Duke aspires to create a community built on collaboration, innovation, creativity, and belonging. Our collective success depends on the robust exchange of ideas — an exchange that is best when the rich diversity of our perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences flourishes. To achieve this exchange, it is essential that all members of the community feel secure and welcome, that the contributions of all individuals are respected, and that all voices are heard. All members of our community have a responsibility to uphold these values.
1. How and/or when did you developed your current commitment and passion for diversity and inclusion?
As an undergraduate, I was fortunate enough to have an unusually diverse set of faculty mentors who inspired and nurtured my interest in biology, the field I eventually pursued in graduate school. I say “unusually diverse” in the context of the times (the 1970s), with about half my mentors being women and one of those being a woman of color. As an undergraduate I thought this was the norm, but when I began my graduate training I became aware of how unusual my undergraduate experience was – there were only three women on the faculty of my graduate department (out of more than 20) and one of those was on their way to being denied tenure. There were no faculty of color in that department. As I continued on in my graduate and post-doctoral training, the biases and other obstacles my women peers were facing became increasingly clear to me, leading a large number of them to drop out before they even finished their degree. This was the context in which my commitment to diversity and inclusion really began.
As a long-time faculty member and administrator at Duke, I’ve been fortunate to see a steady increase in the diversity of students at all levels, as well as in the diversity of faculty and staff. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen how this increased diversity has not been matched by an equal increase in inclusiveness. I’ve also seen how students coming from backgrounds that are different from the majority face challenges in the classroom, and especially how these challenges lead to students moving out of STEM fields. These experiences continue to focus my commitment to fostering an inclusive learning environment.
2. Why do you feel a deep appreciation for diversity and inclusion has been important in your role(s) in-and-out of the classroom at Duke University?
As an administrator, my understanding of the importance of inclusion was a primary motivation for many of the tasks I took on, such as fund-raising for financial aid or the creation of the Rubenstein Scholars program. Beyond my own motivation, the ability to articulate the importance of diversity and inclusion to foster greater excellence helped convince others to support these efforts. The most complete public statement I’ve made on these issues probably is the speech I gave at first-year convocation during my last year as an administrator: link here.
3. Related to diversity and inclusion, how has Duke University evolved in your opinion? Offer one or two examples.
Duke has a significantly more diverse student body than when I began as an assistant professor in 1989. Back then, only about 20% of the incoming undergraduate class were students of color. Now that figure is around 50%. At the same time, Duke—and institutions like it—continue to struggle with the legacy of being less welcoming to underrepresented groups and progress towards being truly inclusive has been slow.
4. Do you have future plans related to diversity and inclusion on the horizon that directly correspond to your career as an administrator and/or faculty member? If so, what are they?
As I leave the administration to return full-time to the faculty, I’m excited by the opportunity to create new courses—and to implement new pedagogies—to ensure that my classes, as well as my lab, provide a welcoming and inclusive learning environment for all students. I’m thankful that Duke has resources to help me in this regard.
5. Please offer one or two hobbies and/or interests (e.g., traveling, hiking, reading, etc.) outside of your role(s) at Duke University.
My wife Susan and I are enthusiastic cooks and we love to explore different kinds of foods and cooking styles. We also love to travel, which itself is a useful way to see the value of diverse perspectives.
Steve Nowicki is Bass Fellow and Professor of Biology and Psychology & Neuroscience in Duke's Trinity College of Arts and Science, and Professor of Neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center.