ISU Advance aims to diversify faculty


Photo Courtesy Samantha Cross

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Danielle Gehr

The Ivy College of Business promoted Samantha Cross to associate professor of marketing this year, making her the first African American woman to reach tenure in the college’s 30 years of existence.

Cross is a participant in the Ph.D Project, an organization “to diversify corporate America by increasing the number of minority business professors (African-American, Hispanic-American and Native American), who attract more minority students to study business in college,” according to the College of Business’ website.

After spending years working in corporate America, Cross was recruited by the organization and went to the University of California at Irvine to get her doctorate.

Cross said that at the time she was hired at Iowa State she was the only black female professor. She said as far as she knows now, this is still the case. According to an article by the College of Business, she is one of 101 African-American female marketing professors.

“When you think about academia on the whole and the lack of representation throughout, perhaps it’s not as surprising. It’s still a little sad though, it should’ve been further along by now,” Cross said. “It’s a good thing. I’m not unaccustomed to being first in different ways or being the only one in different contexts or settings. It’s sad that I should be the first in 30 plus years.

“I don’t want you to get me wrong. It’s a good thing. Somebody has to be first, but it’s really important that we move very rapidly from there. It would be nice where we get to the point where no one has to be first.”

Cross attributes a lack of diversity in certain professions to comfortability with what has become the norm.

“We’re very comfortable with what we’re familiar with and if it’s always been a certain at a certain level then, anything else isn’t going to be what we’re familiar with now is it. So then of course, we have to make those sorts of adjustments to accommodate that and some of that familiarity and comfort level might lead to some of those kinds of inherent biases,” Cross said.

At Iowa State, a group originally started with a grant has been working to combat these biases allowing more women and people of color to move up in higher education.

ISU Advance is an organization that aims to make systematic change in academia by actively recruiting, retaining and advancing women and people of color in faculty positions.

Lisa Larson, a professor of psychology, has been the faculty fellow for ISU Advance since the program started in 2007. The original grant of $3.3 million ended in 2012. Despite this, Iowa State decided to continue the now-decade old program.

Larson said they work to affect all levels from department to college to the Provost’s Office. She said it’s more than just having a one-on-one session with a faculty member or giving them a raise. 

“You can’t just solve our problem by giving us a raise,” Larson said. “What I’m dealing with, you know, an unfriendly culture or I don’t feel like it’s clear for me how to get tenure or I don’t have a good mentor or, you know, there’s lots of things that are going to make me think about leaving an institution.”

Larson recalled one instance when she saw how people’s gender affected their advancement in academia. 

She was pregnant and had young children when she received tenure. She remembers women approaching her at conferences amazed that she was able to receive tenure and raise a family.

“There are these notions that you can’t do certain things at the same time and, you know, what’s sad is some of those notions come even from other people that you know that weren’t necessarily in academia,” Cross said.

Cross went for her doctorate while raising a toddler and a baby. She said many people outside of academia encouraged her not to.

While at Iowa State, Cross said she has not encountered any discrimination. The only instance where she felt she was treated differently because of her gender or race in academia was when she was working toward her doctorate.

She said she was in a class where the professor remembered everyone’s name except hers. She said she felt that the professor didn’t take her seriously.

Once she proved herself, she said he didn’t forget her name again.

Cross said she still misses aspects of the business world, but enjoys what she is doing now. She said her favorite part of teaching is seeing her students have an “Ah-ha” moment.

“So, I teach brand management and I have them do a simulation for example,” Cross said. “I like hands on stuff, and so I have them do the simulation and they struggle at first and you have to bite your tongue and let them struggle because if I told them what they need to do, they won’t learn as much and so the aim is not whether or not you succeed in marketing that product brilliantly or not. It’s the process.”

Sriram Sundarajan, associate dean in the College of Engineering, started as an equity adviser for the College of Engineering in 2013. He is one of eight equity advisers, each working at a different college as well as one at the library.

The advisers work with faculty “providing them with training regarding research and evidence based practices on fair evaluation of applicants, candidates,” Sundarajan said.

“I originally come from India—Ames is my home now, but there I have seen examples of gender inequity and it’s not unique to India,” Sundarajan said. “So equity was very, I was very passionate about it.”

Another key role of an equity adviser is providing training to search committees on implicit or unconscious bias. Sundarajan trained the presidential search committee in October before they selected the semi-finalists.

The presidential search resulted in the appointment of President Wendy Wintersteen, the first female president at Iowa State.

Equity advisers also invite speakers, one of the most recent being a group from Cornell University called Sight. The group did a skit that covers topics including implicit bias and after the skit, the actors came out and fielded audience questions while still in character.

Sundarajan finds his role especially important in the College of Engineering where groups such as Women in Science and Engineering, or WiSE, work to eliminate the gender disparity in STEM majors.

While WiSE advocates for female students at Iowa State, ISU Advance does the same for female faculty, as well as faculty of color.

Larson added that they are not just focussed on getting underrepresented groups tenure. She said they want to see more women and people of color moving up to full professor which is the ultimate goal of any tenured employee at Iowa State.

“What was happening at ISU is there was a lot of women languishing at the associate level where there wasn’t a lot of attention getting those women fully promoted,” Larson said. 

She added that this issues is not just seen among women. She said there has been a push over the last few years that everyone Iowa State hires they expect to be full promoted. 

Cross said while she gives advice to all of her students, some of it is directed at those with similar identities as herself. Though, she said she makes sure not to single out a group of students.

“But, I certainly might try to be available more and I’m available to all of them [the students] and sometimes you are surprised by the students that will come,” Cross said. “Yes, it might be a student who connects with you because they might see that you look similar to them, same ethnic background, you’re an immigrant, female, whatever it might be. But it might be a student that’s first generation that just feels a little bit different and connects with you because they figure you’re a little bit different too.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article has been edited due to errors. Samantha Cross received her doctorate from the University of California at Irvine and when going for her Ph.D., Cross was raising a toddler and a baby. The Daily regrets this error.