanted to do,” said Charles, who is one of six new faculty members CALS has hired as part of the cohort. “It’s focused on bridging communities of all kinds – between disciplines, between academics and communities, between people.”
Being part of a cohort of scholars who can support each other is critically important, especially when addressing such painful and difficult problems as systemic oppression while also coming from an underrepresented background yourself, said Shaila Musharoff, a member of the new CALS cohort and Cornell’s NIH FIRST cohort.
“For me, a collaboration can be very specific, like co-authoring a paper, but it can also be ideological: Some of my most important colleagues, thought-partners, are not in my field,” Musharoff said. “To have someone hold this contextualized thread and critique appropriately from another discipline gives a richness, a variety of perspectives that helps me to think about my work in a broader context.”
Leading with values
Announced in fall 2021, the cohort initiative was led by Chelsea Specht, the Barbara McClintock Professor of Plant Biology and CALS’ associate dean for diversity and inclusion. The search committee, composed of 10 faculty members from across CALS, spent considerable time developing a recruitment ad that would reflect the values they were seeking, “to appeal to the hearts and minds of the people we wanted to apply,” Specht said. It worked: 381 people applied for the six positions.
Normally, departments hire individual faculty members based on a particular disciplinary research expertise. For the cohort, the search began at the college level, and focused on how applicants would prioritize community engagement and meet the college’s core values of diversity, equity and inclusion. After the committee’s review, applications were sent to departments for their discipline-specific review, allowing for departments to select candidates, or not, based on their own teaching, research and extension goals and vision.
“Our searches tend to lead with the disciplines, but here we wanted to lead with the values,” Specht said. “We wanted people who were addressing challenges to equity and inclusion at a grand and global scale, but we also wanted people who could support our land-grant mission in New York, and of course we were seeking scholarly and academic excellence defined with a lens centered on equity and inclusion.”
Esther Angert, CALS senior associate dean and professor of microbiology, is part of a team that oversees the college’s efforts around faculty hiring and retention. “At times, some of us were overwhelmed by trying to integrate such a different hiring model within the existing constraints of the university and departments, Angert said, but ultimately, the cohort model has been a stunning success.
“In my professional career, the times when I’ve seen massive growth are when I’m really jumping off a cliff and doing something untried. This was the right thing to do, and it paid off in bringing some amazing scholars to CALS,” Angert said. “I can’t think of a more tangible expression of CALS’ commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion than hiring faculty and investing in faculty whose work specifically addresses these challenges, and making sure they can reach their full potential and contribute to the Cornell community.”
The new faculty cohort
Other college cohort hires at Cornell
Explore the DEI storytelling series
CALS students build new, inclusive paths
In this piece, we highlight the student-led efforts to make CALS a more diverse, equitable and inclusive place for all. Often through sheer labors of love, their efforts emphasize inclusive excellence and are motivated by a desire to make the path more equitable for those who will follow.
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