Guy on buoy in water
School of Oceanography ‘Afloat’ Challenge.

Our community acknowledges that we must work to address the culture of white supremacy in our department and in the geosciences as a whole. We must ensure that racial and gender microaggressions, exclusion, bullying, and discriminatory remarks are addressed as pervasive, systemic issues.”

The School of Oceanography’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Statement of Acknowledgement recognizes the lack of racial diversity in the geosciences, citing a study that found little to no progress on that front over the past four decades. Having acknowledged this pressing concern, the School has committed to work towards creating a more racially diverse and welcoming environment. The main areas of focus for the 2020-2021 school year are changes to graduate recruitment and faculty hiring practices that open up pathways of communication and encourage greater transparency.

As a first step, the School hosted a meeting during winter quarter where community members gave honest and candid feedback and opened up dialogue on many tough discussions. A new School-wide communications committee is taking over the duty of ensuring that the community knows all that is happening around DEI. 

“We started opening up DEI Committee membership to more people outside of the academic side of the School, which is great,” said undergraduate DEI committee member Isabelle Osuna. “It will be nice to include voices and opinions from people in ship operations and staff members, and include more undergraduate and graduate voices.”

Seeing a need to coordinate and communicate action items called for by students and postdocs, a group of graduate students put together a DEI tracker to help the community document the work being done in different subcommittees.

Open letters regarding the lack of diversity and a culture of exclusion within the department have also been posted on the Oceanography website, along with suggested avenues for improvement. These letters, along with a School-wide culture survey assessing the climate surrounding equity and inclusion in the department, were distributed with the goal of creating concrete action items.

“The open letters were trying to address leadership to implement structural change, and to highlight things outside of grad student recruitment,” said graduate student Rosalind Echols. “Something that we haven’t done well is valuing undergraduate voices. We are concerned about the ethics of recruiting people into an environment that hasn’t evaluated its toxic practices, with not a huge history of introspection. We don’t want to set people up to be in a harmful environment.”

The graduate recruitment and evaluation process received a major overhaul, with measurable success: the School was able to interview the most diverse pool of applicants ever for the 2021-2022 school year. This includes the elimination of the GRE exam requirement, changing application requirements and prompts to include an additional short personal essay, updating the School website to become more accessible and easy to navigate, and changing the decision-making process and timeline to be more holistic.

“A win in the past year is getting the graduate application committee set up,” says undergraduate DEI Committee member Cristian Smith. “The process of applying to grad school isn’t straightforward and is very involved, so demystifying the whole process will allow a lot more people to apply.” In addition, current graduate students will answer questions from prospective students about the application process this autumn, providing a level of access not previously available.

Oceanography faculty LuAnne Thompson and Mikelle Nuwer, in collaboration with Kerry Naish and José Guzman from the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and Marine Biology program, recently received a grant from the NSF IUSE-GEOPATHS program to build a cohort-based experience for underrepresented community college transfer students who are interested in marine-related majors at UW. The group is currently in the planning stages with the first cohort to be recruited in Spring 2022.

The Banse Oceanography Seminar, now the Banse Early Career Scientist Seminar Series, shifted its focus to infuse the department with new perspectives by bringing in early-career scientists from underrepresented backgrounds to give talks and to connect with faculty and students. This seminar series will kick off again in October 2021, on Wednesdays from 2:30 to 3:50 p.m. The department is now accepting nominations for speakers, encouraging nominations from all members of the department and broader oceanography community. 

The School will also be undergoing a 10-year review in the 2022-2023 academic year. To begin that work, the DEI committee is currently drafting a Diversity Plan with the goal of a completed draft by October 2021. 

“The School is taking advantage of its ten-year review to build a framework to create and support a more diverse department,” says DEI committee co-chair LuAnne Thompson. “We are currently working on a school-wide Diversity Plan that we will share with the wider community in the fall.”

Although there is always more work to be done in diversifying a historically white male-dominated field, the School of Oceanography has identified areas for improvement and the DEI Committee has led and guided the community to create a more welcoming, inclusive environment.

“As a School, we acknowledged the power imbalance that was already in place, that there is a problem in these ways and to be committed to fixing those problems,” said Smith. “It was a hard conversation, but it reflected what people are already thinking about and it shows that it’s top of mind for people. I think this is a big win because it’s not something you see often, and now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and implement some changes.”