A few years ago, David Musick, senior dean of faculty affairs at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM), was telling a female colleague about some dismaying research he’d read.

In a study of a medical school’s grand rounds, a weekly formal presentation by a respected physician or other leader, researchers found that men were typically introduced with their credentials. Women were introduced by just their name.

Musick had been floored by the findings, but his female colleague hadn’t even needed to hear the end of the story. “Oh, I can tell you how it turned out,” she said. “They don’t introduce the women using their credentials.”

Startled, Musick asked how she knew. “I live it all the time,” she replied.

It was the kind of eye-opening exchange that made Musick, a self-described “older white male,” realize he had more to learn about issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. So when an opportunity to examine his privilege arose in the form of an invitation to join a new group called White Allies as Transformational Leaders (WATL), Musick didn’t hesitate. 

The year-long program, created in 2020 by Virginia Tech’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity (OID), turned out to be “easily the most significant professional development activity that I've ever engaged in, in terms of its impact on me personally,” he said. “Now I'm trying to do my best to be an ally and an advocate and speak up when I can.”

Becoming an ally

According to Michele Deramo, associate vice provost of diversity education and engagement, an ally is someone who may not personally experience oppression or marginalization, “but they are choosing to step up and show up to support others who are. Allyship is really a set of skills or mindsets that are about, how do I stand with people who are not enjoying some of the privileges that I have?”

At a university where fewer than 30 percent of faculty identify as non-white, the WATL program helps leaders dig into the whys and hows of being a more effective ally.

Participants join a cohort of 20 to 25 campus leaders, many of them academic department heads or deans, to discuss the book "An Inclusive Academy" by Abigail J. Stewart and Virginia Valian. In monthly meetings facilitated by Deramo, participants explore topics such as recruiting and retaining diverse faculty and examine their own experiences with race, gender, accessibility, and equity in the academy, creating a mutual vulnerability that binds participants together. 

“One of the greatest benefits is being part of a community that's striving to do better,” said Kristin Gehsmann, director of the School of Education in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, who joined WATL two years ago. “I have a network now, and I am able to learn what other people are doing across campus and bring back resources and ideas to the School of Education.” 

Members of the 2022–23 WATL cohort include:

  • Julia Allen, Dean’s Office, College of Architecture, Arts, and Design
  • Ella Atkins, aerospace and ocean engineering
  • Renee Boyer, food science and technology
  • Kevin Boyle, real estate
  • Nancy Bradley, School of Education
  • Sherrie Clark, large animal clinical
  • Michael Fox, School of Neuroscience
  • Chip Frazier, sustainable biomaterials
  • Trish Hammer, Dean’s Office, College of Science
  • Jason Holliday, forest resources
  • Bill Hopkins, fisheries and wildlife and Global Change Center
  • Jennifer Johnson, sociology
  • Gerard Lawson, School of Education
  • Jeff Loeffert, School of Performing Arts
  • Brian Strahm, forest resources
  • Eric de Stuyler, mathematics
  • Pamela Teaster, human development
  • John Tedesco, School of Communication
  • Jennifer Wayne, biomedical engineering and mechanics
  • Robert Weiss, geosciences and Academy of Integrated Sciences
  • Steven Wrenn, chemical engineering

As allies, participants commit to making substantive change in their units. After the first year of the program ended, 12 to 15 WATL participants have continued to meet in an ongoing accountability group, where they set goals — for instance, to invite a mid-career scholar from an underrepresented group to campus as a speaker — as they try to shift their department cultures for good. 

A few past participants shared some of what they’ve accomplished with the help of the White Allies as Transformational Leaders program.

Photo illustration
Photo illustration by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

Examining the service burden in the Department of Psychology

As "An Inclusive Academy" points out, service loads are not shared equitably among faculty members. Women and members of minoritized groups tend to bear the brunt of committee work. 

To combat that, Roseanne Foti, head of the Department of Psychology in the College of Science, is conducting a service equity audit to determine how many hours of work are associated with different forms of service and how department members fare against typical national loads. Foti plans to create a dashboard she can share with faculty, so “when these faculty come back to me and say, ‘I do so much service,’ I'm going to ask, ‘But do you? How does your service compare to department and national norms?’”

Other changes in the department include a complete redesign of hiring practices. Because Foti’s own research shows that keeping content areas open and emphasizing collaboration, teamwork, and interdisciplinarity in job descriptions tends to attract a more diverse applicant pool, she helped a search committee wordsmith a psychology job ad to focus more on “here's who we are as a department," she said. 

That job search netted 372 applicants, nearly twice the normal number, with 35 percent of applicants coming from underrepresented groups. “The pool was so fabulous that I went back to the dean and got more positions,” said Foti. She ended up hiring three candidates, two of whom were from underrepresented groups. 

Offering mentoring support at VTCSOM

With 80 to 100 new faculty being hired at VTCSOM each year, Musick had been contemplating a formal faculty mentoring program. WATL gave him the jumpstart that he needed. This fall, the school began beta-testing “mentoring circles” — small groups of four to six mentees and a couple of mentors, modeled after a “launch committee” program at the University of Michigan — with the help of the school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion team.

While VTCSOM is hiring rapidly, only 7 to 8 percent of the faculty come from underrepresented groups. Musick recently arranged a dinner to ask BIPOC and minority faculty about their experience of equity and inclusion at the School of Medicine: What can we do to better support you? How can we better recruit and retain new faculty and existing faculty from underrepresented groups?

Participating in WATL has raised Musick’s awareness of the disconnect between the desire to hire more diverse faculty and the belief that “they just don’t apply for positions in our field or at our university.” Data upends that trope, suggesting that if people from underrepresented groups don't apply, it's "because they don’t think they would even get an interview," said Musick. "So we have two very different perceptions of the same problem. The value of a program like WATL is that we can create awareness of these issues and then act upon them.”

Reevaluating space in the School of Education

Shortly before Kristin Gehsmann was hired as the director of the School of Education, the school’s space in War Memorial Hall was closed for renovation. Eventually faculty and staff members were relocated to a space at the Corporate Research Center that required renovation and expansion. 

In the redesign process, Gehsmann committed to making space allocation as equitable as possible among faculty and staff members. “Every decision we make in the school, we are trying to make it through the lens of equity,” she said. “How do we create a sense of belonging here? How do we signal to people that they are welcome? When we moved to the CRC, we started with our front door.” 

The door was too heavy. No one could open it easily. “Nothing quite says ‘you're not welcome’ than when you physically can't enter a space,” said Gehsmann. 

To solve the problem, Gehsmann had the door adjusted and added an automatic door opener. She and her team also thought of other accessibility and equity fixes, including adjustable furniture and desks, a gender-neutral bathroom, training room spaces with audio amplifications, and ADA-compliant and wheelchair-accessible offices. “We really tried to walk the walk,” she said.

Revamping hiring in the Department of Geosciences

“I'm a white, male, heterosexual Baby Boomer,” said Steve Holbrook, head of the Department of Geosciences in the College of Science. “It's like I won the civilizational lottery, right? That's been a painful process to become aware of, because I think human psychology is that I want to take credit for all of my victories and all my accomplishments. It’s like, no, I've had a lot of help and a lot of good luck along the way.”

To extend that help to others, Geosciences began requiring diversity statements from job candidates, but Holbrook hopes to take the more dramatic step of anonymizing application materials to reduce the sway of prestige names like Cal Tech or Harvard.

“I think there's just something that's fundamentally challenging in the way we measure accomplishment and the way we perceive prestige that makes it hard to progress on these fronts,” he said. “So I am very happy that our new dean in the College of Science has made a real commitment to targeted talent hires and to working with OID and the Future Faculty Diversity Program for creating lines to hire people. I am 100 percent sure that the people we hire through that mechanism will be just as qualified and just as likely to succeed.”

Photo illustration
Photo illustration by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

Creating a critical mass of advocates

To extend the benefits of WATL, the Office of Inclusion and Diversity will launch a similar allyship program for administrators in January 2023, called TRAIL (Transformational Allyship for Inclusive Leadership). Already the program has 24 committed participants from facilities and operations, university relations, information technology, human resources, administrative and business services, athletics, and more.

To Deramo, higher education has the power to lift people, “but it's also a very elite system that can perpetuate inequality. So I think we need to continue to wrestle with that very honestly.” 

The wrestle happens more easily in the context of WATL meetings, even for faculty members like Gehsmann with a longstanding commitment to allyship. “As more people experience it, we will have a critical mass of advocates throughout the institution,” said Gehsmann. “So it's a really great model. You can’t help but continue to learn.” 

Campus leaders interested in joining an upcoming cohort of White Allies as Transformational Leaders or Transformational Allyship for Inclusive Leadership can contact Michele Deramo, deramo@vt.edu.

Written by Melody Warnick