(Courtesy of Lesley-Ann Pittard.)

Provost and Senior Vice President Patrick Phillips unveiled the University of Oregon’s new diversity plan this past October, which includes the creation of an $11 million research and policy center focused on racial disparities and resilience. Now that the federal election cycle is over, formal planning discussions for the center’s initiatives have begun. This winter term, Phillips said, will present a series of workshops and outreach communications to get the community engaged. 

“Every initiative that I'm doing is trying to think about, from a university point of view, how to become an evermore engaged campus in the external world,” Phillips said. “I think a lot of us felt, in our bellies and our souls, an openness to broader conversations on campus starting in June and moving forward. I really want to take advantage of that openness and move into this space strongly institutionally.”

Twelve new faculty positions affiliated with the center will open up across campus, with their  research focused on racial disparities in the United States in the areas of health, education, housing, employment and wealth. In addition to these 12 faculty lines, six new positions will open up in departments with historically underrepresented faculty. According to Phillips, there are zero Black faculty in any of the university’s science departments. 

“What students really are looking for is representation in every department. Not to just have a Black Studies program, for instance, but to have Black faculty in their chemistry classes,” Phillips said. “Students have all different visions for their own lives and they want to be engaged in that.”

Phillips said he recently graduated Alex De Verteuil, the first Black PhD student in his biology lab, in June 2020. When De Verteuil acknowledged that none of the other students looked like her, she started a program called SCORE, Students of Color, Opportunities for Research Enrichment. 

“It was really important for them that this was an area where they could talk about science and ask questions and learn how to do research without feeling like they didn't belong,” De Verteuil said. “And they could learn from somebody who looked like them. And that was really empowering.”

She said she wanted for the students to gain confidence in themselves not only as individuals, but as scientists. She encouraged them to read journal articles and conduct different experiments so that they could explore all the opportunities available to them. 

“For me, I felt like I really would have loved to be able to have a woman that looks like me in our halls and on our campus who was fresh in my career. I didn't realize how much I missed that,” De Verteuil said. “It's not even so much that I needed my advisor to look like me, but it's just to be in a space where you belong.”

The Office of the Provost and the Division of Equity and Inclusion are leading an active retention effort for faculty of color at UO. Charlotte Motts-Galagher, who works with DEI, will be spearheading this initiative. Past and current faculty of color will be interviewed so those in the Provost’s office and DEI can better understand and respond to their experiences with racist interactions on campus. 

Related: UO launches retention initiative for faculty of color

Phillips said the center intends to improve campus climate by addressing systematic racism on campus that affects Black faculty, students and staff. It will also address the opportunity gap for Black students and students of color. 

“We need to be more proactive and anti-racist in our activities,” Phillips said. “If we’re going to make progress, it takes persistent, consistent action.”

The UO President’s Fund will fund at least $3 million for the center and $8 million will come from the new faculty lines across campus, according to Around the O. 

Phillips chose Lesley-Anne Pittard, Assistant Vice President for Campus and Community Engagement, to serve as Assistant Provost for Academic Affairs on the anti-racist research center. She primarily works with DEI and the Center for Multicultural and Academic Excellence, and she described the center as a “historic opportunity” and a critical 21st century initiative.

“Having a center like this gives me some reprieve in seeing academia in general respond with changing its landscape, respond with changing the way that is traditionally operated to not only make space, but to empower what we have not always welcomed and brought to,” Pittard said. “We're here for Oregon. So how can we more directly serve and respond to our community?”

Pittard said the benefit of having an academic enterprise focused on these types of issues is not only being committed to the intellectual responsibility of accountability, but also responding to the complexity of these issues with regards to curriculum. 

“We recognize that we have not always recognized our diverse history and promoted and supported folks who represent different identities or disciplines or research interests,” Pittard said. “So how in this moment of wanting to not only rise to the occasion, can we also listen, recognize and reckon with where we've been? I will show up and respond to the call of now.”