curtis taylor headshot with spotlight feature

Curtis Taylor: Ensuring engineering students, faculty and staff feel welcome and supported

Published: October 1, 2019 8:55 am

Earlier this year, the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer announced its network of 31 Campus Diversity Liaisons (CDLs).

CDLs are representatives from the leadership teams of each college or business unit across UF who serve as internal consultants, thought leaders and influencers in all aspects of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). CDLs are available to help guide faculty and staff on best practices related to inclusion in the workplace.

UF at Work recently spoke with CDL Curtis Taylor, PhD, associate dean for Student Affairs for the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering and associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, about his role as a diversity liaison for the College of Engineering, which was recently recognized as an exemplar of DEI by the American Society for Engineering Education. In addition to his responsibilities as associate dean, Taylor directs UF’s nanomechanics research lab.

How did you first become involved as a CDL?

When Antonio Farias started as chief diversity officer (CDO), one of the first things he did was form the Campus Diversity Liaison team. He needed representatives from each college in the university, and Dean Cammy Abernathy, PhD, asked Associate Dean Toshi Nishida, PhD, and me if we were interested. Right away, I knew I wanted to be involved due to the nature of the work of associate dean, which is making sure our students feel welcome and that they belong in the college, and reaching out to diverse groups. It falls in line with what I’m already doing.

What are some of the initiatives the CDLs have been working on so far?

At the university level, we came together earlier this year and one of the first things we focused on was creating a declaration statement for the team and what we want to do. The statement is:

“We declare one Gator Community empowered to do our best work and be our best selves. We commit to advancing diversity, equity, inclusivity and justice in the service of our Mission. Gators engage, challenge and inspire in the relentless pursuit of excellence.”

This was important because it got everyone united on this one declaration.

The second major initiative, and we do this at meetings and in between, was to begin sharing resources about diversity, equity and inclusion with each other so we could in turn share them with our colleges. This has included books and articles and more. Antonio has also sponsored Crucial Conversations Training in how to handle very high-stakes, difficult questions or conversations filled with lots of emotion, which can happen when you’re talking about sensitive issues like race or harassment. So we’ve undergone training and are sharing best practices and resources. Antonio’s vision of how we now spread those resources and efforts across the entire campus starts by having representatives in each college.

How have you been sharing these resources within the College of Engineering so far?

There are a couple of ways in which we do it in the college. In addition to two of us being part of the CDL group and advising on different campus-wide initiatives, within our college, the dean, associate deans and faculty representatives also serve on a DEI Committee.

We have a DEI strategic plan for the college, and a part of that is looking at how we define DEI and why it is so important. When we talk about DEI, it’s really about creating and ensuring that we have an environment of working and learning where people feel like they belong and are included, and that their voices are heard. It’s also about ensuring that systems, policies, practices and resources—that all of these things are fair and done in a fair way. And it’s also about ensuring that the make up of our faculty, staff and students is representative of the demographics of the local and state communities.

This last part is important for the future of society. The demographics are changing—the population is getting older and there are also shifting demographics in terms of race, with the largest gain in the Hispanic/Latino population. In order to continue to grow our workforce and maintain our competitiveness internationally, we have to support everyone who is here by resolving the inequities that exist today.

How is the college engaging with its students around DEI?

We have about 1,600 new students in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering each year, and we host a series of welcome events that are attended by the dean, associate deans, chairs, staff and faculty so that students know who the leadership is and so there are open lines of communication. This way they know who they can contact if they experience problems or issues. This is very important because it’s a way for students to meet the faculty, staff and deans, but it’s also an opportunity to engage students such that they become a member of our community. For example, at the New Student Welcome, there are tables representing our departments and different student organizations and the hope is that students will go around and find a student organization that they can join.

We also host a series of welcome events for underrepresented populations within engineering, which are primarily women, African American, Hispanic/Latino and Native American students. It’s the same idea. If students need to reach out with issues or concerns, they know us; the relationship is genuine.

What DEI efforts are being made in terms of the college’s faculty?

We have what is called Safe Zone+ Training for faculty. It’s a program started by the American Society for Engineering Education, and the training provides materials for faculty to support LGBTQIA+ students. We’ve adapted and expanded the training to include race and other sensitive issues. We hold trainings once a year for faculty, with two faculty representatives per department; then we send their names to students, communicating that these are faculty they can talk to about any sensitive issue they may have. Students sometimes don’t know if faculty care about some of these issues—they think that maybe faculty are just focused on classes and they don’t know who they can go to with these questions. This answers that for them. The training started in 2016. Those who’ve already gone through it can attend each year as well as new faculty who want to get trained.

In terms of recruitment, we’re focused on attracting diverse faculty members by creating more diverse hiring pools and practices. We’re focused on retention of faculty through improved onboarding processes and proactive mentoring of new faculty.

Additionally, coming out of UF’s Office of Student Affairs at the university level is Green Dot Training, which is being adopted at many universities and organizations such as the U.S. Military. It brings awareness to and prevention of sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking on college campuses and focuses on bystander intervention. The premise of the training can be understood by imagining a campus map. On the map are various dots; a red dot represents any act of sexual assault, domestic violence or stalking against another person while a green dot represents any act that counters or prevents a red dot. The philosophy goes through ways that bystanders can take action against acts of personal violence—by using our words to ask someone to stop what they doing or by calling the police or offering to walk with somebody, for example. The training is about empowering people to take action and encourage others to take action to keep our campus safe. (To learn more, contact Darcie Burde at dburde@ufsa.ufl.edu.)

Have you seen the campus culture changing around issues of DEI since the CDLs began this work?

I think people are more aware that now we have a CDO—there is someone who is a centralized voice and resource to provide training and guidance to departments, faculty and staff. Many colleges are hiring diversity officers now as well. I think these are good signs of the direction in which we’re going in terms of making sure campus knows why this is so important and the impact and benefit of this work to our campus, students, faculty and staff.

What are some of the most satisfying parts of being associate dean?

This is a privileged position to be in—to be able to help students and parents, often during a time of need. It can be some very complex and difficult situations we’re working through, but the reward is always there; you feel like you are making an impact on people’s lives. College is an exploratory time. Students may be uncertain about their life’s direction and vulnerable to stress and other things. Having a team here to help in these situations is very rewarding.

There is also the aspect of seeing students being successful. At award ceremonies, we get to celebrate all of the things they’ve done, where they’re going, the places they’re traveling to, and it’s really encouraging and inspiring to be a part of that. It makes me feel like I’m playing my part in helping them.

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