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October 12, 2021

New report chronicles first year of ASU's LIFT Initiative and efforts to address inequities, injustices and bias

In follow-up to ASU’s commitment to enhance and support the lived, teaching and learning experiences of Black students, faculty and staff, the Advisory Council on African American Affairs at Arizona State University has released The LIFT Report: Status of Black and African Americans at Arizona State University for 2021.

The report is the first in a planned series of annual reports that will document the process and progress of 25 calls to action announced by ASU President Michael Crow in fall 2020 to address embedded injustices and structural problems within our institutions and society at large.

“This is a design transformation process for ASU,” Crow said of the LIFT Initiative at the unveiling of the report during the African and African American Faculty and Staff Association (AAAFSA) meeting on Sept. 24. “Our design is not modern enough. We have an opportunity to accelerate our institution’s evolution and then subsequently impact the broader evolution of society’s aspirations of social equity and social justice. LIFT is launched, and we are holding ourselves accountable.”

A first-year overview of the implementation of the 25 launch points, the 2021 LIFT Report outlines the progress and developments being made in the effort to find solutions to issues of bias, discrimination and underrepresentation at ASU.

LIFT Initiative - Feedback Loop

The LIFT Report – FIRST Feedback Loop

The work of identifying some of these issues is underway through the LIFT-inspired Faculty Inclusion Research for System Transformation (FIRST), led by Victoria Sahani, associate dean of special projects and professor in ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

At the AAAFSA meeting, Sahani said FIRST was developing data sets to review and track initiatives and policies related to the experience of inclusion and belonging among faculty who identify as Black, Indigenous or persons of color, and other identity-disadvantaged faculty at ASU. The goal, she said, was to create a research system for the transformation of the faculty experience at ASU that includes a virtuous cycle, or feedback loop. 

Sahani said the in-development data set augmented by additional data in the future will help determine the effectiveness of current policies and practices and allow for adaptation to improve the experiences of faculty at ASU. 

Postdoctoral fellows and graduate assistants

Other launch points underway for LIFT (an acronym for Listen, Invest, Facilitate and Teach) include the initiative’s "Teach" commitments to establish a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship program and Presidential Graduate Assistant program.

Both programs are currently in motion. They are designed to diversify the faculty of the university and better prepare Black students to navigate graduate school and obtain research and teaching assistantships.

The postdoctoral fellowship program is funding a minimum of 30 positions over a period of two years, and the graduate assistant program will establish 50 assistantships over the next two to three years. The first cohorts of both programs were recently recognized in a welcome reception hosted by the Graduate College on Sept. 22.

Speaking on the progress of the initiatives at the unveiling of the LIFT report, Nancy Gonzales, executive vice president and university provost, cited the presidential postdoctoral program and the LIFT "Invest" commitment to prioritize the practice of cluster hiring as demonstrative of work being done to recruit and retain leading faculty members from underrepresented groups. To accelerate the effort, Gonzales said ASU is also building relationships with several historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions to develop partnership and pipeline opportunities toward graduate degrees.

“We have been actively engaged with several presidents of HBCUs and developed some unique educational programs and partnerships with HBCUs,” Gonzales said. “That’s something we want to be able to grow — to better learn from them, partner with them, develop pipelines with them.”

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To Be Welcoming

Another key initiative highlighted in the 2021 LIFT report is the adaptation of the ASU-Starbucks “To Be Welcoming” training. The original 15-course online diversity, equity and inclusion module was created in response to a racially charged incident in Pennsylvania in 2018. It has since been expanded and modernized by a dedicated group of ASU faculty, staff and graduate student fellows led by Bryan Brayboy, President’s Professor in the School of Social Transformation, Mako Fitts Ward, assistant professor of African American studies and Jessica Solyom, postdoctoral research fellow in the Center for Indian Education.

The group aligned to adapt the original “To Be Welcoming” training into three 90-minute sessions in support of  LIFT’s “Teach” commitment to help the ASU community understand the value of inclusivity in academic success. Three versions of the “To Be Welcoming” training will be presented to all incoming graduate students, staff and faculty. A version for undergraduate students is also in the planning stages for fall 2022. 

Multicultural Communities of Excellence

The LIFT report also highlights the progress made in developing ASU’s Multicultural Communities of Excellence. The convening spaces, long championed by members of ASU’s diverse student population, are now open across ASU’s four campuses.

They were developed in alignment with LIFT’s commitment to invest in inclusive and empowering spaces for students of color and allies of these communities. Multicultural Communities of Excellence also provide a sense of place and support for students of color to address histories of exclusion, according to the report.

Cassandra Aska, deputy vice president and dean of students at ASU’s Tempe campus, told attendees at the Sept. 24 AAAFSA meeting that programming around dialogue and study were in development for the multicultural spaces. Dialogue and programming around justice, equity and inclusion are also in focus in ASU’s Office of Inclusive Excellence (formerly the Office of Inclusion and Community Engagement) in the Office of the University Provost.

In alignment with the LIFT Initiative’s commitment to facilitate the universitywide effort for inclusion and awareness, Tiffany Lopez, vice provost for the Office of Inclusive Excellence, said a council of dean designees embedded in ASU’s various schools and colleges were working with faculty to advance the work of the initiative through faculty and staff hiring, curriculum evolution, and recruitment of graduate students. 

Evolving toward transformation

The efforts now to evolve curriculum is building on work and programming started by faculty and students in various schools and colleges across ASU, well before LIFT's launch in the fall of 2020. Earlier that year, with the help of ASU English Professor Natalie Diaz, graduate students in ASU's English Department took a big step in effort to build a more equitable and accessible department by inviting guest speakers to lead discussions around race, social and gender justice.

Realizing the potential of such discussions, Joshua Horton, English literature graduate student and co-president of the Graduate Scholars of English Association (GSEA), said he and others put plans in motion to incorporate what they learned from the discussions into the training pedagogy of graduate teaching assistants.

“The English department reaches more students than probably any other department in the university because we teach first-year writing, and everybody has to take that class. That also means (English graduate teaching associates and assistants) are one of the first experiences students have of the university,” Horton said. “It’s important that we have an understanding that different students have different needs. A lot of our students didn’t just go to school before they got to ASU, they survived it. Because there's not just one school system in this country, and not everybody has the same opportunities.”

Just getting started ...

The LIFT Report also chronicles the launch and implementation of several previously announced commitments such as the multi-college initiative The Difference Engine to help elevate equality across the United States, and the expansion and implementation of Staff Personnel Policy 601. The policy increases the number of hours of annually approved release time from 16 to 24 to allow all ASU personnel more time to participate in educational and professional growth opportunities and university mentor or mentee programs.

With work still ongoing, Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, vice president of cultural affairs, and Jeffrey Wilson, associate dean and professor in the W. P. Carey School of Business, have both committed to continuing their leadership roles as co-chairs of the Advisory Council on African American Affairs to see the LIFT Initiative through.

“It’s been exciting working with the council over the past year to bring these 25 actions to life,” Jennings-Roggensack said. “What’s also exciting is the president’s commitment to the LIFT Initiative. We are looking forward to seeing the expansion of LIFT and other initiatives that ASU will be doing to support Black and African American faculty, staff and students.” 

To read the 2021 LIFT Report and learn more about the LIFT Initiative, visit president.asu.edu/commitment.

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A deep dive through time to study changing ecosystems

October 12, 2021

ASU to store samples from ongoing 30-year collection observing long-term effects on range of organisms

In 1999, ecologist J. Michael Fay spent 465 days hiking 2,000 miles across the Congo Basin of Africa while surveying the ecological and environmental status of the region. His feat became known as the MegaTransect.

In ecology, a transect is a survey of the flora and fauna of a particular area. It’s like putting a place in a test tube.

A three-decade transect through time is being funded by the federal government, and Arizona State University is playing a part.

In Tempe’s industrial area south of Broadway Road sits the ASU Natural History Collection, a huge facility of labs, storerooms, and nine collections of plants, mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, insects and other types of flora and fauna.

But slowly swelling its ranks is a special collection. Instead of most biological samples, where the intent is to learn more about the individual organism, this is a transect through time; a three-decade attempt to better understand how U.S. ecosystems are changing.

It’s called the NEON Biorepository.

The National Science Foundation's National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, is a research project with 81 locations across the U.S., including Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Alaska. The facilities collect long-term, open-access ecological data to observe changes to U.S. ecosystems.

The point is to observe long-term changes to ecosystems, like the abundance and locality of a species. Studying multiple samples simultaneously demonstrates the environmental changes' effects on different kinds of organisms. By studying 70 types of samples, researchers hope to unravel the complexity of the ecological responses to environmental change.

The 81 field sites across the country are divided among 20 ecoclimatic domains that represent regions of distinct landforms, vegetation, climate and ecosystem dynamics. For instance, Arizona is divided into two areas that could not be more different: the Sonoran Desert in the south and the Colorado Plateau up north.

There are two collection spots in Arizona — one terrestrial and one aquatic: Sycamore Creek northeast of the Valley, a popular camping and swimming spot for decades, and the Santa Rita Experimental Range and Wildlife Area south of Tucson.

The NEON Biorepository at ASU is the primary host of the samples from across the country. Project manager Kelsey Yule shared some numbers: 70 types of samples collected, with more than 100,000 samples coming in the door each year. By the end of the project, 3 million samples will be housed here.

Eight full-time NEON staffers process the samples and store them as they come in.

The collection started receiving samples in late 2018. Most of the samples are pretty small — no one is bringing in a mule deer every year. 

“Not a lot of vertebrates get collected,” Yule said.

There are samples of soil, blood, feces and DNA. Many of them go into four liquid nitrogen freezers and 19 mechanical freezers. It’s minus 196 degrees Celsius (minus 321 degrees Fahrenheit) in the nitrogen freezers and minus 80 C (minus 112 F) in the mechanical ones. By comparison, your home freezer is minus 18 C (about zero F). For context, the coldest temperature ever recorded at ground level was minus 89 C (minus 128 F) in July 1983 by researchers at Russia's Vostok Station on the East Antarctic Plateau.

Researchers are already using the material at NEON Biorepository. There are 22 projects ongoing, with samples out on loan. The topics are varied, from using machine learning to study changes in ground-dwelling invertebrate communities across the continent, to understanding nutrient composition and microorganism communities in airborne dust — projects at other universities that the ASU team is helping to facilitate.

"Every specimen or sample that we get from NEON has an online record that anyone can look at what all of the specimens we have here are," Yule said. "They're doing this project in order to allow researchers this really big standardized set of data over the next 30 years, so they can look at how they're changing over space and organisms and in Arizona."

To learn more, visit neonscience.org.

Top photo: NEON cryo collections manager Azhar Husain shows soil samples being kept in the NEON Biorepository at ASU's Alameda Natural History Center in Tempe, Arizona, on Sept. 13. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU News

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

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