Penn Students, Faculty and Staff Discuss ‘Implicit Bias’ in Academia

A group of nearly 100 University of Pennsylvania faculty, students and staff gathered together for the “Implicit Bias Teach-In,” an event organized as a “safe space” to have a conversation about what can be an uncomfortable topic: biases.

Held at the WEB Du Bois College House on March 22, the event was organized by Penn’s Ernest E. Just Biomedical Society, which promotes diversity of students in the STEM fields, with a focus on recruitment and retention of underrepresented populations.

The teach-in was funded by the Campaign for Community, sponsored by Penn’s Office of the Provost, as part of the effort to support projects aimed at finding ways to discuss and understand key issues that may appear to be difficult or intractable.

Event organizers Brenda Salantes, Society president, and Julianne Rieders, recruitment chair, are fourth-year Ph.D. students at the Perelman School of Medicine in the Cell and Molecular Biology program, part of Biomedical Graduate Studies.

“The goal is to have this event serve as a model for how implicit bias conversations can happen on campus,” Salantes said. “The idea is to bring awareness to what implicit bias is, and how can we support those in the Penn community.”

The event offered the opportunity to participate in round table style conversations with Penn faculty about experiences with issues of implicit bias regarding race, gender and sexual orientation.​​​​​​​

The 12 faculty moderato​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​rs who lead the teach-in were chosen because they have been actively involved in promoting diversity and inclusion issues on campus, Salantes said. Each moderator was seated at a table marked with their name, and the student participants chose which table to join.

“We hope that you will open up about issues of diversity and inclusion tonight,” Salantes said in her opening remarks. “This is an open conversation. Each and every one of us can relate to implicit bias in academia.”

Rieders spelled out the ground rules: confidentiality for those who share, a conscious effort to listen and speak, and realistic expectations.

“Don’t expect closure,” Rieders cautioned. “These conversations are difficult and we’re not going to not solve everything tonight, but that's why this is an ongoing conversation.”

One of the moderators was Marybeth Gasman, professor in Penn’s Graduate School of Education and director of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

In opening remarks, she told the group: “There are lots of ways to define implicit bias. It’s the idea of an automatic association people have with groups, or specific stereotypes they attribute to groups. That shapes how we see individuals, and sometimes it changes our behavior.”

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Throughout the evening, individuals shared their stories of bias with their table groups. Each participant was asked to anonymously write a personal example of implicit bias on one side of an index card, and a personal definition of diversity and inclusion on the other. The cards were exchanged by the tables, and then used to spark further discussions. The organizers hope to incorporate the cards into a consciousness-raising art exhibit that will be displayed on campus.​​​​​​​

Eve Higginbotham, vice dean of inclusion and diversity at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, was also one of the moderators. 

 “At my own table, everyone shared their own stories related to bias throughout the evening, with others commenting in detail regarding similar experiences,” Higginbotham said afterwards.

“These opportunities to share uncomfortable situations is helpful to remind those affected that they are not alone,” she said. “It is important to have these frank conversations with students and trainees, to reduce feelings of isolation and stimulate thinking about problem-solving.”

Salantes said she hopes that the event will inspire implicit-bias, diversity and inclusion training around campus.

As part of the event, “The Creative Mind,” a traveling exhibit from the National Academy of Sciences that features the contributions of African American scientists and visionaries to American society, was in the Du Bois House lobby. The exhibit is next going to be on view on  the fifth floor of the Jordan Medical Education Center through April 14.

“If we continue to have these conversations as a community, it will make our efforts so much stronger,” Salantes said. “What the teach-in showed me, through the enthusiastic participation of administrators, faculty, staff and students across our campus, was that these sentiments extend beyond my graduate program. We just needed the opportunity, space, and the support to make it happen.”

For additional photos click here. 

Teach-In Moderators:

Montserrat Anguera - assistant professor, Penn Vet

Batsirai Bvunzawabaya - psychologist, Penn’s Counseling and Psychological Services

Erin Cross - senior associate director, Penn’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center

Arnaldo Diaz - assistant dean for research training programs, director of recruitment and retention of diversity scholars, Biomedical Graduate Studies, Perelman School of Medicine

Marybeth Gasman - director, Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions; professor, Graduate School of Education

Eve Higginbotham - vice dean of inclusion and diversity, Perelman School of Medicine

Daniel Kessler- chair, cell and molecular biology graduate group, Biomedical Graduate Studies, Perelman School of Medicine

Brian Keith – associate investigator, Abramson Cancer Center; adjunct professor, Perelman School of Medicine

Michael Nusbaum - director, Biomedical Graduate Studies; associate dean for graduate education, Perelman School of Medicine

Akira Drake Rodriguez - postdoctoral fellow for academic diversity, School of Design

Ezekiel Dixon Román - chair and associate professor of the Data Analytics for Social Policy Certificate Program, School of Social Policy and Practice

Ebony Thomas - assistant professor, Graduate School of Education

Text and photos by Louisa Shepard. 


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