The Adams File: Beyond Appearances

“In a multicultural environment, the boundaries of behavior and appearance are wider than they are in a single culture. But they matter less than the content of ideas and the commitment to values.”


May 13, 2015

Ron Adams
Ron Adams

OREGON STATE’S FACULTY HAVE DIVERSE ORIGINS. We come predominantly from the United States, but among us are people from practically every continent and many countries: Ethiopia, New Zealand, Germany, China, India, Colombia, El Salvador and Ireland. The list goes on.

We are extroverts and introverts; speakers of Hindi, Spanish, Polish, Mandarin and Russian as well as English; people who understand genetics or know their way around the surface of a computer chip; people who see the world through music, poetry or the visual arts. We are physically diverse. We are male, female and shades of both with varying sexual orientations. We are predominantly white but also Asian, Hispanic, black, Native American and all of the above.

Such diversity — and the varieties of experience it represents — is invaluable in a modern land grant university. It makes our research enterprise stronger. That’s because different views of the nature of a problem and of potential solutions lead to results that are more creative than those developed through a narrow lens.

Nevertheless, diversity carries special challenges. Accurate communications, for example, can be difficult. Every discipline has its own vocabulary, which must be properly understood to make a multidisciplinary research team effective.

In a multicultural environment, the boundaries of behavior and appearance are wider than they are in a single culture. But they matter less than the content of ideas and the commitment to values.

The diversity of faculty families requires respect for the balance of work and personal life. I once met with a department head about a faculty member who was pregnant. The faculty member was on tenure track, and the question was this: Can we delay the tenure clock so that she can give birth without worrying about her career? The answer was a simple “yes.” In reflecting on this experience, the fact that we even need to have such a conversation raises the need to review institutional policies. One of the considerations of the ADVANCE program, described in this issue of Terra, is to make such accommodations automatic, essentially opt-out rather than opt-in.

At Oregon State, the President’s Cabinet, Provost Council and other leadership bodies have adopted an Ethos Statement to guide our interactions. It provides a foundation for building and maintaining a community in which all members are committed to the growth, development and well-being of every other member. Among other things, it calls on all of us to act ethically, to establish relationships of trust and integrity, to respect each person’s identity and to eliminate the effects of biases.

These values are at the heart of an effective research community where every faculty member feels respected and has the opportunity to thrive.

Oregon State has a history of working toward such culture. A few years ago, a researcher suggested to me that we had a great story to tell. In her experience at that time, there were more female unit heads in the Oregon State College of Engineering than in any other such college in the country. I hadn’t thought of that as a story. It’s just the way it worked out because the people in those positions were the best leaders.

We know that we have more work to do to encourage women and minorities in science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM fields. We’re continuing to make progress through programs like ADVANCE.

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