In the wake of the murder of George Floyd that put all eyes on the gravity of racial injustice in this country, students and faculty in the department began organizing. At the University of Michigan, Department Chair of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences Todd Allen issued a challenge on social media for other nuclear engineering departments to step up with their own commitments.
At UT, students and faculty rose to that challenge to not only create a pledge for the department’s external-facing image through its website but to identify clear, concrete actions they were willing and able to take to make the department more inclusive.
What started as a listening session where everyone was invited to come and share their experiences evolved into a new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Action Committee. Members felt it would be important to include people from all over the department so that there would be a mix of faculty, staff, and students working on these issues.
“It’s definitely a big task to change culture even in a relatively small department, but we’re making good strides,” said Associate Professor and Southern Company Faculty Fellow Jamie Coble, who is also the assistant department head for undergraduate studies and service.
The organizational structure of the committee is intentionally nonhierarchical, with two co-chairs: graduate student Alyssa Hayes and Research Assistant Professor Deborah Penchoff. Out of that listening session, they also came up with two subcommittees that would help accomplish short- and long-term goals. One subcommittee handles recruitment and retention, chaired by graduate student Robby Kile, while the other focuses on training, awareness, and metrics, chaired by graduate student Yogendra Panchal.
More than one year later, the committee members say they have made progress and are working on an updated pledge, making the DEI activities more visible across the department, hosting outreach events at area schools to establish a recruitment pipeline, and hosting social gatherings for students across the department to get to know each other outside of their classes and research groups. Additionally, the group requested that the department host two town hall meetings per year instead of one.
“We’re trying to make the committee more accessible to those who want to be involved,” said Penchoff. “We’ve created a website, newsletter, and Google document where people can see what trainings and events are happening.”