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Pursuing Excellence through Diversity

October 01, 2012
Jerry Harris

When working on global energy issues, perspectives from individuals with different nationality, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity can lead to creative solutions. The Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) at the School of Earth Sciences coordinates diversity programs to support faculty and staff with different backgrounds and to build national and international partnerships. The office aims not only to bring individual liberation but also set important stepping-stones for pursing academic excellence. In this article, Professor Jerry Harris, Associate Dean for Multicultural Affairs, shares his philosophy about diversity and the mission of OMA.

Q. I found it unique for there to be an Office of Multicultural Affairs within a school. Are there any particular reasons why the office has been created at the School of Earth Sciences? What is the mission of OMA?

JH: The Office of Multicultural Affairs was created to address two related concerns. The first stems from the distinct under-representation of U.S. minorities in our School and the earth science professions. The second concern is one we anticipate having in the future, namely the integration of an even more diverse and multicultural population of students, faculty, and staff. These concerns acknowledge our belief that the future School of Earth Sciences will and should be more diverse than it is today. Filling the pipeline, in this case with more diversity, addresses a global workforce issue as well as an American diversity issue.

Our Mission is to promote a unified and diverse community of inclusion, respect, and excellence through development of faculty, students, and staff. This community should be representative of our national communities and our international partnerships and initiatives.

It’s important that we see diversity as an asset that will not only support academic excellence but will also foster prosperity and a better quality of life for the communities we serve and influence. In my opinion, we must become better capable of capturing the potential multiculturalism offers to foster new ways of learning, creativity, and innovation. This is the challenge facing the entire university, and not just the schools.

Q. How diverse are faculty, staff, and students in the School of Earth Sciences in terms of nationality, gender, socioeconomic class and working experience?

JH: The School of Earth Sciences is already quite multicultural, as are most other schools at Stanford. We have students, faculty and staff of many different nationalities, races, ethnicities, religions, and cultural backgrounds. Our graduate students are about 37% international and about 40% women. However, we have less than 8% from all the under-represented U.S. groups. Our faculty is less diverse, but over the past few years we have made significant progress in hiring women. We need more progress is hiring under-represented minorities to the faculty, an area our dean is focusing lots of attention.

Given the global concerns say about energy and environment and the global approaches required to address them, I believe all aspects of the earth science school-of-the-future will become more diverse and multicultural.

"Our Mission is to promote a unified and diverse community of inclusion, respect, and excellence through development of faculty, students, and staff."

Q. How do you collaborate with other schools and offices at Stanford?

H: Our OMA work with other Stanford schools is mostly in areas of recruiting and retention of graduate students, especially under-represented U.S. minorities. There are also some ongoing activities such as joint proposals related to U.S.-focused diversity. Of course, we work with the offices of graduate education and undergraduate education, and our faculty and students have extensive research collaboration with colleagues in the other schools.

Q. Are there any criteria at OMA to build international partnerships?

Internationally speaking, we have criteria for considering proposals for international partnerships. First there must be overall benefit to the School. And we must have a faculty member willing to coordinate and facilitate the partnership. There must also be some financial sponsor, either internal or external. 

Q. How are partnerships created and maintained at the School of Earth Sciences and what is OMA’s role?

JH: I think most partnerships should and will have finite terms, say 3-5 years, but of course can be renewed if both parties agree. The dean approves all our formal partnerships, each of which has the faculty leader; some have more than one. The role of this faculty leader is to facilitate activities for the partnership. This is very important. Our international partnerships focus on research and education, and in many cases involve fieldwork and faculty exchanges or visits. It would be a mistake, however, to think of our partnership activities as having some top-down organization and management. Instead, our office supports and fosters activities lead by our faculty and students. In any case, I think building a solid personal relationship is the most important component for a successful long-term partnership.

Q. Does the office currently have any particular geographical focus to develop relationships? If so, why?

JH: There is no geographical preferences or focus, although geographic areas of interest are those where innovative energy and environmental research are of common interest. Currently we have international partnerships in Thailand and Saudi Arabia. We’re working on partnerships in China and Brazil. We are also developing domestic partnerships with U.S. minority-serving institutions. The purpose of the latter is to expand the graduate school pipeline.

Q. How do you think the office has changed the faculty members, staff, and students’ or your perceptions about cultural diversity?

JH: It’s a work in progress. Our goals are to open new pathways for U.S. minority scholars to study earth sciences, to bring excellent post docs and faculty from under-represented groups into our community, and to build collaborative international partnerships aimed at furthering research and education. For instance, our showcase undergraduate program is SURGE - Summer Research in Geoscience and Engineering. SURGE brings a group of 15-20 undergraduates to Stanford every summer for research, mentoring, and training.  The students come from U.S. universities and our international partner institutions. Our faculty and graduate students have enthusiastically participated and supported this program.

I believe we’re making progress by generating more personal contacts with the scholars coming through our programs, scholars we might not normally see in our application pools. This is progress.

Q. How do you envision the future of the Office of Multicultural Office?

The term “multicultural” in our name recognizes the value individuals developed through work experience and background stemming from differences in race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, work experience, socio-economic class, and national origin. In addition, the use of the term acknowledges cultural differences that can form barriers to partnerships and collaborative activities. 

Today we need the Office of Multicultural Affairs; however, if we’re successful in realizing our vision, we’ll no longer need this office and will simply close the doors to OMA. Success means we’ll transform our already multicultural community into a functioning intercultural community where every unit of the school recognizes and acts on the importance of diversity and multiculturalism by integrating the contributions of all to build a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts. Imagine what this will be like!

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