In this extraordinary moment, the call for social justice and collective responsibility is more urgent than ever. It is fitting that DePaul has made a stronger commitment to its inclusive mission by creating the position of associate provost of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and hiring Cynthia Pickett to fill it.
Pickett comes to DePaul from the University of California at Davis, where she served as the associate provost for faculty equity and inclusion. In that role, she helped launch pilot efforts to retool the faculty hiring process to recruit and retain faculty who could help fulfill the university’s mission of serving a diverse student body. Pickett, a mother of two, served as the only female and only person of color on the Davis Joint Unified School District Board of Education.
Pickett began her career as a psychology professor studying and teaching topics such as social identity, intergroup relations, and inclusion and belonging. She quickly learned that she wanted to devote her career to supporting underrepresented groups in the university setting. DePaul Magazine spoke with her about what she hopes to accomplish in her new role.
What attracted you to DePaul?
DePaul is a good fit in terms of my experience working with faculty, doing faculty trainings, working in the hiring process and toward faculty retention. I am interested in how I can make a difference and put forward some new ideas. It seemed that DePaul was ready for that and looking for that.
What challenges do you think universities have in terms of meeting their diversity, equity and inclusion goals?
Academia is very conservative in the sense that it’s slow to change. But when I talk to faculty, there’s this very clear sense that they value diversity, equity and inclusion. The challenge is translating those values into action and getting administrators, faculty and students to really think about how institutional practices may give rise to inequities and foster some of the outcomes that we don’t find desirable.
One of my goals is to increase the capacity of all faculty to be able to address issues of race, ethnicity and marginalization and get past feeling uncomfortable about it.
We have to have the really hard conversations about what it is going to take to change, and that’s where a lot of the discomfort lies. For example, for tenure there are certain things that are valued more than others, and that can lead to disparate outcomes, especially when underrepresented faculty tend to publish in different areas or their teaching tends to be on certain topics.
What can we do to achieve more equitable hiring?
When you’re hiring for any position, academic or not, you discuss who is qualified and what defines the best candidate. Traditionally, “best” tends to be people who come from certain institutions of higher learning. They tend to publish in more mainstream outlets or teach more mainstream topics. So part of equitable hiring is rethinking what we think of as the best and most qualified.
Given the demographics of DePaul’s student body, we also need to think about to what extent the faculty is really representative of our students. It also means we need faculty who are able to understand the student experience and alter their teaching or interactions to really be inclusive.
So in the hiring process, having potential faculty who can say, “Here are some concrete things I’ve done to address these issues,” is important. But the most important thing is the university saying, “That’s valued.”
Recent research shows that one-shot implicit bias workshops aren’t having much of an effect. What we’re learning is that it can’t be something that happens once a year or every other year. It really has to be an ongoing conversation that’s woven into the fabric of how the university operates.
A Black student often will feel more comfortable talking to a Black professor. But one of my goals is to increase the capacity of all faculty to be able to address issues of race, ethnicity and marginalization and get past feeling uncomfortable about it.
Many workplaces are conducting implicit bias training to address this issue. Does that really have an impact?
Unfortunately, recent research shows that one-shot implicit bias workshops aren’t having much of an effect. What we’re learning is that it can’t be something that happens once a year or every other year. It really has to be an ongoing conversation that’s woven into the fabric of how the university operates.
In choosing textbooks, faculty should be thinking, “What topics are represented? Is the reading list made up of traditional white scholars or does it actually include more viewpoints?” Beyond being aware of one’s potential biases, there have to be concrete steps that people do every day until it becomes a habit.
Is there anything you can do in your position to address student DEI issues, or some way to bring faculty and students together in this process?
For the students of color, it’s sometimes like they’re living in two different worlds. During the George Floyd killing and protests, African American students were probably glued to the news and feeling all sorts of things. It’s hard to be in that space and then realize that people around you don’t share that reality. It’s very isolating.
Students need opportunities to connect with other like-minded students who are going through that same experience. At the same time, I would hope that everyone would see this as very important. That’s part of the challenge. How do you have those conversations and get people to that point? I’ve seen it happen, so I know that it can happen.
Sometimes it’s having student leaders think as part of their regular thought process, “Hey, this is an issue. How are students of color feeling about this?”
Do you see your role as a way to maintain Vincentianism on campus?
DePaul’s mission was one of the things that I found very attractive, as was its history of serving students who weren’t able to go to other institutions. I think that makes it a nice marriage when you think about how social justice plays into the racial inequities that we see. DEI isn’t the icing on the cake. It is the cake.
I was talking to one of the departments about their diversity statement and DEI committee, which operates when issues come up. But the department really wasn’t centering DEI efforts as something that all faculty are responsible for.
My advice was that there should be all-faculty meetings that focus on finding ways to put their diversity statement into practice immediately, not a year from now.
I think it’s a very valid perspective. It’s hard to trust. It’s hard to believe that something’s going to be different this time. But then the question is, “What’s the option?” We can’t let this moment go. I just have to keep working for a better future for my children and for our students.
Taking an Active Stance Against Racism
In the days following the death of George Floyd, DePaul’s senior leadership, inspired by St. Vincent de Paul, issued a Message of Solidarity, publicly committing to upholding the dignity of all people by addressing inequities on our campus with action, including the following:
- Asking each college to enhance curricula to build understanding and empathy for people affected by racism
- Creating a scholarship program with expanded resource opportunities that remembers all Black lives taken by acts of racial violence
- Providing antiracism training for our community
- Auditing our own processes and procedures for practices of exclusion and institutional racism
We will do this in love, and with our Vincentian values to guide us, respecting the God-given dignity of every person.