iSchool takes action on diversity, equity, inclusion

By Doug Parry Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The University of Washington Information School has several ongoing diversity initiatives and is home to many individuals who are passionate about the value of a diverse faculty, staff and student body. But it hasn’t had a structure in place to ensure action and results.

That changed recently with the creation of a new leadership position, associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Wanda Pratt, a professor in the school, took on the role this summer and will serve on an acting basis for 2020-21.

Pratt, who has been on the iSchool faculty since 2002, is starting with a listening tour and assessing the school’s performance on DEI issues, both inside and outside the classroom. She will use what she learns to formulate a strategy and goals that align with the school’s values and share those with the community. Among her first tasks is to meet with student-group diversity leaders and gauge how the iSchool is involving students in DEI efforts.

The iSchool has made strides in increasing diversity in recent years. Its Informatics program is 40 percent women — not quite gender parity but much closer than most STEM programs. Women and LGBTQ individuals are well-represented among faculty and staff. International students help increase the diversity of its programs, and its Native North American Indigenous Knowledge initiative has attracted numerous Native faculty and students. However, some racial groups, such as Black students, staff and faculty, remain underrepresented. Pratt wants to see that change, and is taking a holistic approach.

“Numbers are one way to look at diversity, but we need to look at the inclusiveness of our whole environment,” Pratt said. “Look at our courses. Are we including work from a variety of people? Are we talking about these issues in each of our classes and are we talking about ways in which it fits with class topics? It’s not just who is at the table, but also how we’re talking about it.”

Anind Dey
Dean Anind Dey

iSchool Dean Anind Dey said he’s seen people working in “pockets” on DEI issues and has been pleased with the level of passion for diversity within the school, but wanted to see a more concerted effort. Having an associate dean dedicated to DEI will ensure that outreach, recruitment, teaching and professional development align with the school’s goals.

Dey said he wants the iSchool to be recognized as a leader on DEI issues. The school reaps the benefits of diversity in countless ways, he said.

“The level of innovation, the level of academic discourse, the level of creativity we’re able to have improves when we have more diverse thought,” Dey said. “We benefit tremendously from promoting that.”

Dey said Pratt’s standing as a full professor and previous leadership on diversity issues will allow her to step in and make an immediate impact in this new role.

“Through Wanda’s academic work, her research, her committee work, her service work, and all the other aspects of her job, it’s very clear she holds dear the value of diversity,” Dey said. “I think she will do a wonderful job here.”

DEI issues are personal to Pratt. She documented her own experiences with gender bias in her career in the technology field and academia in a well-read blog post and is raising a teenager whose gender is nonbinary.

“I’ve seen what my teen has gone through and how clueless people are about how their words and actions exclude people like my teen and leave them feeling unwelcome,” Pratt said. “There’s a lot of ways that people are meaning to do well and are still being exclusionary.”

Some of Pratt’s research has focused on understanding where health-care biases exist and how those biases lead to health inequities. She is among the researchers conducting a project called UnBIASED that is investigating hidden biases that affect how doctors communicate with their patients. Pratt said the work has further opened her eyes to the damage done by implicit bias.

“It doesn’t have to be someone who’s intentionally racist to be racist; the systems around us promote racism and sexism,” she said. “It takes work to actively recognize it and step back. I’ve started on a path to do that and now I want to help others do that.”

Nekya Johnson
Nekya Johnson

Pratt already has a team in place. Diversity Programs Advisor Cynthia del Rosario will play a key role, continuing to serve as the iSchool’s lead diversity recruiter and supporting students from underrepresented backgrounds during their time at the school. The school has added a DEI program manager, Nekya Johnson, who will also work closely with Pratt. Johnson is a familiar face at the school, which she joined this year as a program coordinator, teaming with academic advisor Joe Eckert to serve students in the Master of Library and Information Science and Ph.D. programs.

“Although I’ll miss working with Joe and the Student Services team, I look forward to working with all iSchool staff and launching a DEI plan that leads to long-lasting, impactful change,” Johnson said.  

Pictured at top: Wanda Pratt, photographed pre-pandemic in Mary Gates Hall.