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Hola es su centro para mantenerse informado, compartir ideas y conectarse con recursos. (Hola is your hub to stay informed, share ideas, and connect with resources in northern Illinois.)

Progress is 'slow' as NIU's Psychology Dept. tackles a lack of racial diversity in faculty


Addressing diversity has been at the forefront for many organizations and institutions across the country. At Northern Illinois University, the psychology department seeks to improve the diversity of the faculty, but it’s not the only area it's targeting.

Taneisha Vilma just recently earned her doctoral degree from NIU’s psychology department.

During her program, she was a member of the psychology department’s Diversity and Social Justice Committee.

Regarding the committee’s efforts in addressing the lack of racial diversity on the faculty, she said, “The results are slow, like many things, but at least I see there's initiatives and steps and they're working towards it.”

The Psychology Department has no Black or Latino professors. This is pretty far from being reflective of NIU’s student population. Latinos make up 20%, Black students make up 17%, and Asians make up 6% of the student population.

She said representation in faculty matters.

“Whatever your identification is, if you see the people doing it, that allows you to see yourself in the field, see yourself in the work, see yourself being whatever the outcome,” Vilma said.

She said although there aren’t many Black folks or women in cognitive development studies, she felt that faculty members at NIU have been invested in her success.

“So I just was really fortunate that I don't necessarily share the identities with my mentors and my advisors, but I felt very supported throughout my graduate career.”

The acting chair of the Psychology Department Alecia Santuzzi said diversity is important because in her own experience training as a woman in mathematics and computer science she didn’t feel like she belonged.

“Because everyone I was supposed to be inspired by and aspire to be looked very different from me,” Santuzzi said. “And so it was really hard for me to push that back and say, I know I can really do this. And I imagined, that's what we're thinking in terms of our values within the department.”

She said what makes recruiting Black and Latino faculty hard is that the recruiting pool is small and they're so in demand.

“Every university that I know of has the same initiative,” she said. “And so the faculty candidates, the job candidates coming through that would help us to diversify our faculty. Other universities are attracted to those same candidates as well.”

Psychology professor Laura Pittman is the head of the department’s diversity and social justice committee. She said historically, those conducting research in psychology haven't come from varied backgrounds.

“It has been white, more affluent, privileged individuals in the field,” Pittman said. “And so there's a recognition that we can't assume universality about things, we need to kind of broaden our lens.”

She says the department is hoping to hire a Latino professor for a tenured track position as a joint hire with the Latino studies department.

They are also looking at how they consider merit when evaluating faculty for a tenure position.

For example, she said when using teaching evaluations, research shows there’s racial, ethnic and gender bias.

“And if we're only using that as a notation of how successful someone is at teaching, then that would put someone, either a woman or scholar of color, at a disadvantage,” Pittman said.

Diversity and Research

For Vilma, diversity matters, as it impacts research.

“If you have people with different lived experiences, they can develop different questions, maybe questions that haven't been asked, that people haven't considered,” she said. “And when we start asking different questions, we get different data results.”

And in her field, where researchers are developing generalizations from their studies, how data is generated is important to consider.

“If you're able to diversify the types of questions and the samples, you can better generalize what we're talking about,” Vilma said. “And what we see sometimes is you have this outcome, and people try to extend it beyond what is appropriate.”

Pittman said a focus on diversity within research is an emphasis in the training students receive.

“How generalizable are the studies they're doing?,” Pittman said. “How can you look at them from other perspectives, doing some purposeful work to broaden the field? So it's not just white college students that we're basing our findings on.”

Vilma earned her doctoral degree in developmental psychology at NIU. Her research interest lies in the cognitive process of children from preschool to early elementary age.

“And I specifically am interested in scientific reasoning development,” Vilma said.

When she conducted her own research for her dissertation, she made a point of having a very diverse sample. She says of the kids who took part in the research about 40% were Black, another 40% White, and included Latinos and Asian and Pacific Islanders.

“Not that I'm asking any race-related questions. I don't actually do any analysis based on social demographics. But I wanted it to just be more representative.”

And she said that produces really informative data that can be generalized for a greater population.

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.