USC Price School joins Public Affairs Diversity Alliance with goal to broaden representation among faculty

January 14, 2019

By Matthew Kredell

Prof. LaVonna Lewis sees the Alliance as an effort to build a larger community for students of color who will become faculty of color. (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

The USC Price School of Public Policy has joined five other top public policy schools to launch the Public Affairs Diversity Alliance, a joint commitment to hire postdoctoral fellows from underrepresented groups and provide them the support and mentorship needed to successfully transition into faculty positions.

“The overall importance of the Alliance is that we’re trying to get a more broadly represented faculty,” said USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott. “We have a student body that is quite diverse – we’re in the heart of L.A., one of the most diverse cities on the planet – and as a school, particularly a public policy school, we want to reflect that. This is an effort we’ve been pursuing on our own, but other prominent schools are doing it as well, and this is a way to join hands with them and strengthen what each of us is doing.”

Joining USC Price in the Alliance is the American University School of Public Affairs, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, and the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington.

Citing research that student outcomes can improve when faculty identities mirror that of students, each institution will commit to hiring up to two Alliance postdoctoral fellows or visiting scholars annually, and each postdoctoral fellow will receive a faculty mentor from within their own school and one from an Alliance school.

“Postdoc positions are an opportunity to be at an institution and jumpstart scholarship, and they are increasingly important to transition into full-time tenured positions,” Knott said. “We feel this goal of expanding the number of underrepresented people into the professoriate begins with bringing them in as postdocs.”

The American University School of Public Affairs, which spearheaded the formation of the Alliance, will serve as its chair over the first two years.

“The Alliance can play a role in strengthening a group of qualified and talented diverse candidates – from creating a welcoming postdoctoral experience to providing ongoing professional development and networking platforms,” said Vicky Wilkins, Dean of the American University School of Public Affairs. “All member institutions and their students will benefit from increased access to a robust, inclusive candidate pool.”

The plan is for the first postdoctoral fellows to be hired in the fall of 2019. Networking will be an important part of the Alliance, with each postdoctoral fellow and their faculty mentors meeting annually for a workshop beginning in the spring of 2020. The first two conferences will be held at American University, with subsequent meetings rotating among the other schools.

The Alliance will also create programming to help doctoral students prepare for success as faculty members.

“I am very excited to see what comes from this alliance,” said Thai Le, a doctoral student in Public Policy and Management at USC Price. “As a minority PhD student who rarely resembles the faculty and student population in higher education, I can relate to many of the issues and disparities that this partnership is designed to address. Through this alliance, the additional resources and opportunities could really provide traditionally underrepresented candidates and scholars the tools to advance in academia and contribute to the diversity of the next generation of educators and researchers. It is encouraging to see these highly regarded institutions proactively collaborating to build a more inclusive and diverse environment in higher education.”

Professor LaVonna Lewis with students. (Photo by Tom Queally)

The Alliance will be one part of a continuing effort by USC Price to increase diversity in its graduate programs and faculty, led by Prof. LaVonna Lewis, the newly appointed Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Lewis and Julie Zissimopoulos, Vice Dean for Academic Affairs, are expected to oversee USC Price’s participation in the Alliance.

“I think the first reason this is important is it raises the visibility of the topic and sends a signal that these universities are going to take it seriously and partner together to hopefully move the needle for everybody,” Lewis said. “I think it’s also important to recognize that we’re trying to build a bigger community for students of color who will ultimately be faculty of color. We think those networks are going to be important going forward, both personally and professionally.”

All six schools in the alliance were ranked among the top 20 best public affairs graduate school programs by U.S. News & World Report, with the Price School and Syracuse’s Maxwell School tied for No. 2.

Dean Jack H. Knott noted that the Public Affairs Diversity Alliance builds upon work the Price School has been doing to achieve a more broadly represented faculty.

“I’m really pleased with the quality and reputation of the schools in the Alliance,” Knott said. “They’re our peers and it’s great to be able to work with these other Deans and schools in this way.”

Knott noted that the organizers wanted to keep the Alliance small at the beginning so it was less complicated to get started, but hope to see it grow over the years, as well as set an example for universities across the nation to follow in hiring and supporting diverse postdoctoral fellows.

“We hope this mentorship and nurturing of postdocs into good jobs becomes a model other schools want to emulate, and that in the future some of these schools will want to join the Alliance,” Knott said. “We’re going to get it off the ground, show it can be done, make it successful, and over time invite other schools to join.

“The ultimate goal is that several postdocs who were mentored across the institutions and enjoyed the broad network we’ve created will be able to place into really first-rate academic jobs across the country.”