This is the second story in a 4-part series exploring efforts to advance diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at the School of Foreign Service. Read other stories in this series by clicking on the link(s) at the bottom of this page.
Since Black Lives Matter protests unfolded last summer into one of the largest social movements in U.S. history, members of the SFS community have undertaken new efforts to promote racial justice within the school.
In SFS’s graduate programs, students and faculty have found new ways to incorporate anti-racist and social justice principles in their work. Numerous programs formed committees to develop strategies for increasing diversity and inclusion within their cohorts, as well as in their syllabi.
While many of these efforts are just beginning, faculty and students are hopeful that their commitments to racial justice will bring about more diverse, inclusive and socially engaged communities of learners and practitioners.
Creating Change in SFS’s Oldest Graduate Program
At the Master of Science in Foreign Service (MSFS) program — founded nearly a century ago — faculty, students, staff and alumni formed the MSFS Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee to address long-standing inequalities within the program. DEI Committee Chair and International Development Concentration Chair Professor Shanta Devarajan explains that the events of the summer added new urgency to MSFS’s goal of creating a more just and inclusive academic environment.
“The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement brought into focus the systemic racism that is prevalent in all parts of society, including the MSFS program,” says Devarajan. With a renewed focus on confronting this injustice, the MSFS DEI Committee has set goals for diversifying student recruitment and admissions, as well as its curriculum and scholarship.
After adopting inclusion as a core MSFS value, the committee has worked to make measurable progress on diversifying the program’s curriculum. By identifying the extent to which MSFS syllabi include scholarship, literature and other works by women and people of color, the program intends for faculty to present students with more diverse sources and viewpoints in their fields of study. In December, MSFS faculty discussed how to update syllabi to ensure that diverse perspectives and authors are included, and another round of syllabi assessments is underway to ensure faculty are making progress towards their goals.
The MSFS DEI committee, the MSFS Leadership Team and MSFS Advisory Board members also teamed up to create and lead a fundraising effort to support the Futures Scholarship, a full-tuition graduate scholarship and stipend awarded to an incoming MSFS student who brings academic and professional excellence to the program and whose background or experience will also uniquely enable them to contribute to the diversity of the MSFS community. MSFS Board members contributed the funds for the inaugural scholarship, and the program has launched a fundraising campaign to endow the Futures Scholarship.
Amanda Suárez (MSFS’21), one of three students on the MSFS DEI committee, highlighted the success of MSFS syllabus reviews and scholarship fundraising. She points out that many other challenges will take more time to resolve, but is hopeful that future MSFS cohorts will benefit from recently launched initiatives.
“These may not bear fruit until after current MSFS students graduate due to the longer timelines of recruitment efforts and hiring more diverse adjunct faculty,” she explains.
Real change happens in the long term, says Suárez, who believes that expanding the Georgetown community to include previously excluded groups will help the university to better reckon with its racist past and establish a more just and welcoming community for people of color.
She stresses, “Fostering diversity, equity and inclusion remains central to Georgetown’s mandate as a university predicated on the free exchange of ideas and particularly as it grapples with its own history of slavery and oppression.”
A Collaborative Approach
Last summer, a group of SFS faculty came together to issue an open call to make anti-racism a core principle of the school. The call was signed by hundreds of students, faculty, staff and alumni. Since then, SFS faculty members have played an important role in recent efforts to combat institutional racism at Georgetown and in academia more broadly.
After publishing the open call, these same faculty members formed an ad hoc anti-racism working group to advance a plan of action to make SFS faculty affairs and teaching more diverse, equitable and inclusive.
One item on the agenda was advocating for the creation of a position for a vice dean of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), a recommendation which was embraced by SFS Dean Joel Hellman and led to Dr. Scott Taylor’s appointment to the role in July.
SFS Faculty Chair Dr. Carol Benedict also assembled an SFS Faculty Anti-Racism Working Group which was ratified through a faculty vote. The group has focused on a number of issues, many of them related to the school’s pedagogical work and faculty matters.
One resource that has been widely shared by the group is a syllabus self-review tool. Inspired by the syllabi review undertaken by MSFS, the self-review is designed to help faculty think about the strengths and weaknesses in their syllabi and include more diverse perspectives in their courses.
The work has not been without its difficulties, though. Faculty bring a wide range of experiences, teaching styles and goals to their work at SFS, and the working group is tasked with bringing them all together.
“A huge challenge of working with faculty in SFS is that faculty come to campus from many different professional and academic backgrounds, meaning that there is a lot of work to be done to reach out to all the people that teach in SFS,” says Professor Rochelle Davis, Sultanate of Oman chair in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and chair of the SFS Faculty Anti-Racism Working Group.
Davis says the working group has also encountered challenges in coordinating such wide-ranging initiatives in a remote environment, as well as in figuring out how to best collaborate with other programs without duplicating efforts. Another role of the SFS Faculty Anti-Racism Working Group has been to support the efforts of others, including students, staff and wider programmatic initiatives.
“Understanding the students’ goals in their advocacy, along with the support and vision of staff, is a critical part of any faculty contribution,” Davis says. “Together we inform each other, develop ideas and work to make things happen.”
Laying the Foundation
Working together across faculty, student and administrative units is critical to DEI work, says Professor Yuhki Tajima of the Asian Studies Program (ASP). Since the summer, the program has focused on four key areas for improvement: student representation, curriculum, community programming and institutional challenges.
Tajima meets biweekly with the SFS Faculty Anti-Racism Working Group to share updates and ideas. Together, they plan to expand support for students from underrepresented communities and with financial need, as well as broaden ASP’s course and lecture offerings.
“Our approach is to focus on concrete actions by which we can make immediate and meaningful impacts in the short term, while building toward longer-term impacts,” he says, recognizing the increased demands on students’ and faculty members’ time as a result of the pandemic.
“I believe we have to make improvements at every level, starting at the pre-college and undergraduate levels all the way through the graduate and faculty ranks,” he continues. “By expanding educational opportunities now, we can diversify the future ranks of the public and private sector with more underrepresented groups.”
The broader implications of incorporating more diverse and inclusive scholarship into SFS teaching are apparent to new faculty member Assistant Professor Arjun Shankar.
With a focus on the legacies of colonialism, Shankar’s teaching seeks to reveal the connections between domestic and foreign racisms and show how modern-day global inequities emerge from ongoing imperial encounters.
Explaining the philosophy behind his classes, Shankar says, “In teaching the more difficult histories and philosophies of inequality that have resulted in our current conditions, we might give students the tools they need to change our world for the better.”
As part of the SFS Faculty Anti-Racism Working Group, Shankar looks forward to addressing many of the systemic issues he sees in academia, as well as to support the work of his colleagues who have long been pushing for change.
Much of that change, Shankar says, can begin in the classroom. “Our requirements need to adapt to and reflect the changing interests and dynamics of our students, who are keen to learn about current global power relations and why the world they live in is rife with inequality,” he explains.
Shankar also identifies areas for structural improvement outside of classroom settings, including better support for faculty who advocate for global anti-racism and changes in the university’s hiring and admissions practices.
He sees legacy admissions, standardized testing and the prevailing socioeconomic demographics of Georgetown students as some examples of how elitism is built into the university’s structure. He emphasized the need to recruit more diverse voices among students and faculty and to take a critical look at the kinds of work faculty include in their syllabi.
Shankar says, “We recognize that this is absolutely imperative if the school truly wants to be an innovative, global, social justice-oriented international studies program that attracts the best students and faculty from around the world.”