Stepping up to do the work in an academic society


Today, the Ecological Society of America is dropping its ballot for a new round of seats on the Governing Board. I’m hoping to serve the society as the VP for Education and Human Resources. If elected, I’ll begin a 3-year term in summer 2021.

It wasn’t so long ago in my career that I felt I didn’t have the bandwidth* to take on some substantial leadership roles. But with more seasoning and perspective, I’ve figured out how to be in charge of leadership/service stuff without having other parts of my life fall apart, and I have the capacity to help other people succeed while still taking care of my own personal and professional business.

If I assume this role, I’ll be responsible for shaping policy and strategy related to education, professional development, recruitment, and recognition of members. This also involves appointing committees on awards, diversity and education, and ethics. Now that the society has adopted anti-racism as a stated priority, the person in this position will be expected to do heavy lifting to improve equity and access, and to help junior scientists cultivate their careers as ecologists.

The current VP of Education & HR is Pamela Templer. Before her was Nalini Nadkarni, preceded by Julie Reynolds, who followed Meg Lowman, who served two terms. So, these are pretty big shoes to step into. The ESA is a large organization with an effective infrastructure, with substantial reach and influence. I’ve been attending meetings (admittedly, not every year) since 1997. I’ve often felt on the periphery, so I’m flattered and humbled that the nominating committee has decided to give me this nod.

I think I have the experience, background, and insight to help build a more accessible and more equitable community of ecologists. At every conference, folks will quip that you can stray far from the convention center and still easily tell who’s an attendee — not from the name badge, but because ecologists often “look like ecologists.” This mindset, about what an ecologist looks like, needs to change. We have to stop using homophily when we decide who gets opportunities. We’re not going to make ESA more diverse by training people to fit in, but by making it clear that ecologists can have any ethnicity, any gender, any accent, any personal background (and can fit in while wearing tevas, chacos, stilettos, wingtips, espadrilles, boots, mary janes, doc martens, or tennis shoes). Anybody should be able to walk in from the street into the conference center and be mistaken for an ecologist. This culture change isn’t one that will happen overnight, and it requires that we focus on justice, by changing how power is distributed, so that it’s no longer up to the majority to decide when members of historically excluded classes get to have a seat at the table.

When I was asked about the nomination, I gave it a lot of thought. Considering what I was just saying about representation and who should hold the reins, how hypocritical would I be to choose to step into this role as a white guy? That’s not only a fair question, I think it’s an important one. I tangentially mention the issue in my ballot statement, but since I have as much space and leeway as I wish on my own blog, I can discuss this more here. If you’re a regular reader here, I would guess you’re aware that I work to understand my identities, and the entailing obligations. While my experiences inform my praxis, the bottom line is that I am another white guy, and who needs another white guy in a leadership role? Then why did I say yes to the nomination?

I said yes because this job is no small amount of work, if it’s done well. It looks like yeoperson’s work in the service of the community, and its purpose is to lift up others. If I am going to be an effective accomplice in the promotion of equity and justice, that means I’ve got to put in the work, especially when it’s unglamorous and doesn’t call attention to me. Maybe “Vice President of Education and Human Resources” sounds like glamorous in the abstract, it won’t be glamorous in practice, and I’m more focused on the opportunity to work with a team of other committed ecologists to help ESA reach its goals.

If you look at how our institutions approach DEIJ work**, this usually involves putting most of the labor on the shoulders of those who have experienced professional adversity because of their identity. This is cultural taxation. It is not only unjust to expect minoritized people to do all of the equity work, it’s also ineffective, because the change needs to happen throughout the entire community. It’s not something that we can just compartmentalize. We’re not going to change our primarily white institutions without white folks choosing to do the work.

This week, a letter came out in Science about systemic racism in higher education, with 10,238 signatories. I think it’s an important read. I’d like to share with you one paragraph, salient to what I’m saying:

Academic culture also fails BIPOC faculty, who receive fewer federal grants due to systemic bias (9) and topic area (10). BIPOC faculty are most likely to invest substantial time in activities that promote diversity, which are devalued in the tenure and promotion process (11). BIPOC faculty are further disadvantaged in tenure decisions through cultural taxation of unequal service and mentoring demands. Given these burdens, BIPOC faculty cannot be expected to be the primary agents of institutional change. Instead, those most empowered to make change—non-BIPOC faculty—must join BIPOC faculty in their efforts to prioritize recruiting, supporting, and championing diversity.

Barber, Hayes, Johnson, Márquez-Magaña, et al. 2020

When it’s put that way, I feel like ‘yes’ was the right answer to this nomination, as long as I’m committed to putting in the time and centering the members of our community who have been placed on the margins. I don’t think it has to be me to do the work, but I also think it would be wrong to avoid the work when asked to do it.

The environment is changing rapidly, and Ecological Society of America needs to continually evolve. Societal needs for training in ecological research are evolving, and career development for junior scientists beyond academia is critical. ESA has made tremendous success in disseminating evidence-based teaching practices, and there is always opportunity for growth. We also have the critical task of informing the public about science, and supporting evidence-based decision making by policymakers. Ecologists may argue about the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, but our scientific society can only function well when human diversity comes first.

If you’re a member of the ESA (and if you’re an ecologist in the US who isn’t, it’s not a bad idea to be a member), and you think that I can serve our scientific community well, I hope you’ll take the time to read my ballot statement and please take the time to vote. [I haven’t a link here yet, because I scheduled this post to come out while I’m still sleeping in California on Monday morning. I’ll update the post with the link, but not too early though!)

*By the way, this is one of my favorite posts I’ve written on here, in part because even though this is something that I would never write today, because it doesn’t even describe my life anymore, I think it still holds up.

** DEIJ = Diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. Which is ESA’s chosen version of the acronym, some folks like DEI, some use JEDI. Potato, potato. My long list of posts I eventually may write for here includes one about how vocabulary in this realm gets in the way of progress, about how “inclusion” is inadequate, and how we’re not talking about “access,” and how we should put “justice” first. But that’s for another time.