When Erika H. James was appointed as dean of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 2020, she was thrilled at the opportunity for a great job at a new school.
But James said she was unprepared for the attention she would receive as the first woman and person of color to be appointed dean in Wharton’s 141-year history.
The pressure of the role during a pandemic was enormous, she said on Monday. James was selected as the speaker for the first UNC Distinguished Lectureship on Racial Equity and Belonging, an event hosted by the Executive Branch of the Undergraduate Student Government.
Senior Anu Joy, director of the Department of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the Undergraduate Student Government, said the lectureship began as an idea within the Richards administration last year.
It is meant to provide a platform for individuals that carry expertise and lived experiences regarding diversity, inclusion and equity, Joy said, and acts as a chance for them to share their knowledge with UNC community members.
“The past four years that I spent at Carolina have showcased the immense need for greater conversation surrounding working toward equity across identities,” she said.
Provost Chris Clemens said that the undergraduate students of the University are the leaders of tomorrow.
“I want to highlight that this lectureship was conceived and executed by the students, and is a testimony to their dedication to service, their leadership skills and plain old hard work,” he said.
James is trained as an organizational psychologist, and has expertise in crisis leadership, workplace diversity and management strategy.
During the lecture, she introduced the term "unconscious bias": When people overlook or group information in a way that allows them to process stimuli more quickly. Unconscious bias can be influenced by experiences people have, leading to narrow perspectives that can be changed over time, she said.
“By and large, most people are not intentionally out to do harm, to say the wrong thing or to hurt somebody,” James said. “But, it’s because we don’t recognize what we don’t know, because of our unconscious biases, that we end up making those mistakes and hurting people, even if we didn’t intend to.”
To emphasize the importance of equity and investing in students and faculty of color, James presented “P.R.E.P.”, an acronym standing for pipeline, recruiting, experience and progress.
James said students of certain backgrounds may not have access to resources, guidance and networks to facilitate them through the college process. The same can be said of faculty, who often must have a doctorate in order to pursue a professorship. A large percentage of people pursuing doctoral degrees, however, come from affluent backgrounds, she said.
There are also structural biases involved in recruiting students and faculty of color, James said.
When people of color are brought in to diversify workspaces and campuses, they sometimes don’t have good experiences because of the inequitable environment, she said.
“If students are here not having a good experience, then they go back and tell their younger siblings and friends about what’s problematic of being here,” James said. “Then it becomes that much more difficult to recruit people into the school.”
She added that the issue of tokenism also presents a hurdle for faculty.
Faculty of color are often asked to attend events or mentor students as a way to highlight diversity in engagement. But those faculty members should be engaging in their work and spending time to become effective teachers — which is factored into their teaching evaluations and helps decide if they will be promoted or granted tenure — she said.
“It’s one of the reasons why it becomes more and more difficult for diverse faculty to be successful in these environments because they are tugged in so many different directions that they’re taking time away from the things that will actually be measured and rewarded when it comes time for tenure,” James said.
To alleviate and address these issues, James shared strategies implemented by the Wharton School to make finance classes accessible to high schools around the U.S., as well as making the admissions process replicable and less biased.
These steps, as well as increasing the pipeline for people to earn doctoral degrees, are meant to close the gap in higher education, she said.
“So my question for you is: What is UNC’s unique strategy for closing the racial equality gap in higher education?” she asked. “What can UNC do that will address this problem? Having conversations like this is a great first step.”
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