Q&A with Presidential Diversity Postdoctoral Fellowships co-chairs Fernando Guzmán and Daryl Santos

BingUNews recently sat down with the co-chairs of the Presidential Diversity Postdoctoral Fellowships initiative, which is one of the four Road Map Renewal University Initiatives. Here’s an update of the initiative’s status:

Presidential Diversity Postdoctoral Fellowships

This fellowship program will provide a mechanism to increase the diversity of our faculty by supporting postdoctoral fellowships in academic departments and programs where diversity is needed and that can successfully recruit diversity faculty candidates.

Co-chairs: Fernando Guzmán, professor of mathematical sciences, and Daryl Santos, vice provost for diversity and inclusiveness and professor of systems science and industrial engineering

Project manager: Joe Schultz, director of human resources

How did this initiative come about?

Fernando Guzmán: The idea came from the Harpur College Diversity Committee from two years earlier. From that large committee, one of the recommendations was creation of these postdocs and I brought the idea to the Road Map Renewal group and Susan Strehle and I put the proposal together. As we were doing that, Daryl (Santos) was also presenting a proposal to Albany for SUNY Performance Improvement Fund (PIF) monies, so we coordinated his proposal with mine. When the PIF was approved by Albany, President Harvey Stenger said he wanted to bring them together. One way to put it is that we have the Binghamton Road Map initiative and we have some funding from Albany to support it.

Daryl Santos: The PIFs are designed such that they’re non-trivial amounts of funding in different categories. If SUNY gives money, we have to have collaborations and matching University funds in equal amounts. I said I have this good idea out of Road Map Strategic Priority 3, and led the PIF proposal as the conduit for others’ ideas. Albany liked the proposal, so we got a $332,000 PIF award. So, SUNY gives us the funds, we match them and it should help us increase the number of fellows that we’ll have on our campus. We will try to get four postdocs and be intentional about diverse fellows, but we do have to open it up to everyone. We envision this to be more intentional about identifying these postdocs.

FG: There was a difference in Daryl’s proposal and mine. My original proposal was for three postdocs per year for three-year terms for a steady state of nine after that. Daryl’s proposal to Albany was for postdocs for two-year terms. We will implement two-year postdocs with an option of a third year depending on the discipline. We want to be as flexible as we can to the culture of the different disciplines.

Why now?

FG: The way we see it is this will bring diversity into the faculty of those departments and disciplines that need it the most. That’s number one. As we increase the diversity by bringing in these postdocs, who will be teaching and conducting research just like an assistant professor, it will change the face of the departments and attract more diverse graduate students to the programs. Graduate students, especially from minority groups want to know if there is anyone who looks like them and they can have some kind of relationship with. Having more diversity will bring a more diverse population of graduate students and I expect will have an effect on the undergraduate level, again, by having role models among faculty and graduate students.

DS: Because the demographics of our student population is changing. Our student body is more diverse than our faculty and studies have shown that when students encounter teachers and researchers with backgrounds similar to theirs, it helps in their achievement.

I like to tie it back to the parable about the six blind monks and the elephant, each having only his own perspective of what an elephant looks like. Having different perspectives and working as a team gives us a better handle on a problem and the solution. The more people we have from different backgrounds the better our environment and perspectives. If everyone is from the same background, we can’t come up with solutions as well. The diversity of perspectives helps our students as well as ourselves.

What is the current status of this initiative?

FG: We are hopeful that we’ll be able to advertise for these postdocs early in the spring for fall 2018. That’s somewhat aggressive, but I think we can get started.

DS: We’re tentatively targeting our advertisement to be out by the end of January. We’ve proposed to the president that we identify two committees – one a steering committee and one a selection committee. We want the fellows to be both teaching and research postdocs who we will, ultimately, want to join our faculty. Not many organizations have that intentionality. The Center for Learning and Teaching will be involved and each fellow will have a teaching and a research mentor. We envision two different people, but it might be one.

We’re going to start a hard-court press to get the committees established. As far as the selection committee, the president proposed a representative from each school and he’s asking for either the associate dean for research or teaching or their faculty designee. Once the selection committee has been identified, the advisory committee will do the main crafting of the announcement and where we will advertise, working with the selection committee. We’re not taking the word diversity out of the title of this initiative. We won’t prevent anyone from applying who may help us increase the diversity in our applications.

FG: The selection committee will also include faculty and one graduate and one undergraduate student. The committee will be invited and charged by the president.

DS: In our proposal to PIF, we talked about holding a major event each year – a retreat for mentors and postdocs – and to have other institutions to join us in this retreat. I talked to Cornell, which is starting a similar program, but not for diversity postdocs. Their program is a totally new one and they haven’t started their first cohort yet, but have almost 200 applications. I’m sure they would be willing for some of their applicants to try for our positions once we craft our announcement.

We’re going to look at where we’re underrepresented and we would hope that programs and departments with underrepresented subpopulations would be encouraged to try to get one of these postdocs. We want the departments to advocate for these fellows so it’s a competition essentially and the selection committee has hard decisions to make.

We also need to fold in SUNY’s diversity policy to be intentional about being more diverse, and our Faculty Senate Diversity Committee needs to weigh in. We have to meet institutional and system missions.

What issues might you face as you implement this initiative?

FG: One of the issues is getting the departments to buy in. We want advertisements to go to the appropriate publications to generate applications, but to also talk to the departments to ask them, if they’re hiring and see someone who fits the profile, to send us the application for review. We want the departments to say, ‘We have an excellent candidate and a teaching mentor and a research mentor for this candidate,’ so they don’t feel lost when they arrive. Some departments do mentors and some don’t, so we want the department to name specific mentors – even someone outside of Binghamton if necessary. We want these postdocs to have mentors and we want the departments to say they are willing to bring these people in as part of the pool for tenure-track positions by the time the postdocs are finishing. That’s not easy to get, so if the selection committee receives applications and sees a good candidate, we will contact the department and say ‘Do you want to do the work to put in an application for this candidate?’

The postdocs will go to departments as new positions, but departments are not obligated to continue if the person hasn’t met expectations. The way I see it is we have two years to get to know this candidate before making a tenure-track decision. If the candidate arrives to a good environment and the department treats the person in a friendly way, that candidate is likely to say, ‘I want to stay here.’ Right now, diversity in the applicant pools for tenure-track positions is difficult to achieve, so having someone already here, we hope, will increase the chances of them staying.

DS: The departments have to say, ‘This is how we will mentor this postdoc and here’s how it will aid in the diversity of our program.’