Interview with Dean Kimberly A. Griffin, Ph.D. on Pursuing Equity in Higher Education for Faculty, Graduate Students, and Undergraduates in STEM
About Dean Kimberly A. Griffin, Ph.D.: Kimberly A. Griffin is Dean of the College of Education and Professor in the Higher Education, Student Affairs, and International Education Policy Program at the University of Maryland (UMD). A widely published and influential scholar of higher education, Dr. Griffin’s work focuses on educational equity as it pertains to faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students, with an emphasis on mentoring and STEM education. Her work has been published in the field’s leading journals, including Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, Review of Higher Education, and Journal of College Student Development.
Dr. Griffin’s work has been supported by multiple grants from the National Science Foundation. She was a Big 10 Academic Alliance Academic Leadership Fellow and a University of Maryland ADVANCE Leadership Fellow. In 2020, Dr. Griffin was named a Diamond Honoree by the American College Personnel Association — College Student Educators International (ACPA), which also recognized her as an Outstanding Mentor to Graduate Students in 2018, and as an Emerging Scholar in 2010. In 2013, Dr. Griffin received an Early Career Award from the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE).
Prior to becoming Dean, Dr. Griffin worked as Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Faculty Affairs for the College of Education at UMD. Dr. Griffin earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education and Organizational Change from the University of California, Los Angeles, her M.A. in Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership with an Educational Policy and Leadership Specialization from the University of Maryland, and her B.A. in Psychology from Stanford University. She also has a professional background in higher education administration, with a focus on equity in recruitment, admission, and retention at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] May we begin with a brief overview of your academic and professional background? What first sparked your investment in researching diversity in higher education, and how did you come to your current role as Dean of the College of Education at the University of Maryland?
[Dean Kimberly A. Griffin] My interest in issues related to equity and justice in higher education began when I was a senior in college. At the time, I didn’t even know that higher education was a field of study, in the sense that I could go on to get an advanced degree in it. I was a psychology major, trying to figure out what my next steps were. You couldn’t major in education at my undergraduate institution, but I was taking education and psychology classes. I started reading and thinking about what we used to refer to as the achievement gap, which we would call the equity gap today.
As I read more about this gap, particularly between Black and white students, I found myself frustrated on every level. I was mad that it was there, because I was fairly certain that Black students were just as smart as white students were. It struck me that something about these measures or these exams spoke to inequalities that we couldn’t address in classrooms. There were decades of research that suggested that this gap existed and that school made it wider rather than more narrow. Still, we hadn’t fixed it, even though we continued to talk about it over and over again.
Up to that point, I thought that the only professional avenue into education was to become a teacher. I realized that research was an opportunity to better understand the dynamics inside and outside of classrooms and to better understand the students and teachers that ultimately would help address educational inequality.
At the same time, I was working in academic advising on campus and realized that working at a college or university campus allowed me to do a lot of the things that I was excited about, like psychology, counseling, and working with students. I was committed to bringing about better outcomes for students, and higher education seemed like a good way to do that.
I decided to get a master’s degree here at the University of Maryland, anticipating that I would learn interesting things and then go into practice. While I was here, I had the opportunity to conduct research with a faculty member who became my mentor, Dr. Sharon Fries-Britt, who was studying high achieving Black students. We didn’t understand anything about them or their experiences. She wanted to illuminate the challenges that they still had to navigate.
I realized that I wanted to understand how, in college and university contexts, we think about issues that are similar to the ones that lit my fire as an undergraduate. How do we build environments that are welcoming, that are inclusive, and that allow students from marginalized and minoritized backgrounds to thrive so that they can become graduate students and faculty? All of those things were interrelated in my mind. The issues with faculty diversity were connected to graduate student equity, which was related to undergraduate student inequities, which was connected to K-12 inequities. That was compelling to me as a scholar and as a person. That’s how I got into education.
How I became a Dean is a somewhat different story. Personally, I was always motivated by the desire to solve problems, address inequity, and ultimately make education better than how I left it. For much of my career, I had thought about that through the lens of doing research and working in partnership with college campuses and institutional leaders. This work would ultimately be implemented by other folks as they thought about how they were going to do equity work or develop policy.
Then, a few years ago, I had the opportunity to serve as Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Faculty Affairs. While I had leadership roles in the past, this was a time where I got to actualize so much of my research agenda. I got to revisit things like tenure and promotion policy, graduate student funding, and graduate admissions through the lens of equity. I saw how much power there was in translating all of that research into practice on a local level and what it meant for an administrator to have that background and then step into a role where they could make decisions.
I enjoyed that work very, very much. When the opportunity presented itself to apply to be Dean of my college, I saw it as a continuation of that work. It’s a full circle moment. I went from researching inequities in higher education to being the leader of a college that, at its core, is here to help solve problems and help make education better for all of us — for the next generation of students and for society.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Your work deals with issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education among graduate students, undergraduate students, and faculty. Could you introduce us to how you conceptualize racial and cultural equity in your work? How do you understand the relationship between equity among university faculty and equity among its students?
[Dean Kimberly Griffin] I think it’s always important to distinguish equity from diversity. Diversity is simply the presence of different people. It’s what you can count. Equity, on the other hand, speaks to seeing similar achievement or outcomes across folks from different backgrounds, as well as the intentional creation of conditions where everybody has the resources they need to be successful and to thrive.
That’s at the root of what equitable practice means for me. Am I being mindful and intentional about understanding that if I want those outcomes to be the same, different people will need different things? Am I being intentional about providing those folks with the things that they need to allow everyone to realize their potential? I can control those pieces, which is why it’s always so frustrating to see high-potential folks who haven’t had access to the same types of preparation or resources struggle to have the same outcomes as their peers.
For students to have the outcomes that we would want them to have, particularly students from marginalized or low-income backgrounds, or kids of color who face microaggressions, bias, and racism inside and outside of the classroom, educators have to approach their work from this equity-based perspective. There isn’t one formula that’s going to lead to students getting to the same place. We need to understand at an individual level what students need.
There’s research and scholarship that gives us some insight into what different groups of students might need and where their gaps might be. But as faculty and educators, we need to persistently ask, “How are we going to really look at this person in front of us and try to create conditions in which they can thrive?”
Faculty equity is going to lend to supporting student equity to the extent that it creates more equitable conditions for students. We know from research that when students from marginalized backgrounds have opportunities to engage with faculty from marginalized backgrounds, they tend to perform better. Fostering equity in both of those populations is critical. There’s this recursive relationship between them. When we’re thinking about increasing faculty diversity through more equitable practices, that has to start with equity in undergrad and K-12.
Right now, we’re seeing increased diversity in student populations. We’re not seeing that manifest in faculty. We’ve had some persistent gains in terms of K-12 student diversity, largely based on the demographic changes of our nation. Undergraduate education has seen large improvements. We still have lots of work to do, and there’s lots to unpack around what types of institutions students from different racial, ethnic, [and financial] backgrounds have access to, but colleges and universities are more diverse in terms of the student body than they ever have been.
Faculty diversity has been very, very slow in terms of making progress. Part of it is that access to K-12 and higher education is not the same as ensuring that those students have equitable outcomes or equal opportunities to thrive. How many students are transitioning to graduate programs? How many of those graduate students are aspiring to become faculty? How are we encouraging them along that path? We don’t have equity within the academy, but while we struggle for that, we need more of the faculty that we do have to adopt an equity-based perspective and to try to address the gaps that they see.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] One key concern of your recent research has been racial equity among academic faculty, which you explore in your articles, “Looking Beyond the Pipeline: Institutional Barriers, Strategies, and Benefits to Increasing the Representation of Women and Men of Color in the Professoriate,” and “The Time Is Now: Strategies to Address Racism, Equity, and the Retention of Black Faculty.” Could you discuss what these pieces, taken together, tell us about the institutional barriers that faculty of color contend with and some of the strategies you identify for addressing them?
[Dean Kimberly Griffin] We need more folks transitioning from undergraduate, to graduate, to faculty positions. Oftentimes, when we talk about equity in the faculty population, we focus on this “pipeline”: how many people are we able to shepherd along into faculty positions. Both of those papers try to take a more critical look at how we look at the pipeline. We can’t dispute that numbers are one part of a problem, but they’re not all of the problem. There’s a lot of work that we need to do in terms of the culture and climate of the academy to help people through those critical transition points and to retain them once they’ve earned a faculty appointment.
We have to be more mindful about how we engage in our recruitment efforts. Outreach to communities of color goes far beyond just when you have a job posting available. It entails that we ask ourselves a variety of critical questions.
What are we doing in terms of training faculty hiring committees and helping them think creatively about the types of colleagues that they want to have come into their community? How do we rethink how we engage in the hiring processes? How are we thinking about transitioning and onboarding people not only to our campuses but also to faculty life and work? How are we helping folks understand what’s expected of them, build confidence around those things, and then build social networks that are going to allow them to be successful once they transition into our institutions?
On the retention end of things, which I think institutions often are less focused on, we need to ask how to do that work in a strategic way. How are we providing folks with professional development when they need it? How are we helping people successfully navigate tenure and promotion processes, including looking at whether or not those policies are perpetuating the biases of the academy and missing the unique gifts and talents that many faculty of color bring to the table? How are we intentional about addressing the culture and climate of campuses, colleges, academic units? How are we ensuring that folks feel a sense of belonging in those spaces? Ultimately, that is a key component to someone staying in a campus community.
I don’t know anyone on any campus who isn’t thinking critically about faculty diversity, but we’re so quick to rely on the idea that it’s a pipeline problem, or we just need to focus on hiring. There are other components that we need to consider, and we need to think about how we do our internal work as institutions to create better environments for faculty once we do bring them in.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] You have also frequently studied faculty diversity in the context of STEM education. You were Co-Principal Investigator on a number of National Science Foundation (NSF) grant-funded projects studying this problem and have published extensively on this issue. Would you provide us with some background on these research projects and your investment in STEM education? Are there ways in which STEM is unique in terms of its barriers to faculty equity or the necessary strategies for addressing these barriers?
[Dean Kimberly Griffin] Every discipline is unique. I started my work in science because that’s where some of the biggest disparities were. It was one of the fields that has been the slowest to diversify. We’ve made some meaningful gains in terms of the representation of women in science faculty, but less so in terms of Black, Latinx, or Native American faculty members.
When we talk about STEM faculty, there are unique dimensions of science culture that I think perpetuate inequality. It is not uncommon to hear that your identity as a scientist is the only identity that matters. There’s a perception that science is a pure meritocracy — there’s no bias, stereotyping, or racism. You’re going to be judged on the merits of your science, and the best science will win. Those beliefs let bias flourish.
Another unique aspect of science is that you’re typically working collaboratively. There’s a team dynamic that might be different from other disciplines. We know that diversity in teams leads to innovation and better work, but you have to create a certain context within that team to let that diversity do its work. So STEM provided a rich site for inquiry. There are interventions that you would put in place in a STEM department that maybe wouldn’t work as well in a classics department.
There’s also the matter of how we position STEM in our national conversations. We have all these conversations as a nation about how we can get more students engaged in science. Given the demographic shifts in our nation, that conversation has to include kids of color. If they continue to be underrepresented in this space, we’re going to continue to have problems in terms of generating the workforce that we need to address societal problems.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Another key focus of your research has been on educational mentorship, especially in the graduate context, as in your recent collaboration “Creating a Mentoring Culture in Graduate Training Programs.” Would you discuss the importance of mentorship to cultivating educational equity? How can mentorship serve as a tool for supporting diverse student bodies?
[Dean Kimberly Griffin] One of the things that made me interested in studying mentoring is that it’s this lever that you can turn to benefit everybody. I think there’s a unique benefit, oftentimes, for individuals who identify as people of color, because it provides them access to information and social support that they may not be getting.
Mentoring is good for everybody, but it can be uniquely leveraged as a tool for equity and justice. We have to be mindful about how we create mentoring relationships and recognize the unique needs and strengths of students from marginalized backgrounds. This returns us to our discussion of the definition of equity. Some people may think, “When I’m mentoring somebody, I’m going to ignore their identity. They’re just a person. That’s the most just thing to do. I don’t want to show bias.”
While that’s very well-intentioned, research tells us that that actually creates more space for bias to enter into the relationship, because you’re not talking about identity at all. And that mentor is asking someone to set aside something that might be very important to them and that might be defining their daily life inside and outside of the academy. You’re asking them not to talk about that, which actually erodes trust in relationships rather than making for closer connections.
In my work I talk about an equity-based model of mentorship, where it’s critical for mentors and mentees to really think about and recognize their identities in that context. We have to understand who we are and how that influences what our needs are, what our strengths are, and what our goals for the relationship are for that relationship ultimately to become successful.
I’m working on a book project with a colleague [Dr. W. Brad Johnson] right now, which is an updated edition of his book On Being a Mentor. It’s intended to be a handbook for faculty on how to engage in effective mentoring practice. So often in the academy, we think that mentoring is something you’re born to do or not. That text reframes mentorship as a skill to be learned. There’s good practice and competency that can be built. There are frameworks that can help you better navigate relationships.
Dr. Johnson was working on the third edition; he wanted to bring more of an equity focus into the book and invited me to be his coauthor on it. I’m excited to be a part of continuing that dialogue.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] How do the research findings we’ve been discussing and your larger commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion influence your work as the Dean of Education at UMD?
[Dean Kimberly Griffin] I approach my work as somebody who values equity and justice and brings that as a lens to any question. Often, rather than starting something new, I’ll look to bring my perspective to build on what’s already there.
For example, rather than starting a new mentoring program for people of color or a diversity-focused mentoring program, I’m more inclined to look at how we are teaching people to mentor and how we do that in a way that honors identity, equity, and justice. How are we building incentives into our structures and programs, like tenure and promotion, that don’t only ask people to mentor more but also to mentor with equitable and inclusive practices?
Much of what we’re asking folks to do around equity- and justice-related issues pushes up against academic norms, values, and structures. When I see an individual problem, I’m almost always trying to understand the structure at its root that is perpetuating this manifestation of the problem. I ask how we can change that structure or build new structures, whether that means we need a new policy or to reconsider how to do a particular action more equitably. I’m always trying to put equity at the core of our decision-making and the questions that we ask.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Do you have advice you would give to educators, students of education, or administrators who want to direct their work toward the advancement of equity in education?
[Dean Kimberly Griffin] This work is valuable, and we need to continue to do the work. We have a good understanding of the challenges that folks face. Research shows us that these challenges faced by faculty, students, and administrators of color may have different manifestations, but they haven’t really changed much over time. It’s important to lift that up in research and understand the dynamics at the root of those problems, what people are doing to try to address them, and whether those things are working or not.
As researchers, I feel it is particularly important for us to translate our research into practice. I’m lucky enough that this is my area of scholarship, and I’ve gotten to spend over a decade reading about equity in higher education, graduate education, mentoring, and faculty development.
There’s still work to do in my college, and I’m still trying to figure out how to engage in translating all these things I’ve read into actual policy. We get a lot further when administrators and faculty can be partners in that conversation and ask, “How do we take what we know to actually address a problem and do that in real time?” Those have been the most generative relationships that I’ve had.
The NSF [National Science Foundation] project on STEM we discussed before was exciting because they were asking people to come together. We had researchers review the literature, talk to practitioners, and develop a framework for understanding how we’re getting in our own way at an institutional level in terms of promoting faculty diversity. That helped us develop an assessment that would allow a department or campus to really look at themselves and ask, “What are we doing and what are we not doing? How do I propose an intervention that ultimately is a reflection not only of what we know from scholarship but also what we know about the gaps on our own individual campus?”
That work is really powerful. It’s hard to do, but to the extent that we can come together and do it, I think we’ll get a lot further.
Thank you, Dr. Griffin, for sharing your insight on working toward educational equity in higher education for faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students!