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Creating a Level Playing Field

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Oliver Myers | Melissa Smith

Oliver Myers and Melissa Smith began work in February as associate deans for inclusive excellence in the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences. Three months later, the death of George Floyd raised fresh questions about justice and equality across the country, including at Clemson University. In their new roles, Myers and Smith are at the center of the college’s efforts to listen to the concerns of its students, faculty, and staff, and then drive change to ensure a level playing field for all in the college.

Myers’ duties primarily involve undergraduates, while Smith’s duties mostly involve the graduate enterprise. In addition to their inclusion work, Myers and Smith are tasked with specific duties that harness their unique skill sets.

Myers and Smith sat down with IDEAS magazine in mid-July 2020 to talk about their work, how they define success, and how they will respond to the COVID-19 situation.

Would you give us an overview of what your new duties are?

Smith: As associate dean for inclusive excellence and graduate studies, I will be leading a team focused at the graduate level on inclusion, equity, and diversity issues, as well as supporting current students in their progress toward their degrees.

Myers: Melissa and I will share a lot of the same ideas in terms of recruitment, retention, and matriculation. But I’ll work with the undergraduate students on making sure they have the requisite backgrounds to be successful in their undergraduate curriculum, so Melissa and I can have a natural bridge from the undergraduate to the graduate programs.

Can you help us unpack the terms equity and inclusion and what they mean for the everyday life of students in the college?

Myers: One particular goal is to meet our land-grant mandate of representing the state in terms of underrepresented students. And we want all of those students to be successful. We face the challenge of students coming from backgrounds that didn’t prepare them for the rigor of a STEM discipline, and we have to give them the support they need. They have a dream of being an engineer or scientist, and we want to facilitate that dream.

Smith: I would add that we also need to look at the issue in terms of research and what it means to have a diverse and inclusive environment and how important it is. We need to understand the challenges that are in our communities, and the way to do that is to ensure we have representation from those communities participating in the research and how we solve those problems.

Why do you think some populations of students are underrepresented?

Smith: There are a number of factors. One of which is not having mentors. If you can’t see it, you don’t know that you can be it. Trying to create communities of support is one aspect to help us along that journey.

Myers: Another side would be exposure. How many students have seen a student, professor, doctor, or engineer who looks like them? How many have experienced a visit to an advanced manufacturing facility or a research lab? Those are not opportunities that are afforded to everybody. Not being able to see or experience those things limits our short- and long-term visions.

How would you define success in your jobs?

Smith: One of my goals is to significantly increase our representation from our domestic students. The pathways that Oliver and I are going to be building to support underrepresented populations, including women, is going to be one of the key components in doing that. We will be showing undergraduates the avenues and opportunities that continuing into graduate school will afford them. I want to see those students be successful and take on mentoring roles as faculty or industry leaders that young people can look up to and aspire to be.

Myers: I would define success as when our jobs are obsolete. It’s when diversity, equity, and inclusion are organic not only to the University but to society at large when we do not have to worry about division and strife and unrest when we can say that everybody truly has a fair chance and an opportunity to be successful in whatever discipline they’re in. Five years from now, we would like to see more underrepresented students complete the undergraduate curriculum successfully so they can be master’s and Ph.D. students. And then 10 years from now, we want those same students to be professors and doctors and leaders in their chosen disciplines. This is not something that is going to be solved in a 40-minute conversation or a four-year program. This has to be solved as a long-term continuous engagement process.

How do you expect the challenges of COVID-19 to affect your work?

Myers: We will maintain the conversations. Zoom meetings have been great. We’re able to communicate over the miles, even during quarantine. The educational process does not stop even if the buildings are closed. We want to continue to mentor the students and encourage them, and we will get through this.

Oliver MyersOliver Myers
Associate Dean for Inclusive Excellence

Melissa SmithMelissa Smith
Associate Dean for Inclusive Excellence and Graduate Studies