Dear UTNE community,
You have no doubt seen countless statements condemning the killing of George Floyd and others. We join the multitude of voices expressing shock and outrage at the realities faced by the Black community every day. The time for making statements has passed; now is the time for thoughtful and meaningful action. It is in the pursuit of transparent and measurable progress that we outline our first set of actions to address the effects of implicit and explicit biases in our department. The faculty and staff of the University of Tennessee Nuclear Engineering Department pledge to:
Establish a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Action Committee. The focus of this committee of faculty, staff, and students will be to improve the diversity efforts of our department related to student recruitment and retention, hiring, and research activities, always recognizing that there is strength in diversity. We value and appreciate the labor that is involved in DEI committees, and we are investigating what departmental financial resources are necessary to guarantee impact.
Make NE graduate students aware of and introduce them to the university ombudsperson (Professor Lisa Yamagata-Lynch). We feel it is important for our graduate students to have an independent and impartial person to talk to in confidence about issues they encounter, including incidents of racism and bias. Many graduate students may not be aware of this existing university resources as an informal channel of conflict resolution that allows graduate students, faculty, and staff to obtain access to impartial and honest resolution of problems that may not be well addressed elsewhere. We will invite the ombudsperson to speak to our department once a year to ensure everyone is aware of their services.
Integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into our culture and curriculum. DEI is not an explicit element of the university curriculum but we feel it is an important component of the college experience. Therefore, we will investigate ways to integrate DEI into the undergraduate curriculum and student society meetings. Related to that, we are also looking at requiring periodic training on unconscious and conscious bias for graduate students, faculty, and staff to promote awareness and resolution of cognizant or unwitting prejudicial behavior.
Increase the diversity of invited seminar speakers. We are committed to bringing in seminar speakers who represent the diversity of researchers and practitioners as well as of specialty areas in nuclear engineering. We recognize early career and diverse candidates are less likely to be invited and to accept those invitations. We are committed to working with our development office and department business manager to develop a pool of funds to provide travel support for early career and underrepresented speakers. We welcome speaker nominations from all stakeholders, including graduate and undergraduate students, alumni, and friends of the department.
Include additional graduate student representation into faculty searches. We do not know when our next faculty search will be in light of the COVID-19 impacts on searches and hiring; but, in preparation, we are working with the Nuclear Engineering Graduate Student Assembly (NEGSA) to develop a process to integrate additional graduate student representation into our next faculty search. Based on this experience, we will codify successful practices into our department bylaws to ensure graduate students continue to provide input in all future faculty searches.
Create additional opportunities for open feedback from our students. We are committed to listening to feedback and understanding the experiences of all of our students, which requires open communication through a variety of channels in addition to the university ombudsperson. We will host department town hall meetings at the conclusion of the fall and the spring semesters. In addition to the annual senior exit interviews, we will offer a yearly opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to participate in an interview with the assistant and associate department heads of their respective cohort to provide observations and experience on issues of curriculum, department culture, facilities, and other issues through a formal department feedback process. We are also investigating avenues for anonymous reporting directly to the department, and we encourage all of our students, faculty, and staff to use the university ombudsperson, the Dean of Students office, and bias incident reporting system (bias.utk.edu) as appropriate.
Implement recruitment and retention initiatives for undergraduate and graduate students. We will work with the Office of Engineering Diversity Programs more closely to support their ongoing undergraduate recruitment initiatives across the state and nation. We are developing plans to actively recruit area high school students for paid summer research opportunities in our labs, which will be in place for an initial cohort of researchers in Summer 2021. We are also identifying opportunities to work with colleagues at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) to bring more students for summer and semester-long paid undergraduate research opportunities.
We are also investigating additional actions, including:
Potentially canceling classes on any election day: We feel it is especially important for students, faculty, and staff to be able to voice their opinions and vote for the candidates and policies that hold their ideals.
Evaluation of the use of the GRE in NE department admissions. There is much research that shows the GRE is a biased exam that unfairly disadvantages many extremely capable graduate researchers and does not correlate well with success in graduate school. We do not wish to perpetuate bias by continuing to emphasize GRE scores in evaluation of graduate candidates, and we will work with the college and the graduate school to potentially eliminate it as a requirement for admission. We understand GRE scores are used for several national rankings and will work with those entities to encourage a change in their practice.
We recognize these actions alone are insufficient, and we are committed to continuously and critically evaluating the policies and practices in the department, university, and nuclear industry that consciously or unconsciously disadvantage members of our communities. We are committed to doing better and being better, and we welcome your voices to guide our plans. We encourage all to continue educating themselves on the realities faced by the Black community and underrepresented groups and the ways we can all be active and affect change. The University of Tennessee, the Tickle College of Engineering, and the American Nuclear Society have curated resources on allyship and anti-racism that can provide a starting point for your own research.
With our Volunteer Spirit, we are determined to take action. And as we take these actions and identify next steps, we will communicate our progress and challenges back to you.