Podcast Episode 2 Transcript

From the Office of the Provost

Episode 2: Race and Social Determinants of Equity, Health and Well-Being Initiative


Ann Cudd: Hello, and welcome to “From the Office of the Provost,” a podcast that highlights the program's strategies and initiatives coming out of our office. I'm your host, University of Pittsburgh's Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann Cudd.

Today I'm joined by Vice Provost for Faculty Diversity and Development John Wallace to talk about the Race and Social Determinants of Equity, Health and Well-Being Initiative. John joined our office in 2020 to lead critically important equity initiatives, including boosting faculty diversity to become more representative of the student body and national demographics. John has since built his team from there, and they've really hit the ground running. Welcome, John.

John Wallace: Thank you for having me.

Cudd: John, would you like to give us some background on how the Race and Social Determinants of Equity, Health and Well-Being Initiative came about?

Wallace: Absolutely. So, I was hired mid-pandemic, early pandemic, some pandemic still going on — I was hired during the pandemic when we, frankly, were experiencing, I would say, the two, dual pandemics, both the health pandemic, but also the pandemic around the issues of race. And so, the provost — that would be you — brought me in during that time to address the issues that, of course, had been built into the Plan for Pitt, but also in response to all that was going on. So, of course, the issues with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery — the challenges even here on campus. And so, building on the work that you had done with the antiracism course and wanting to express, I think, your commitment to advancing these issues, the challenge was to increase the representation of faculty who do research on these important issues.

Prior to even 2020, I think it was in 2019, a report was released on the condition of African Americans in the city of Pittsburgh, and unfortunately, the research suggested that Pittsburgh was one of the worst and most challenging cities in the country for African Americans, and Black women in particular. And we know that these issues are issues that we research, that we study, and that we attempt to do things about here at the University of Pittsburgh.

And so I really saw the opportunity and the charge to mobilize our ability to bring in faculty and develop faculty who do this work — those who are already here, as well as expanding our capacity by bringing in new faculty. And so, the foundation of the Race &… Initiative really was the cluster hire, and we really developed and grew from there.

Cudd: Yeah, that really was a very urgent, crystallizing time, wasn't it. That really brought together a lot of, a lot of good work and you've been really leading this initiative with such great energy and commitment. So, I'm really pleased about that. I wonder if you could share a little bit about the funding and some of the people you've been working with on this initiative?

Wallace: Sure. So the base funding was really the support provided by yourself and Senior Vice Chancellor Shekhar to hire our faculty. And in addition to that, the resources that our office received to support the work. And then we submitted a proposal to the Richard King Mellon Foundation for another $250,000 — the bulk of which actually is designed to build these, what we call collaboratories. So it's research focused on race. The broad areas include infant and maternal health, which is we know, Pittsburgh has a huge challenge here in our city. The other pieces we brought together is we have these race centers. And since 2002, when the center that I currently am the interim director for — the Center on Race and Social Problems — was founded through today, we've grown significantly around the university. So one of our goals is to bring together the race-related work.

An important aspect of this is the need to kind of bridge our silos. And so we've done a lot to bring together the work of the Office of the Provost and the Senior Vice Chancellor for the Health Sciences. And so that's an area where we're particularly proud. And so these Research Collaboratories are interdisciplinary teams focused across people's areas of expertise, but bringing that work together, hopefully to ultimately have impact in the city, in our region and nationally, of course, because the issues that are here in Pittsburgh are not unique; they’re similar across the country. And so the goal is to mobilize our research capacity to address these issues.

Cudd: Yeah, I know that one of the goals for us was to make Pitt a destination for diverse faculty and research. So what are we doing to achieve that?

Wallace: Absolutely. So the faculty development aspect of our work really is a couple of things. So first of all, focused on our existing faculty, trying to make Pitt feel more like an “academic home.” And so we're working with our deans, listening to our faculty, and attempting to design interventions and programs to address the various concerns that they've raised. So for example, some stuff has been simple. We've just done social work, social work in the sense that people are getting together and being heard and being listened to.

Then, meeting with the deans and trying to be helpful to them as they grow and develop within their own schools. Working with them around recruitment, the recruitment and retention, obviously, are big issues. And even transitions. So as faculty, new faculty, come in, often, they may be hired in say, January, February, and may not show up until August. And so what are we doing to make faculty feel welcome? So again, working with schools and departments around those issues.

Just in the last week, we finished what we call Race@Work, which is a summer institute focused on the fundamentals of tenure and promotion. So, research, teaching, service and community-engaged scholarship, and making our faculty aware of the tremendous resources that are already here. That's been a big part of the work that people simply don't know all of the things that are here, whether it's the Center for Teaching and Learning, Office of Research, our office, of course, the work of the provost.

We launched a new website, so facultydiversity.pitt.edu brings together all of the work that we're doing and makes folks just aware of the resources both in the institution and beyond.

And so, really, a big piece of the work has been to not so much convene, but to coordinate the existing programmatic work and services and making it feel more accessible.

Cudd: Yeah, yeah, you're really creating community and making it much more of a place where everyone feels like they can belong, and I think it's been really successful. So, like you've mentioned, we set out to significantly increase the number of faculty who are hired, promoted and retained, who work in the fields around surrounding health, equity and well-being. Could you tell us a little bit about the standout faculty that have been hired through this initiative?

Wallace: Sure. So to date, we brought in roughly 47 faculty, many of them in the health sciences, and probably about almost a dozen in the provost area. A couple stand out in particular.

I think about Martina Anto-Ocrah in medicine, and she's doing very important work around the relationship between concussion and maternal health, and also working with faculty in public health around the role of fathers in the issue of infant and maternal health.

And we actually have a group, there's probably about a dozen of them, led by Tiffany Gary-Webb, who has been brought into the office as special assistant to the provost, focused on this issue. And so, there's about a dozen faculty working on a couple of things. One of them is a documentary, the research tells us that as African American women's educational attainment increases, the probability that they lose a child actually increases as well, which is, you know, very counter to our understanding, what we would expect. And so, part of that has been actually interviewing MDs, doctors, themselves and talking about their birthing experience and it's shocking, frankly, how these women have been treated often in the hospitals, some of them where they actually even work.

And then, Victor Figuereo, who is in the School of Social Work, he's doing interesting work on Afro-Latin mental health. And so, looking at particularly Dominicans, and other Latinx populations in the intersection of race and ethnicity, and the impact of their experiences on their mental health. So it's another piece, again, that's in the School of Social Work. And so, we have a variety of faculty in various different disciplines. I don't have time, of course, to talk about them all. But I'm, again, explicitly trying to address those issues and challenges that we know we experienced here in the city of Pittsburgh but have implications far beyond our region.

Cudd: Yeah, those sound like spectacular faculty. I think that's one of the real pleasures of our positions is watching these great young faculty come in and watching their careers grow. So, I think you're doing great job helping them. So, beyond recruitment and retention of a more diverse faculty, we also want to raise the university's local, national, and international profile and expertise in race, social determinants of equity and wellbeing. Why is this so important in today's climate?

Wallace: Yeah, well, as we look at what's going on in Florida, and what's going on in Texas, and around the country, and particularly as we're concerned about what's happening, even with regard to the Supreme Court, we know that our campuses are becoming more and more diverse. And unfortunately, our students don't see folks like themselves. And so, even as I think about my own career over the last 30 years, some of the most important mentors I've had have been African American faculty and people who understood kind of my background, my story, but I could also see them as examples and role models.

And so the work that we're doing has implications not simply for research, but also for undergraduates and again as our nation becomes more diverse. And between the Latinx Cluster Hire, the cluster hire that we're doing for our students that are becoming more diverse to see themselves, and to be able to envision being a part of the academy. And our goal ultimately is that we won't need special initiatives and programming like this as our university becomes more, I would say, welcoming, as well as just people feel that this is their academic home. Ultimately, these kinds of things will go on autopilot when the reputation of the institution is such that Pittsburgh is a great place to be, a great place to live, great place to work. That friends tell their friends, just like good restaurants, right.

Ultimately, the way that we want to grow this is that Pitt will be the kind of place where faculty, students and staff want to be. And then as I said, regardless of whatever the Supreme Court or others do, once that momentum is built, and we're trying to get there, that this will be the kind of place that people want to come.

Cudd: Yeah, that's the goal. Although I'm not sure that climate is ever something we can say is on autopilot. I think it's always something you have to attend to, but we've got a great start on that, I think. So, with all these moving parts, I wonder, can we begin to see some transformative change on our campus, and how do we maintain that momentum?

Wallace: Yeah, transformative is a big word. I would say we're absolutely making progress. So, you know, we've really been at the work for a couple years. But I am hearing, and one of the most, I would say, moving experiences that I've had personally in the role: our, probably the senior African American faculty member and certainly female faculty member, Dr. Sandra Murray, was commenting at the Black Excellence in the Academy Award dinner that we had celebrating Larry Davis and his life. She said that she's been here for over 40 years. And she said that the work that we're doing is making Pitt feel like a psychologically safe space.

And so, for me, that was probably — not probably —that was undoubtedly the most significant accomplishment that I feel that we've made thus far. For someone who's been there for over four decades, to still struggle with the institution and to say that the work we've been able to do in the last couple of years is making a difference for her, that's a big deal. And so, the new faculty, I, you know, that's great, that's wonderful. But it really is our existing faculty who've been here for so long, that if we can actually make things, make the perception and the reality that things are better for them, then I feel like that that's very real.

For young people where, you know, we're recruiting and, of course, we're trying to make them feel welcome and have a bunch of new programming for them. It's almost like with your babies, like new kids, right? Your little ones, they get all the attention. And the question is, well how are the older kids feeling? And they’re like, “Hey, this is this is a great place, I love being here.” And so, having Pitt be a place where our existing faculty can thrive, because again, they ultimately will be the ones that mentor and nurture and develop our incoming faculty, because, you know, we can't do that from our office.

But it's the faculty in the departments in the units — those are really the ones that if we can make it better for them, they will make it better for not only our new faculty, but also our students.

And so, our office, with the lens of faculty development, that's really important for us that we really meet the needs of our existing faculty, as well as the new ones.

Cudd: Yeah, that's really a great comment that you share from Dr. Murray. I'm really pleased to hear that the climate really feels like it's changing for her. So how can people tap into the existing network?

Wallace: Oh, absolutely. They can reach out to us at facultydiversity@pitt.edu. We're pretty involved on the social side and we've gotten a lot of positive comments, frankly, from colleagues around the country. That's like, “Oh, we see you. Okay, Pitt is doing some stuff.” So please reach out. @PittFDD we'll get you there. So, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Cudd: Okay, thank you for joining me today and sharing the great work that you and your team are doing.

And thank you listeners for tuning in. I am Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann Cudd and this has been “From the Office of the Provost.”

Wallace: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.