Update Spring 2022: We have updated the list of actions identified in Summer 2020 to reflect our progress and the actions we are still working toward.
- Prof. Decker French (on behalf of the Astronomy Department DEI committee)

Black Lives Matter. We affirm this truth at the outset, and acknowledge that our department has significant work to do in order to live up to this truth. We must increase diversity at all levels and address systemic racism and deep-rooted social injustice, and its impact on astronomy and UIUC. This action plan is the result of a discussion within our department following the call for a strike on June 10, 2020 by Particles for Justice and Shutdown STEM in response to the unconscionable murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and many others. The faculty, staff and students at the Department of Astronomy are committed to working to shape our public university to serve the diverse population of Illinois and our nation as a whole. 

We commit to the following actions:

1) We will work to hire tenure-track faculty from under-represented minorities. We acknowledge that candidates may be at the intersection of multiple axes along which they are minoritized, and we need to support them with financial resources, flexibility during negotiations, and with mentoring and leadership opportunities as they work to tenure, and will value their work as mentors and role models for our students. We commit to providing this support. We will advertise faculty positions widely,  and we recognize that this cannot be a token effort, and the lessons we learn will influence all faculty hiring going forward.

  • Update Spring 2022: We have been successful in hiring Decker French and Kirk Barrow, our newest Assistant Professors in 2021, and 2022, and will continue to consider diversity as an important factor in all future hiring.

2) We recognize that we must make changes to encourage URM researchers at early stages of their career. We commit to increasing the diversity of speakers invited to present the colloquium and seminars within the department, and compensating them for their time and effort. 

  • In AY 2020, 6/8 colloquium speakers are women, 2/8 URM (5/11 including 2021 TOP Search Candidates) - note that this year was impacted by COVID, and we had fewer colloquia than 2021 as a result
  • In AY 2021, for the Department’s 100th year anniversary, 7/14 speakers  were women, all were alumni 

3) The number of Black, Latinx and Indigenous students earning PhDs in Astronomy remains too low nationally. We must retain and support them, and to that end, we will revise and improve the admission process and advertising of postdoctoral positions, and provide private mentoring for these students and postdoctoral scholars in addition to their advisers, working together with other groups on campus such as the Office of Minority Student Affairs

  • Positions such as the CAPS fellowship now include our commitment to diversity
  • We have begun a mentoring program to support students outside of class (i.e. in addition to the TA, detailed further in response to #9), and the SEA group now also has a 1-on-1 mentoring program that pairs undergraduates with a graduate student in the department

4) We have previously revised our admissions process to make the Physics GRE optional. For 2020, we will not require the General GRE. UIUC is also examining making the SAT/ACT optional for undergraduate admissions. UIC and UI Springfield have already done so. We will examine how dropping the requirement of the General GRE impacts admissions. We understand the biases that can be introduced by letters of recommendation and GPA cutoffs, and actively work to mitigate these in considering applications. We have highlighted ways to waive the application fee, and pathways to transfer to UIUC from community colleges and other schools. 

  • We no longer consider the GRE General in graduate admissions. The Physics GRE continues to be optional, and we have added a statement in our graduate admissions webpage to clarify that most applicants do not submit this score.
  • We are calculating and retaining statistics on the offers made to URM students over time, to measure the effects of bias and track the influence of our policies (numbers redacted for privacy).
  • We have been successful in nominating URM students for UIUC graduate fellowships.

5) We will begin to coordinate with national bridge programs to encourage students to come to UIUC. We commit to faculty participation in the Summer Predoctoral Institute, which works to help URM students get acclimatized to campus and build a cohort and support network before the start of classes.

  • The ongoing pandemic has meant that in-person summer programs and in-person visits to campus have not been possible in AY2020-1, though this remains a high priority for the department.

6) The department uses an optional placement exam to recommend, or allow students to test out of coursework, rather than a qualifying exam to remove students from the PhD program. We will allow students increased time on the placement exam as we recognize that the stress associated with these sorts of exams can disproportionately impact URM students.   We will continue to emphasize that these optional exams are not used to “weed out” students, but rather to support them as they develop the requisite skills for research. Many students elect to take courses corresponding to the material covered in the optional placement exam.

  • More details to clarify the role of these exams and the alternatives are now available on our admissions webpage.

7) We commit to being receptive to graduate student concerns, and where possible we will work with student organizations such as the Graduate Employees Organization, the Black Graduate Student Association, and the campus chapter of SACNAS to identify issues that impact them.

8) The faculty commit to continuing to engage with the student-led Society for Equity in Astronomy to discuss diversity and inclusion in the department, particularly anti-racist efforts, and to plan future action. We pledge to learn how to be active allies. We will increase coverage of diversity and equity issues in our astronomy pedagogy course, and invest in books dealing with these subjects and their impact on science for our department library.

  • SEA has held ~4 Astronomy Culture Journal Clubs each semester to discuss issues such as intersectionality, bias in machine learning/algorithms, and grad student mental health.
  • SEA leads a grad-undergrad mentoring program with ~30 students.

9) We recognize that we must support undergraduates from underrepresented minorities. Many of these students have shared that they felt underprepared for college coursework, and were reluctant to consult with their course TAs who typically also are graders. We will create an Astronomy and Physics Help Clinic to foster a sense of community, tackle imposter syndrome, and provide a safe space for students to talk about challenges they are facing with coursework.

  • We have begun to operate this help clinic, with a dedicated graduate student running the clinic assisted by some of the course TAs. Now that in-person attendance is possible, there is significantly more interest from students. We will continue to monitor the needs of students as the program evolves.

10) We recognize that many successful scientists credit their involvement with STEM to their summer research experiences. To that end, we have revised our page of REU resources, highlighting programs that are welcoming of URM students. We will also investigate working with the Physics department and broadening the UIUC REU program.

  • We have submitted several applications to seek funding for a new summer research program targeted at URM students to the college, as well as state and national funding agencies. This continues to be a high priority for the department.

11) We commit to serving our local and the state community better, particularly in K-12 schools that serve demographics underrepresented in astronomy. We already have a model for these efforts from Cena y Ciencias but we must extend these activities to predominantly Black schools in Champaign-Urbana, and across the state, notably in the Chicagoland area. We will increase our efforts to invite children and parents of color into our observatory, and channel what we learn from our efforts into the Girls Astronomy Summer Camp, led by the AstroIllini Outreach group.

12) The actions above must form part of a long-term commitment, and cannot be a one-time effort that is allowed to lapse. Therefore, we will establish a diversity committee with faculty and student representation to collect data on diversity and climate for minoritized members of the department, being mindful of privacy issues when any of this data is disseminated. This committee will be charged with identifying the issues and monitoring the outcomes for underrepresented minorities, and to maintain and adjust this action plan going forward. 

  • We have established this committee, currently led by Prof. Decker French, and are working with the LAS office of DEI in order to assess the department climate using best practices for anonymizing feedback.
  • The committee meets with the department each semester to evaluate progress on these goals and set new goals.

13) We recognize that work to increase the representation and better support underrepresented minorities in the department directly benefits all of us, and improves the department. We pledge to do the work of building a more equitable Department of Astronomy at UIUC, and to support all of our students and colleagues, in particular those most vulnerable to systemic oppression that is embedded within the scientific community and society. 

This action plan is not complete, and we pledge to continue the work of listening to and supporting our colleagues, and to doing better.