State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Enhancing DEIA Within Our Education Programs

The Columbia Climate School is the first new School at the University in over two decades. In building something new, we have a real opportunity to set up the institutional structures, policies, and processes — and more importantly build a culture — that places our values around diversity, equity, inclusion, anti-bias, and anti-racism at the forefront of everything we aspire to do. This is the second post in our mini-series focusing on DEIA activity. Check out the first post here.

The Earth Institute and the Climate School endeavor to promote and enhance diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-bias across the entire organization. This post highlights the important and critical DEIA work happening across our education programs — from the undergraduate level to the PhD level. These programs are committed to anti-racism and to fostering a community that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive for all. Below is an overview of the initiatives, activities, and reflection being undertaken in the Climate School- and Earth Institute-affiliated programs.

education diversity low library students
Photo: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University

Undergraduate Program

The Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development (SDEV) is pursuing measures to improve diversity among its faculty, students, and staff, as well as to integrate equity concerns in its curriculum and programming.

In 2018, the program conducted a comparative analysis with other schools/programs in Columbia, and STEM programs in other universities, to assess faculty and student demographics. These findings were published in New Directions for Teaching and Learning. In 2020, the SDEV program engaged in internal conversations about how to be more inclusive, support systemic change, and promote anti-racism. The program also surveyed students and alumni to better understand the current climate and identify specific areas for improvement. It also formed a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEI&J) working group with representation from students and alumni. The group identified six focus areas for further discussion/action: (1) curriculum; (2) programming; (3) increase representation; (4) careers, alumni networking, and mentoring; (5) culture; and (6) staff and faculty education.

Over the past year, the program has continued this important work. In February 2021, the program held a listening session with students and alumni, with the goal to hear from the community and prioritize which of the six focus areas to address first. At the spring 2021 meeting, SDEV program directors and staff met with the faculty to update them on the DEI&J initiative and communicate program goals of integrating environmental justice, equity, and anti-racism into relevant courses. The program also surveyed SDEV faculty to collect information about the following questions and topics:

  1. Whether and how faculty are already incorporating environmental justice, equity, or anti-racism topics into their courses;
  2. Resources that can be shared more broadly amongst faculty who wish to incorporate these topics;
  3. Ideas for new environmental justice courses and faculty to teach them.

The program also held a curriculum discussion with SDEV faculty to discuss ideas of how to incorporate environmental justice issues into the curriculum for both existing and new courses. The meeting included a terrific presentation from the Earth Institute Environmental Justice Network.

All of this information is available in the SDEV DEIJ Action Plan.

Graduate Programs

The Earth Institute’s Office of Academic and Research Programs (OARP) is leading the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives in the MS in Sustainability Management (SUMA) and the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy (ESP). OARP is also advising the other education programs affiliated with the Earth Institute and providing DE&I co-curricular programming to all affiliated students.

SUMA and ESP are working on the three interrelated goals below. All this work is being performed under the auspices of three program-specific DE&I committees that comprise faculty, students, alumni, and staff.

  1. Integrate equity and environmental justice concerns into their curricula;
  2. Diversify the people in each program (students, faculty, staff);
  3. Cultivate a more inclusive environment in which students can better learn and thrive.

In academic year 2020-2021, each of these two programs conducted a third-party DE&I audit to set a baseline against which to measure performance (available online on the linked pages above). While the audits were underway, the programs also took the following actions in each of the three areas above.

1. Curriculum/Co-curricular Programming

  • Incorporated modules on equity and sustainability in all sections of the required Sustainability Management course;
  • Offered workshop projects that pertained to equity;
  • Offered a new SUMA elective, “Building Resilience in 21st Century Detroit: Roots and Remedies to Racial Justice”;
  • Offered several co-curricular programs, including a Sustainability Skills Seminar on Environmental Justice and Activism in partnership with WEACT, a nonprofit organization dedicated to environmental justice.

2. Diversity

  • Provided fellowships to BIPOC prospective students;
  • Targeted digital advertising to BIPOC prospective students;
  • Expanded outreach to historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions;
  • Hired BIPOC faculty and staff (SUMA).

3. Inclusion

  • Offered implicit bias training to faculty, students, and staff;
  • Held a listening session for ESP students;
  • Created The Hub, an online network for BIPOC students and alumni affiliated with the Earth Institute, which now has some 300 members;
  • Incorporated language about DE&I in all syllabi;
  • Posted Columbia University’s anti-bias and anti-racism resources on the program websites, making it easier for students to access them.

In academic year 2021 – 2022, SUMA and ESP will be implementing many of the recommendations that are included in their respective DE&I audits, including: (1) Conduct curricular reviews for the purpose of further integrating equity and environmental justice concerns in the curricula; and (2) Provide training to faculty in the SUMA, ESP, and SDEV programs in DE&I teaching techniques.

OARP will continue to provide DE&I co-curricular programming — the next Sustainability Skills Seminar on Environmental Justice, Climate Justice, and Advocacy is scheduled for October 23 — as well as work to improve the diversity of the students in these programs as part of its student recruitment work.

In the MA Climate and Society Program, a DE&I audit was conducted in parallel with SUMA and ESP with the same goal: to set a baseline. Students, alumni, faculty, and staff were interviewed for the audit. The program has also completed the following activities (some dating to before the audit) to enhance DE&I for students and staff:

1. Provided implicit bias training for students

2. Incorporated DEI statements into course syllabi (achieved for most, but not all)

3. Integrated climate justice as a key topic in the following core courses:

  • Managing and Adapting to Climate
  • Applications in Climate and Society
  • Summer Internship and Capstone Workshop

4. Provided scholarships for all BIPOC/first-gen applicants

5. Contributed staff support and funds to the DEES Seminar in Race, Climate Change, and Environmental Justice

In recent years, the MPA in Development Practice (MPA-DP) has deepened and expanded its commitment to increasing diversity, fostering an equitable and inclusive community, and equipping students with the knowledge and skills needed for designing and managing equitable, inclusive policies and programs and contributing to transformative organizational change where they work. During 2020-2021, the MPA-DP developed and implemented its first year-long Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Action Plan, which features three pillars: (1) further diversifying who we are; (2) ensuring an inclusive community; and (3) mainstreaming social inclusion in what we teach. The program has finalized a report on that work, drafted an action plan for 2021-2022, and are starting a multi-stakeholder process to develop a vision and multi-year strategic plan in collaboration with a DE&I consultant. The program also recently formed a DE&I Program Advisory Committee made up staff, faculty, student, and alumni representatives.

PhD Program

The PhD program in Sustainable Development believes that diversity, equity and inclusion are central to its mission and to its students individual and societal success. With that mission in mind, the program has engaged in the following activities:

  1. Updated syllabi to include readings, research, and discussion from researchers of color and women. This includes looking to journals that are not seen as “top journals,” given the bias against researchers of color, often in relation to the institutes they attend, which might be less prestigious, but more accessible to some underrepresented populations due to cost and/or bias in admissions. In addition to efforts to include research done by underrepresented minorities, there is also a push to look at research pertinent to race, inequality, gender, etc.
  2. Hosted a student-led event to discuss with undergrads how to prepare themselves for applying to graduate level economics programs. This included a much larger (remote) “open house,” allowing greater access to the event.
  3. The SustDev Summer School has always been held in Paris and is generally focused on research and researchers who are white, male, and European or American. This year the event was cohosted by the Alliance network and the Columbia Global Center in Santiago, Chile and included presentations by Latin American researchers. The event was also remote, allowing for greater accessibility.
  4. Enhanced effort to invite more underrepresented minorities and female researchers to present in the weekly SustDev seminars.

Earth Institute Post-doctoral Fellowship Program

In addition, the Earth Institute currently offers Diversity Fellowships for its postdoctoral program. The Diversity Fellowships seek to promote the recruitment of outstanding postdoctoral scholars from historically underrepresented groups, to reflect the composition of the national pool of qualified candidates more closely.

For more information on the Climate School’s DEIA initiatives, please contact Alix Schroder (aschroder@ei.columbia.edu) or Kathryn Lattimer (kl3383@columbia.edu).

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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