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AAAS award marks ASU advances in STEM diversity, equity and inclusion

Scientist working in a lab

SEA Change recently gave ASU a bronze-level award for its efforts in STEM equity and inclusion. ASU was one of only five universities given this distinction, the highest level of recognition ever awarded. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News

February 25, 2021

It’s no secret that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields need more diversity and would greatly benefit from the new perspectives and ideas that come with it. Now increasing diversity has moved from a topic of discussion to one of action.

Arizona State University is leading the way, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science has taken notice through its SEA Change initiative, an effort focused on STEM equity and inclusion for underrepresented students, faculty and staff.  

SEA Change recently gave ASU a bronze-level award for its efforts in STEM equity and inclusion. ASU was one of only five universities given this distinction, the highest level of recognition ever awarded. 

While much remains to be done and the focus needs to remain in perpetuity, ASU has made significant progress in STEM equity and inclusion. SEA (for STEM Equity Achievement) Change is a comprehensive initiative from the AAAS that implements a proven self-assessment process to effect sustainable change with regard to diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM at U.S. institutions of higher education. 

ASU’s action plan already is delivering. In the past six months alone, ASU has announced a series of high-level hires to its executive leadership, bringing in Sally C. Morton as the first woman to head the Knowledge Enterprise, ASU’s $640 million research organization, and appointing Nancy Gonzales as provost pro tempore and executive vice president to lead ASU’s Academic Enterprise. 

The College at ASU recently announced three new hires in its natural science departments and schools, naming Donatella Danielli the director of the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, Patricia Rankin as chair of the Department of Physics, and Tijana Rajh as director of the School of Molecular Sciences.  

“Our world faces multiple challenges, many of which need new advances in science and technology to help solve,” said Gonzales, who will become ASU’s executive vice president and university provost on July 1. “What helps most in tackling these grand challenges are new perspectives that will only be possible if women and underrepresented groups are included in STEM.

“This is what makes breaking down barriers and being more inclusive so important. It is about equity and inclusion and belongingness, but it’s also about achievement and moving forward as a society.”

The SEA Change award recognizes institutions for their past efforts and proposed commitments to create diverse, inclusive and equitable campus environments where students, faculty and staff thrive. For ASU, the award review process drew upon the expertise of a large and diverse faculty committee and included an institutional self-assessment and resulting five-year action plan (2021–26) to address barriers and challenges to advance equity, diversity and inclusion at ASU.  

The award requires institutions to conduct a data-based self-assessment to appraise their institutional makeup, policies and culture to identify knowledge gaps and barriers. Each institution then develops detailed plans to become more diverse, more equitable and more inclusive in its educational functions and in its operations.  

“As a leading university, we have to look into the future to see what society will need and it needs the new thinking that women and people who come from many diverse segments of our culture can bring to STEM fields,” ASU President Michael Crow said. “Earning a SEA Change bronze award shows ASU is on the right course to make this happen and that we don’t just say it, we act upon it and open access and continue to remove barriers to science and technology education.” 

The SEA Change awards require participating institutions to improve. Institutions must reapply at least every five years to maintain their award level or earn a higher award level. Gold and silver awards also are attainable depending on how far the institution has advanced and how far the culture change has emanated throughout the organization.

ASU was cited for an action plan that prioritizes institutional transformation to actualize the ASU Charter. Specific actions include:

  • Fostering and reinforcing a culture of valuing the synergies between access, excellence, diversity, equity, inclusion and belongingness. 
  • Dismantling cultural and structural barriers that hinder more inclusive models of excellence. 
  • Aligning and reinforcing the ASU Charter in the hiring, promotion, evaluation, retention and university culture in adopting both structural changes at the university, college and department level and individual faculty initiatives, like mentoring.
  • Integrating networked responses to institutional changes and linking structures and initiatives with organizations and faculty groups to achieve widespread university collaboration, dissemination and adoption of innovations and initiatives to align the ASU Charter and culture with diversity, equity, inclusion and belongingness values. 

ASU’s 28-page action plan includes specific actions for various campus groups to advance equity, inclusion, diversity and belonging at ASU.

The wider representation in the STEM fields will benefit all those who come into contact with ASU.  

“The key to inclusion and diversity is a supportive culture that values people for their contributions and their actions,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, who recently was appointed vice president of the Interplanetary Initiative, which is building the future of humans in space to create a bolder and better society. “All the hiring metrics in the world won't work without a good culture; without the culture people who feel more like outliers will lack the support to persist and become leaders. Here at ASU, I'm proud to say, we are working on that culture. We want every voice to be heard.”  

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