Presentation #502.08 in the session “Plenary Panel: Workforce Townhall”.
In the fall of 2018, members of the graduate student community in the Cornell Astronomy department shared experiences of neglect and abuse with members of the department faculty and administration. These stories were often met with surprise — as is likely familiar in many academic departments, an unspoken culture of silence kept graduate students from sharing their stories for fear of being labeled as “overreacting” or “difficult”. While often painful, these conversations revealed a fragmented and disorganized community containing many well intentioned and caring individuals. As one conversation led to another we realized that the faculty, research staff, administrative staff, and undergraduates not only shared our concerns for workplace bias and abusive power dynamics, but also our desire for a healthy, diverse, inclusive, and supportive community to facilitate an environment of academic and scientific excellence. To that end, our community formed the Climate and Diversity Committee. This committee includes members from each constituency within the department (e.g. undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, academic and administrative staff, etc.) who represent their colleagues’ voices, and address concerns by constructing and initiating plans of action. These committee meetings are led by two co-chairs, one of which is required to be a graduate student. The committee has initiated several feasibility studies recommended by the graduate students. Through these studies, we have implemented a Community Values statement, a graduate student handbook, a secondary advisor, a peer-mentoring program, in house TA training, bystander intervention training, and mandatory yearly meetings between students and their full committee. As the world shuddered from the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests, the Climate and Diversity Committee and the graduate students recognized the need to do much more to understand and combat anti-Black racism, especially as scientists in a department with so few Black scientists. Our participation in #ShutDownStem and Juneteenth, as well as our current focus on anti-Black racism in our reading group, are only the beginning of our work on this front. The Climate and Diversity Committee is currently working to synthesize initiatives from the TEAM-UP and AAS reports, along with grassroots initiatives from Johns Hopkins Earth and Planetary Science and astronomy departments across the country to recommend relevant actions to the department’s constituencies, in order to harness the momentum of these events to make lasting change in our department.