Dean’s Blog: Addressing Inequality One Year On

A year ago I wrote, with much help from our Diversity Equity and Inclusion Council, a blog on addressing inequality. It was inspired, like so many statements, by the events of the time that were by no means new or less unjust, just more visible as they were played relentlessly across media outlets. Our statements were broadly acknowledged because they were not just words of outrage, but also explicit actions that we would undertake as a School to champion equality and justice. I am here to fact check ourselves one year on.

Associate Dean for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

The School of Data Science accelerated our search for an Associate Dean for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. I am delighted to say we have hired Siri Russell to fulfill that role. Siri comes to us having had great impact upon Albemarle County – the county in Virginia where our university resides – having established a highly functional Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to serve the many branches of local government in developing policies and achieving operational alignment with the community through continued engagement. We cast a wide net in filling this role from highly qualified academics to those with practical experiences outside of academia. In chairing a search committee, composed of those so much more attuned to what must be done, including Kevin McDonald, the University’s Vice President of Diversity Equity and Inclusion, I learned a great deal which I hope carries with me as I work toward fulfilling the School’s mission. I have come to understand that our work is a marathon, not a sprint.

Diverse Program Pipelines

We focused on creating pipelines to source diverse talent, including faculty, staff, and students. Our incoming M.S. in Data Science cohort starting this summer is 51% women, a first for us. This must be just the beginning, as we work with K-12 schools to ensure a diverse candidate pool in our undergraduate programs. We must also continue building relationships with Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) to attract a diverse pool of graduate students and prospective faculty, as well as increase our presence at conferences and professional associations focused on serving underrepresented communities. There is much to be done, and Siri will chair our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council as part of an inclusive effort spanning everyone and everything throughout the School.

As part of our focus on MSIs, we are grateful to Deloitte AI Institute for Government and Oracle for Research for sponsoring our 2021 UVA/HBCU Summer Research Bridge to Data Science Program. This summer’s virtual program, piloted in the summer of 2019 in person at UVA, brings together a team of underrepresented minority students with researchers in the social determinants of health. Together, they will address fundamental questions in health equity affecting members of the local Charlottesville and Albemarle communities. Selected students in the program currently attend UVA, Howard University, Washington University in St. Louis, and Spelman College. In addition to the research scholars in the UVA program, participants in summer research programs at Howard, Spelman and VSU have been invited to attend a virtual speaker series and benefit from ongoing career development resources.

Graduate Fellowship for Inclusive Excellence

Working with the UVA Alumni Association, we have established merit-based fellowships to support minority students thanks to the generosity of our Advisory Board members and others. We awarded our first scholarship to Angela Boakye Danquah as part of our incoming 2021 cohort. This first-ever, merit-based M.S. in Data Science Graduate Fellowship for Inclusive Excellence, was made possible by a fund spearheaded by SDS Advisory Board members Linda Abraham and Sam Wholley to be awarded annually to an incoming underrepresented graduate student of color or first-generation female whose application demonstrates academic merit, leadership potential, and a passion for data.

We welcome support for the Inclusive Excellence Graduate Fellowship Fund through additional gifts by interested alumni, parents, friends, or corporate partners.

Data Activist in Residence

In the fall of 2020, we hired our first Data Activist in Residence, Renee Cummings. Renee is a renowned criminologist who is helping spearhead our efforts in responsible data science. She is creating a dynamic data visualization toolkit for tracking, assessing, and providing citizens, communities, and a variety of stakeholders with a “personal risk rating” – high,

medium, or low – on the amount of digital force used by law enforcement and private security, on a street, in a community, city, state, or even a company. This begins with our own community in Charlottesville.

Presidential Fellows

We also committed to funding Presidential Fellow projects that focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. I am delighted to say that Margot Bjoring and Christopher Whitehead, UVA graduate students from psychology and history, respectively, undertook a project to uncover native kinship among the peoples of the Northeastern United States. Not only does this project represent what we are trying accomplish with the Presidential Fellows Program and with data science in general – bringing together disparate researchers and their expertise to understand an issue which would not otherwise be addressed – but it provides new understanding of our native population, their movement, and interrelationships when under threat from colonialism and white supremacy.

Sponsored Capstone Projects

Capstones are research projects that our M.S. in Data Science students undertake to gain the practical knowledge they need before entering the workforce. I am pleased to say thus far we have sponsored two projects as part of our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. The first group published an analysis and visualization of best practices for data transparency in policing. The second group is still working on their project with Data Activist Renee Cummings related to the disparate impact of surveillance on communities of color.

New Advisory Board Members

Lastly, we committed to diversifying our amazing private sector Advisory Board who have done so much to help develop, first the Data Science Institute, and now the School of Data Science. I am delighted to announce that Vicki Schmanske and Rumman Chowdhury have both joined the Board. Vicki is President of the Intelligence Group at Leidos and an outspoken supporter of women in data science, including being the keynote speaker at our last annual Women in Data Science (WiDS) Conference. Rumman is CEO and Founder of Parity AI and outspoken on issues of ethics and AI. She too is a past speaker at WiDS. We are working with the expanded board to better understand what their companies are doing with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion and what could be translated successfully to our own academic environment.

So there you have it. We have made some progress to date. We are growing fast, yet recognize we have a rare opportunity to create a new kind of school. The School of Data Science has a wonderful team who treat one another with respect. This is a firm ground on which to build an inclusive School. I ask everyone’s help in spreading the word about our school and goals. We are growing quickly and want to bring in people of diverse backgrounds and experiences. I hope by next summer I can report on successes in recruitment of stellar faculty that represent the breadth of diversity of Virginia and the country.

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About Phil Bourne

Stephenson Founding Dean of the School of Data Science and Professor of Data Science & Biomedical Engineering, University of Virginia