Standing up for others is part of our mission

We in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering are outraged by systemic violence and continual injustices against African Americans that have occurred for centuries in this country. We vow to take concrete actions to make our department a welcoming, safe place where everyone can flourish. We will learn to become better allies to Black faculty, staff, students and alumni. But we must go much further. We must embrace change and continue improvement every day of the year. It is not enough for words and statements, or isolated acts of thoughtfulness; it is time for persistent and sustained actions supported by individuals and institutions alike.

The brutal killing of George Floyd, one of many incidents in which members of our Black communities have lost their lives, is a galvanizing moment that cannot and shall not be squandered. Our Black communities endure these hostile and often lethal aggressions daily while the rest of us take for granted our freedoms and liberties without fear of mistreatments, at least not at the hands of our institutions and fellow citizens.

We did not correspond or issue a communication in the first few days of George Floyd’s death, but rest assured we have thought about it daily and discussed it through several department-wide town halls. And we have shared considerable anguish. We have been deeply troubled by the notion of making statements of support that often fade away until the “next time.” We want more than just words. We need to rededicate ourselves ethically, morally and professionally to justice and equality in education and reflect upon instances where we can improve both our policies and actions that are racist or constitute microaggression.

America’s founding documents espouse the belief that all people are created equal, endowed with inalienable human rights and human dignity. Therefore, we should all be troubled by what we see today. This defining truth has been denied many of our fellow Americans, especially those of color and those who left their home countries in search of opportunities and rights that our founders intended for us to enjoy. Consider the impassioned words of Frederick Douglass in his speech known as “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” As we prepare to celebrate this national holiday, we rededicate ourselves to the struggle for social justice. We expect and demand equal justice, education, health outcomes and opportunities, as well as liberty for all.

At the personal and professional level, we will become better allies of African Americans and others who face both the lasting consequences of historic wrongs and present-day prejudices. This process is aided by our ongoing dialogue amongst students, faculty and staff on issues of diversity and inclusion, and informed by common readings including “How to be an Anti-Racist” and “The Myth of Race,” which the department is circulating to faculty, staff and students. The department will provide additional resources to make anti-racism a routine part of its training to create a workplace that is safe, healthy and prosperous for everyone.

At the institutional level, we have expanded our diversity committee, led by David Green, associate professor of materials science and engineering, and Elizabeth Opila, professor of materials science and engineering. The committee is equally represented by students, staff and faculty. We also have a unique opportunity to further accelerate progress toward our diversity goals with the launch of the Bachelor of Science degree program in materials science and engineering. A generous gift from distinguished alumnus Greg Olsen (MSE Ph.D. ’71) enables us to dedicate new funds for fellowships and need-based scholarships that will help us recruit and nurture students from diverse and underserved communities. We can reimagine the type of undergraduate program necessary to provide a progressive equitable, friendly environment and a world-class education in materials science and engineering.

Faculty who are experienced in managing multi-university partnerships also have a role in achieving our diversity and inclusion goals. We can leverage their experience and apply lessons learned to engage historically Black and minority-serving institutions that share our passion for materials science and engineering.

Globally, we will take a more proactive stance by highlighting our education of future leaders who can change the world through their intrinsic diversity, skills and knowledge as they join the MSE professions. This is how we can do our part to address the lack of minority representation across the U.S. scientific enterprise and its educational institutions. It will take time. We are not running a short sprint; we are in an ultramarathon.

Double-blind need not be color-blind. Our call to action also coheres with our duty to uphold technical and professional excellence. Dr. Valerie Sheares Ashby, Dean of Duke University’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences asks: “How much creativity are we leaving on the table because science repeatedly fails to come to terms with our narrowly defined processes and our limited ways of determining success? We must look beyond our ‘go to’ lists of authors, peer reviewers and program chairs to promote the best ideas wherever they germinate.” (Science, June 2020)

Creativity is one of our innate strengths. Materials engineering innovations can be liberating and increase performance and affordability, which lifts up the underprivileged. Just think of how the materials revolution helped enable things like the mobile smart phone. These innovations are bringing about technological equality and help “level the field” in information access. Repeating this requires more forward thinking.

The commitments conveyed above are first steps as we begin to formulate a long-term plan informed by our “listen and learn” sessions and surveys. We need to understand the results of a longitudinal research project on the academic achievement of underrepresented students and best practices to help them flourish. We will partner with our Director of Inclusive Excellence and Applied Research in UVA Engineering’s Center for Diversity in Engineering. The project draws on quantitative data from student records in addition to focus groups and surveys administered the past few years to provide substantive insight into undergraduate students. These will assist us in preparing our new MSE undergraduate degree.

We aspire to expand access to high-quality education and purposeful careers in materials science and engineering. Our goals are to (a) embrace allyship, (b) redouble student recruitment to enrich our community, (c) provide a safe environment for change, (d) institutionalize mechanisms that allow folks to give voice to their experience while (e) not requiring those already paying the price of systemic racism to be tasked with providing corrective measures. And we must address local professional issues; diverse students in MSE desire and deserve equal access to opportunities and networks that other engineering students enjoy. These positive steps may be small but can have an outsized impact over the long term.

This is just a start and we want to hear from all students, faculty and staff as well as alumni and our external advisory board. We will be taking a hard look at ourselves and listening to each other. Learning not just to recognize injustice but to control it in ourselves, and to stand up for others as a part of our everyday mission.