Sagebrushers season 3 ep. 2: Executive Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Melanie Duckworth

President Sandoval welcomes new leader who will guide university efforts to enable inclusive excellence for students, faculty and staff

Brian Sandoval sitting next to Melanie Duckworth in the podcasting studio holding up wolf pack hand signs.

Sagebrushers season 3 ep. 2: Executive Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Melanie Duckworth

President Sandoval welcomes new leader who will guide university efforts to enable inclusive excellence for students, faculty and staff

Brian Sandoval sitting next to Melanie Duckworth in the podcasting studio holding up wolf pack hand signs.
Sagebrushers podcast identifier with a sketch of a sagebrush in the background
Sagebrushers is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other major platforms

University of Nevada, Reno President Brian Sandoval welcomes newly appointed Executive Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Melanie Duckworth on this episode of Sagebrushers.

Duckworth has been a member of the university faculty for more than two decades, serving in a number of administrative roles. She has served as an associate dean in the College of Science and interim chair in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources.

During the episode, Sandoval and Duckworth delve into Duckworth’s plans as she takes on the role of senior strategist advising diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility initiatives at the university. They discuss how diversity is a crucial ingredient in ensuring and strengthening the vitality and success of a university campus and the global business landscape. Additionally, they explore the importance of creating spaces and opportunities for open and ongoing dialogue to understand the needs of all campus groups, fostering engagement and ensuring leadership that values the contributions of every team member.

Sagebrushers is available on SpotifyApple Podcasts and other major podcast platforms, with new episodes every month.

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Sagebrushers – S3 Ep. 2 – Executive Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Dr. Melanie Duckworth

Join host President Brian Sandoval as he and newly appointed Executive Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Melanie Duckworth discuss the university's work to enable inclusive excellence for all students, faculty and staff.

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Dr. Melanie Duckworth: When we talk about anything that has to do with our larger environment and our world, diversity is going to be critical to the success of anything that we attempt. But it is also the case in the business world. They look at this because they want to know what the bottom line is, what's going to make us profitable, what's going to make us successful. And diversity tends to do that.

President Brian Sandoval: This is Sagebrushers, the podcast of the University of Nevada, Reno. Welcome back, Wolf Pack Family. I'm your host University President Brian Sandoval. One of our most important goals in our university strategic plan is to strengthen the pack. We are strengthened by working together to enable inclusive excellence for our students. Faculty and staff take strong leadership to ensure that we sustain a diverse, inclusive and equitable environment. And we're excited to welcome new leadership to guide our university's diversity, equity, inclusion and access efforts into the future. So, let's get started.

Today, my guest is our newly appointed executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion, Dr. Melanie Duckworth. Dr. Duckworth has been a member of our faculty for more than two decades and has served across a number of administrative roles, including her current roles as an associate dean in the College of Science and interim chair of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources. Dr. Duckworth will provide her unique perspective serving as our senior strategist in advising DEIA initiatives at our institution. Today's podcast is being recorded at the Reynolds School of Journalism on our University's campus. Dr. Duckworth, welcome to Sagebrushers. I'm excited to share with our listeners some of the amazing initiatives you're soon to embark on.

Duckworth: Thank you for having me. This is quite a significant moment for me and hopefully for our campus.

Sandoval: Oh, there is no doubt it will be. So, let's start with some of the key leadership roles you've played related to campus efforts that have furthered our institution's DEIA mission such as enhancing opportunities for women in STEM and co-directing the Nevada Teach. Can you elaborate a little bit more on the import of these projects?

Duckworth: Sure. In my role as associate dean for the College of Science, I am really tasked with ensuring the success of our students. And in our college, we've defined success in a couple of ways. First, we define it based on our recruitment efforts and the effectiveness of those efforts, and then, we define it based on our retention to graduation kind of efforts. And so, in terms of the programs that I direct or co-direct, they are immediately relevant to those kinds of goals. So, with recruitment, we have a funded program called Women in STEM, and it's all about increasing access but also establishing our university as the academic home for the widest possible swath of Nevadans. So, that program targets juniors and seniors in high schools in Nevada. And the hope is that we create not a dotted line to our campus but a solid line to our campus in a clear pathway. So, we are connecting them physically by having them come to our labs, attending workshops that faculty have put on, that our advisors have put on, across all of our STEM colleges. So, we are actually hoping that we do not at any point in their movement from junior and high school to a freshman here at UNR lose touch with them. We want to maintain that contact and kind of ensure that their journey to our campus is the smoothest possible journey.

President Brian Sandoval: So, do you have any stories about certain students that may have not realized, you know, Women in STEM, that they were capable, and suddenly, they see this path?

Duckworth: Oh goodness. I think to speak to that, I would need to mention our Women in Science and Engineering program. And that's a program for our undergraduate students. First-year students who are coming into any of the STEM colleges are invited to participate in that program. I should say for the Women in STEM program, for high schoolers and for the Women in Science and Engineering program, the WISE program for our undergraduate students, it's open to every student. What we're doing when we name the programs in this way is emphasizing the fact that there is a historic truth to women being excluded from STEM disciplines and from the pursuit of higher education in general. And so, what we're trying to do with these programs is make it clear to students that, “no, yeah, you are this. You are a scientist.” And so, yes, I have had conversations with students recently, which is really heart-tugging for me, that they will talk to me about messaging that they've got in relation to not really being appropriate to the research setting that they're in.

So, they might hear from a peer or they might actually hear from an instructor that maybe this isn't where they need to be, and this is recently. And so, what the WISE program does is ensure that they have a sense of community and that they feel really supported as they go into what is sometimes uncharted waters in terms of their presence as women in these different research moments. So, yeah, if you looked at any of our online kind of WISE sites, you would see videos by our students talking about what a difference it’s made. Of course, you know how we look at metrics for everything. And the beauty is that with this program, we've had over 600 students now participate in the program. It's the most well-established of the programs that we're implementing through the college. The graduation rates for six years, five years and four years are all in excess of what we find for STEM students, female students, and students in general across all of the different STEM colleges. So, it's a program that works.

Sandoval: That's fantastic. So, related to this, can you talk more about your work on the faculty diversity committee with members of the campus community that in turn led to a strategic plan stressing our cultural awareness, competency and engagement?

Duckworth: Sure. If it is anything that makes this moment one of great import for me is the level of work that I performed with members of our campus and particular faculty members. So, as I was invited to chair that committee by both the faculty senate chair and the provost, it was kind of a jointly commissioned committee. And I was allowed to select everybody that I wanted to serve with me on the committee and to identify liaisons to the committee. And so, my selection process was one where I wanted to have as many units on the campus as possible be present. When we talk about diversity, it's diversity of discipline, it’s the diversity of thought, it's diversity of lived experience as much as it is diversity of cultural identity. And I must say that I selected to ensure inclusivity around cultural identity factors too. So, it was a very diverse group, but my joy in it is that we were given five really clear charges and those charges were to ensure that we were engaged in best practice around recruiting, hiring, and retaining faculty, that we were in our processes, ensuring that candidates for faculty positions had a commitment that was manifest in terms of issues of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.

So, those were two of the charges. The other charges pertain to having there be an increased awareness and commitment to issues of diversity and inclusion across our entire campus and having there be events that would welcome all of our community to participate in these efforts. And the final thing was we wanted to look at the impact in terms of workload on faculty who were known to represent different diverse cultural identities and had an increased burden, if you would, or an increased responsibility for managing some of the challenges on campus related to different identities.

Sandoval: You've been on campus for 22 years now, Department of Psychology.

Duckworth: 22 years.

Sandoval: And thank you for that. And since that time, maybe not so, obvious, but diversity, equity, inclusion and access has changed and evolved. Now, DEIA is in some places under attack. And you touched about this in the question that you just responded to. Why is it so important to the life of a campus and frankly, the success of a campus?

Duckworth: If you look at any domain, if you are trying to find evidence for either the relevance or non-relevance of diversity, you would have to admit that diversity ensures the win. So, when we look to see where this has been most studied, it's most studied in the sciences. So, when we talk about nature, when we talk about anything that has to do with our larger environment and our world, diversity is going to be critical to the success of anything that we attempt. But it is also the case in the business world. They look at this because they want to know what the bottom line is, what's going to make us profitable, what's going to make us successful. And diversity tends to do that. And I think on our campus, if I could be so, bold, a lot of our conversations are quick, they're soundbites, and they're not sufficiently nuanced where we can have people understand that we have a diversity goal, not simply as a changing the face of the university effort, but because we know that it's going to improve everything that we do.

And some universities have been so bold as to say, “If you are anti-anything, that you are actually creating an impediment to the success of the campus.” And so, this is what I want us to think about, but in order to have people buy into this, I mean by people, I mean all of us, we have to have a vision for our campus that will allow us to put aside our efforts to be in a group and our efforts to make somebody outside of a group and instead have a vision that requires all of us.

Sandoval: That's an incredible response. So, let's dive into your new role, and how do you plan to engage with students, faculty and staff to promote diversity and inclusion on campus? And more importantly, how do we ensure as an institution that diverse voices are represented and heard in the decision-making processes?

Duckworth: Sure, sure. I'm known to this campus, and I know my campus, so I know of all the great initiatives that are already occurring. And one of my missions will be to have us be more aware of everything that is going on and that is effective on campus. When you talk about impacting our different constituencies, then those different constituencies have concerns that are specific to them. So, we would need to create spaces, create opportunities for open – and I think the most important part of this is ongoing dialogue. We do dialogue, but the dialogue is often a presentation. It's not really a conversation. And so, I thought about this, I was like, “Ooh, I'm going to do a podcast and I'm going to invite people to come to the podcast, students, faculty, staff and see what it is about their current moment on campus that doesn't allow them to feel maximally hopeful and engaged and to ask them what they would need in order to feel that way.”

And I think one thing that we need to attend to as we aspire to all these different goals is are we bringing everybody with us? And so, there has to be a recognition that we need strong leadership, but we need leadership that respects the contribution of the team. And so, what I hear oftentimes is that people are ready to be a part of things. And so, as we go about creating new processes and systems and structures that will support all of these DEIA efforts, we need to ensure that we recognize that we have a team that's ready to act. And we have a team that is particularly expert. So, people look at me and they say, “Oh, where's your diversity expertise?” My expertise is really in behavior change. And so, of course, that would serve our goals very well, but I'm going to be looking to our campus and saying, “Here are the experts. Here's what we already have in place. Let's magnify the impact.” Also, we need to look at other institutions and see what they're doing. Instead of thinking we have to reinvent the wheel. It's like, I'm not afraid of taking. There's a saying: all artists theft. I'm not afraid of taking somebody else's great idea because I am confident that we will improve upon every great idea that we take.

Sandoval: No, and thank you and imitation's the greatest form of flattery. But just going back to some of your comments, and I think about it, we're the Wolf Pack, and I've read some books about wolf packs and there are different wolves within the pack that have different roles and responsibilities and different identities, but the Pack protects each other and works together for a common goal. So, that's kind of how I see this. Is this fair?

Duckworth: I think it's fair, and I think it's really important that we return to respecting people's roles. And I don't always see that. I sometimes see that depending on where the role is in the hierarchy, a particular role will get a lot of respect. If the role is in a different place on the hierarchy, there will be less respect around that role. And that's what we want to change. We want to say, you're critical. Whatever you're doing.

Sandoval: Everybody's critical.

Duckworth: Whatever you're doing, you are critical to this family. So, we talk about the Wolf Pack as one pack. That is the goal in terms of how I'm conceiving of this. So, I want everybody to have a certain energy because they see and feel on campus that they are a part of this and that they are appreciated.

Sandoval: I couldn't say it any better than that. Thank you. So, a key goal of our university strategic plan is to seek recognition by the U.S. Department of Education as a Hispanic-Serving Institution and as an Asian American, Native American and Pacific Islander-Serving Institution. Can you talk about some of the efforts we've already started and how we can work toward these important goals? And just for the listeners benefit, we are like 24.8% Hispanics on this campus, and we can reach that designation at 25%.

Duckworth: And of course, that's something to celebrate, and it is another moment of making sure that we language fully around what this means for everyone. And so, for everybody to be on board around how fantastic of an achievement this will be, they need to know that the federal resources that are going to be provided to our campus based on that designation will definitely serve students who hold that identity, but it will also stabilize different resources across campus, so, there will be more resources for all of our students. So, that's something that we need to talk about. Based on my read of the numbers, we are all so, very close to having the designation as an Asian American, Native American, Pacific Islander-Serving Institution. So, we are getting there, and I'm always, I'm competitive. And so, I'm like, “Wait a minute. If you look at some of our other Nevada institutions, they have these designations.”

I'm like, “This is unacceptable.” Right away from me, I'm like, “This is unacceptable.” And it's unacceptable to talk about these designations and our energy and excitement around them without speaking to other identities and how we plan to champion those identities in terms of the resources that we want to put towards them. So, that to me is an important part of one pack. One pack is, “Yes, we're focused here, but we're also focused on you.” So, one of the newer things that I'm going to do is to look at how we create initiatives that are about other identities that have been excluded historically and that still feel marginalized on campus. We need to not move away from that. Instead, we need to go, “I see you; I feel your experience.” This is what we're doing. And so, other campus, we could look to California, we could look to our aspirant universities who are in, is it the UA…

Sandoval: The AAU.

Duckworth: The AAU. Sorry, I knew I was going to get it wrong. The AAU. I look to see what they're doing. And a lot of those have initiatives not based on the number or some federal kind of funding but what they want to do and what they want to have their campus viewed as. So, we want to have initiatives that address our Black students. We want to have initiatives that address students who have different identities with respect to gender, with respect to sexual orientation. We definitely want to have initiatives that address students with different levels of access and with different challenges. We want to have initiatives that address those students. We do, but we want to increase those, and we want to celebrate them as much as we celebrate anything that's federally funded.

Sandoval: Very well said. And unfortunately, that is all the time we have for this episode of Sagebrushers. Thank you very much for being on the program today.

Duckworth: Thank you for having me.

Sandoval: So, join us next time for another episode of Sagebrushers as we continue to tell the stories that make our University special and unique. Until then, I'm University President Brian Sandoval, and…

Sandoval and Duckworth in unison: Go Pack!

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