Insights and Research on Graduate Education
Volume 8, Number 2April 2019
What Works: Reflections on Creating a Diverse and Inclusive Community at UNC-Chapel Hill
 

Steven W. Matson, Dean of The Graduate School and Professor of Biology, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Receiving the Debra W. Stewart Award for Outstanding Leadership has been an incredible honor and has caused me to reflect on my professional journey and the successes at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that have meant the most to me. One such success is the progress we are making in increasing diversity on campus and within several of our graduate programs. This progress has immediate benefits for our students and our graduate school community, as well as a lasting impact within the disciplinary fields in which our students will work, eventually affecting society as a whole.

Working toward a diverse and inclusive graduate community has taken many years and the commitment of many individuals. And our work at The Graduate School at UNC-Chapel Hill is by no means finished. This is a continuous effort that will require our commitment, creativity and support as long as there are systemic disparities in our society to overcome. While we haven’t yet reached our ultimate goal, we are very fortunate in having a campus community that believes strongly in diversity, and we are beginning to achieve some notable successes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I’d like to share with you some strategies that have worked for us.

Addressing the whole student journey
In my experience at UNC-Chapel Hill, and in my conversations with other graduate deans, I’ve observed that programs that address the entire student life cycle seem to be more successful over time than those that address only one point in the student journey. For example, we have all witnessed well-intentioned efforts to increase the recruitment of a diverse population only to see some of those same students leave the program without a degree.

There are many barriers to increasing diversity, including individual biases, entrenched institutional practices and campus culture. Efforts to increase diversity will be well served by starting with an analysis of the many facets of the student journey, academic and otherwise. Achieving your ultimate goal is likely to require making changes to recruitment strategies, admissions processes and retention programs, as well as working toward a more inclusive culture overall.

The graduate school at most institutions is uniquely positioned to influence admissions processes and retention programming and to create community. At UNC-Chapel Hill we are engaged in all three efforts. We sponsor workshops on holistic admissions practices that are intended to make the graduate community aware of best practices in graduate admissions. In addition, we established our Diversity and Student Success Program to enhance retention, create community and promote inclusion. In a typical semester, the DSS program will host dozens of events with several hundred students participating. I know from talking with students that this is making a difference.

Experimenting with Admissions Processes
A number of graduate programs at UNC-Chapel Hill are experimenting with changing their admissions processes, often with the goal of increasing student diversity. Many of them are having success while others are still working to overcome some of the barriers.

Personally, I’m in favor of implementing a holistic admissions process, in which every piece of information an applicant submits is evaluated to reach an informed conclusion about his or her potential to be successful in the program. No single piece of information in an admission packet can be directly correlated with successful completion of the degree. Undergraduate GPA, the transcript and GRE scores all provide valuable information about an applicant’s cognitive and critical thinking skills as well as previous coursework and program rigor. In fact, the Analytical Writing score from the GRE exam has been found to be the best or second best predictor of GPA. Many of us fail to consider the writing sample in our analysis of the application materials – a deficiency that should be addressed.

But an applicant brings more to a program than just what these metrics might indicate. That is why we look to personal statements, resumes and letters of recommendation for more context about the student’s experiences, passions and challenges. While most programs do consider all of these components for at least a portion of its applicants, a truly holistic admissions process will consider how faculty committees will review all submitted materials for all applicants. In addition, it will determine at what point in the process it will consider each piece and how it will utilize each piece of information in arriving at an admission decision.

For example, at UNC-CH, the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program faculty responsible for admissions examines each piece of the 1400+ applications it receives annually.  The admissions team works very hard to avoid bias in the admissions process by understanding both the value and potential pitfalls associated with each piece of the application packet including GRE General Test scores. One way they do this is by not using “cut scores” to reduce the size of the applicant pool being considered. The program also removes GPA and GRE test score information from the packet it provides to faculty who interview students for admission. This changes the interview conversation and reduces preconceived notions based on GPA, test scores and transcripts. Coupled with other initiatives, this program has increased underrepresented minority enrollment from 10 percent to more than 25 percent of its student population over the last decade, and we continue to see an upward trajectory for the future.

Resources for learning how to implement a holistic admissions practice are becoming more readily available. Local resources may be available to you at no cost. At UNC-CH, we ask programs already engaged in holistic admissions, and seeing good results, to serve as facilitators for workshops where other programs can learn. Beyond your local resources, HolisticAdmissions.org, a web site maintained and curated by ETS, has free and useful information on ways to diversify the student population, how to think about the admissions process and how to make changes. It also has promising practices from institutions that are having success, and you can scan these practices for ideas that might fit the culture and circumstances on your campus.

Retention and Inclusiveness
As mentioned above, efforts to increase student diversity do not stop at admissions or enrollment; we must support our students throughout their entire journey. The Biological and Biomedical Sciences program I mentioned above has done just that by focusing on building community and providing extensive professional development resources. And the results are paying off.: The degree completion rate they have achieved for underrepresented minority students is in excess of 85 percent — the same as for students who represent the majority.

As I mentioned, at UNC-CH all programs are supported by a campus climate that values diversity. We are very fortunate that the commitment starts at the top. All of our higher administration officials are absolutely committed to diversity at all levels, including both graduate and undergraduate students as well as the faculty and staff. The Graduate Schools’ DSS program, referenced above, has the goal of improving student retention and having a positive impact on students through degree completion. Now in its fifth year, DSS provides programming to support first-generation, international, underrepresented minority, military-affiliated and LGBTQIA graduate students, and aims to address the needs of the whole student.

A challenge we faced at the start was getting student buy-in — getting the students to come and participate. To address this issue, our co-directors created an advisory board of students for each initiative. The students tell us what they need to succeed. We now have a program with hundreds of students participating in activities every year.

The professional development opportunities and the community building we provide help promote the inclusive community we are working to build on campus. We strive for a community in which all our students have a sense of belonging with their peers. One of the students in DSS recently said, “It’s easy to just keep your head down and power through a two-year master’s program. But DSS brought me a new sense of community. It helped me slow down and helped me not only in my professional but also personal development.” I think that says a lot about the value of this program to the students.

Creating an Inclusive Community
We work to create an inclusive community at UNC-CH through our partnerships across campus. Our DSS co-directors have years of experience in community building. Their work is intentional and focused on inclusion and diversity. They share their experience with individual departments and schools to support their recruitment and orientation events. They also consult with individual faculty, associate deans and graduate students on how to create an inclusive community within their areas.

Through our partnerships with departments and offices across campus like University Career Services, Office of the Dean of Students, Counseling and Psychological Services, Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, and Student Wellness, we have worked to ensure that they are providing workshops, events and student services to reach out more intentionally to our diverse graduate students.  When people say that they are not sure how to incorporate diversity into their work, our DSS co-directors are able to share their expertise on how they can be more intentional in their inclusivity.

The last point I have to offer is this: You don’t need to do this all at once. It doesn’t have to happen overnight. Take one step at a time. The important thing is to start and make a commitment to continuing your efforts to promote a diverse and inclusive environment. It is essential that we work toward increasing the diversity of the graduate population as a critical step in increasing the diversity of our workforce.

Dr. Steven W. Matson is dean of The Graduate School and professor of biology at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has served on the Board of Directors of the Council of Graduate Schools and is former chair of the GRE Board.