Walking the Talk: Lyman Briggs College Receives 2012 MSU Excellence in Diversity Award

  • Elizabeth Simmons
  • Professor, Department of Physics and
  • Astronomy, College of Natural Science
  • Dean, Lyman Briggs College
Elizabeth Simmons

When Elizabeth Simmons accepted a position at Michigan State University in 2003, part of her decision was based on the land-grant values deeply ingrained in the mission and purpose of the University.

Simmons is a professor of physics and the dean of Lyman Briggs College. She is responsible for leading a college that includes approximately 1,900 student scholars who focus their studies on the sciences and humanities, and who challenge themselves not only academically but societally. She has set the tone for a number of transformative accomplishments within the college and is proud that Lyman Briggs College was the organizational recipient of a 2012 MSU Excellence in Diversity Award.

Lyman Briggs was founded as an MSU college in 1967, then was reorganized as a school within the College of Natural Science in 1981. Simmons served as the school's director beginning in 2003, implemented a 25 percent expansion of the student body starting in 2005, and was named dean when the MSU Board of Trustees restored Lyman Briggs to college status in 2007.

According to Simmons, the expansion and college transition created a sense of momentum and purpose in the Lyman Briggs community. She has led faculty, staff, students, and alumni in articulating a shared vision and identifying well-defined goals, along with creating action steps to achieve those goals.

Included in Lyman Briggs College's vision for the future is the wish to reflect the diversity of the national population. Specific objectives include:

  • Increasing the diversity of its student body
  • Increasing retention and inclusion of students from all backgrounds and narrowing achievement gaps between groups of students
  • Providing an inclusive environment and appropriate accommodation for students with disabilities
  • Increasing the diversity of the faculty and staff
  • Enhancing awareness of diversity issues and appreciation of the importance of diversity in all activities of the entire Lyman Briggs community

Diversity and inclusion is a topic with which Simmons has personally engaged during her career as a theoretical particle physicist and university administrator. Less than 10 percent of full professors of physics are women, and significantly fewer women are in academic leadership positions within physics programs. There are additional challenges to recruiting and retaining faculty and student populations in science based on racial, ethnic, and sexual identifications.

Harini Chandramouli from the University of Pittsburgh visited Lyman Briggs as part of the NSA/NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) summer program.

"Who you are impacts how people listen to you," said Simmons. "A person's competence can be called into question and judgments can be made based on how you look. Sometimes people aren't even aware of what they are doing; it can be as subtle as exclusionary behavior. We are currently participating in an MSU initiative called Advancing Diversity through Alignment of Policies and Practices (ADAPP). We want to encourage a culture of inclusion, cooperation, and encouragement. We also want to provide opportunities for broadening the diversity among faculty, staff, and students at Lyman Briggs College and sustain a welcoming, inclusive environment."

Simmons has created a positive community atmosphere with a comprehensive approach for addressing inclusion strategies in nearly all levels of operation. Among the accomplishments cited in the nomination for the 2012 MSU Excellence in Diversity Award:

  • Faculty: Administrators and faculty collaborated to create more inclusive processes for faculty hiring, retention, mentoring, evaluation, and tenure reviews.
  • Governance: Structures have been reformed to be more inclusive in membership and outlook, and to provide leadership on research, education, and engagement related to inclusion.
  • Students: The Briggs Multiracial Alliance and Women in Science student organizations promote an actively inclusive community within the college through service-learning and outreach events.
  • Graduate and undergraduate assistants: Training has been developed for graduate teaching assistants and undergraduate learning assistants on teaching diverse student cohorts and creating instruction strategies that yield strong learning outcomes for all students.
  • STEM participation: The college's curriculum for college freshmen with less mathematics preparation and its K-12 outreach activities at local schools are aimed at broadening participation in the sciences by underrepresented groups through improving students' science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills.

Paulette Granberry Russell, senior adviser to the president for diversity and director of MSU's Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, said "The Excellence in Diversity Award was bestowed on Lyman Briggs College this year because of their commitment and dedication in creating a truly inclusive university community that offers opportunities for all individuals.

It is particularly impressive to see overwhelming participation by administrators, faculty, staff, students, and alumni. They have worked together to make progress in challenging each other to think differently about their work, about each other, and about their role in our global community." In addition to her administrative duties, Simmons devotes a portion of her busy schedule to efforts that recruit and encourage school-age girls to enter STEM fields and mentors women in science for academic appointments, promotion, and tenure. She has worked with faculty to establish and obtain grant funding for new programs that support degree completion by students from groups traditionally underrepresented in science and math.

Looking toward the future, Simmons wants to see improved retention, evidence of deeper learning, and more effective education methods for engaging diverse populations in the STEM fields: "Students who join our college have a spirit of wanting to learn. They are here because they choose to be here. And that inspires me and the rest of the Briggs team. We will continue to find ways to help them succeed. I want that for each and every student."

MSU Excellence in Diversity Awards

Since 1990, the Excellence in Diversity Awards have annually recognized and rewarded efforts that support an environment where diversity and inclusion are valued.

Members of the MSU community can nominate individuals, units, and organizations whose efforts reach the level of excellence essential to making MSU a welcoming and inclusive community. Initiatives that are outstanding, exceptional, extraordinary, and innovative in areas such as teaching, research, programs, services, and community outreach are invited for consideration.

Information regarding applications and nominations is available at: inclusion.msu.edu/awards-programs/awards/index.html.

  • Written by Carla J. Hills, University Outreach and Engagement

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