Investing in EDI

UChicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering is committed to a strong culture, and the EDI Committee is leading the way

Since 2023, the Chronicle of Higher Education has tracked 85 bills in 28 states and the U.S. Congress meant to oppose or outright ban equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives in higher education. They separately have tracked policy changes and EDI cuts at 151 colleges and universities in 19 states.

At the UChicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, the commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion for all students, staff and faculty is growing.

“The Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering’s strong commitment to EDI is a reflection of our community,” said Dean Nadya Mason. “We’re an interdisciplinary program, which by its nature means bringing together people with diverse perspectives in a collaborative environment. Creating an inclusive space isn’t separate from that work – it’s the very essence of it.”

Since 2020, the PME Committee on Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion has worked to make this commitment tangible. This collection of faculty, staff and students organize social events that teach students about each others’ cultures, climate surveys that ask the hard questions about environment, workshops that teach how inclusion benefits everyone and policies that merge lofty values with day-to-day practices.

The often behind-the-scenes work PME’s EDI committee undertakes is part of the fabric of the community.

Inclusion is for everyone

PME Founding Dean Matthew Tirrell created the committee as a way to build issues of equity, diversity and inclusion into PME’s day-to-day work. During the first year, the group enacted a slate of advancements from electing ombudspeople to shepherd student conflicts to adding an EDI component to annual faculty reviews.

“In the transition from being the Institute for Molecular Engineering to becoming the University of Chicago’s newest school, we were thinking about what it means to be attentive to all of our community members,” Tirrell said. “IME had always prided itself on creating a community where the world’s finest minds could thrive. PME wanted to formalize our commitment to these issues.”

Tirrell reached out to Prof. Andrew Ferguson to head the new initiative as the inaugural PME Vice Dean for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Ferguson said there’s a moral imperative and justice aspect to the work, but “it also just improves PME.”

“Diverse teams are just better teams, providing diversity of opinions. People coming from different backgrounds offer different perspectives that improve the way that we think about and execute our science, technology and engineering mission,” Ferguson said. “It’s also completely consistent with the University of Chicago’s commitment articulated in the Feb. 2020 message from the president and provost to ‘two critical values: a deep and foundational commitment to free expression and rigorous inquiry, and the importance of the rich diversity of the campus community’,” he continued.

PME Director of Administrative and Operational Support and EDI Committee Member Tracy Walker said one major misconception is that the committee’s work only relates to race, gender and sexuality.

“The EDI committee has expanded to look at, for example, how postdocs and graduate students relate to faculty, and how staff relates to the faculty, and just all the different things that make an inclusive environment,” said Walker, who is working on her PhD in Higher Education from Hampton University.

Walker is currently helping design a series of workshops to educate faculty, staff and students on topics including power dynamics, disability and conflict resolution.

While issues of race, gender, sexuality and class will be covered in these meetings, Walker said a common misconception is that those are the only issues EDI touches. A conflict could be, for example, a faculty member making a casual, non-work request of a student, forgetting that the student might not see it as casual.

“The student may see it as, ‘This is the person that has an impact on my career. This is the person that's going to be on my dissertation committee. I have to do what they say,’” Walker said.

Climate survey

PME graduate student Jonathan Salmerón-Hernández jokes that as a gay, Latino immigrant, he is “too many minorities.” But that lived experience and a commitment to activism that predates his time at PME led him to join the committee as a student.

“People care. People have the willingness to fight for change. But there’s a certain perspective that can only come from a person who lives these issues every day,” he said.

Salmerón-Hernández was part of the team who crunched data from the annual PME climate survey. This provides a data-driven baseline for the group’s efforts, highlighting areas that need improvement and communities – whether based on race, gender, sexuality or academic track – that need more support.

“There is always more to be done, but it was nice to see that people acknowledge that we are working hard to add value to our community,” Salmerón-Hernández said. “We care and we are in front of diversity and inclusion programs.”

He would like to see more students engage with the committee and its work.

“If you want to see change, it’s better to be part of the change,” he said. “Students have an important perspective and much to share.”

Information and celebration

One of the more visible aspects of the committee’s work is through social events honoring different communities. While events like the yearly Celebration of African-American History and Culture, Lunar New Year and Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month share food, music and tradition, the purpose goes far beyond fun.

“Many cultures don't feel seen or recognized,” said PME Senior Executive Assistant Brandi Salvant Carr. “These events are an educational opportunity for people to learn more about the people who are supporting them or teaching them or working with them.”

Many of these events existed prior to the EDI committee’s involvement, but were one-off initiatives by different groups. For example, PME ran the Celebration of African-American History and Culture, but Lunar New Year was led by students and the Women’s History Month event was an initiative proposed by the Graduate Student Council. By moving them to the EDI committee, the group was able to pull together a cohesive vision for the year, understand which groups weren’t being recognized, fill those gaps with new programs and provide a budget for all events. Each EDI event is also required to have an educational aspect, combining information and celebration.

“In order to expand the events, it was better for EDI to house them under our umbrella,” said Carr, who is working on her PhD in Organizational Leadership (Higher education focus) from Concordia University. “That way we can grow them beyond a staff or faculty or student event. We can make them global events across the entire PME community.”

But the work – events and workshops, ombudspeople and climate surveys – is only as successful as the greater PME community makes it.

“We're not successful just because the committee puts out these programs,” Walker said. “We’re successful when everyone takes ownership and implements things in their own day-to-day activities within PME. Our goal is to make sure the environment is conducive for everyone to thrive and grow and be the trailblazers that they are.”

Read more about PME’s EDI Committee and visit the calendar to engage in upcoming events.

Reach out to the committee with thoughts or ideas via email.