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An ADVANCE for Women Faculty
UNH steps up efforts to support the advancement and leadership for women faculty in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics
TEN YEARS AGO when Ruth Varner was a postdoc, a new mother, and had a desire to continue her research at UNH, she applied for a National Science Foundation ADVANCE fellowship. The NSF program provided individual, three-year grants for women like Varner who faced the challenges of juggling family duties with a budding professional career in the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Ruth Varner  
Ruth Varner
Photo by K.Donahue, UNH-EOS
Varner eventually was able to withdraw her application because she successfully competed for an NSF research grant and, today, notes that the foundation’s program of targeting individuals has been replaced with broader institutional grants “that have larger impact on more people.”

Indeed, last fall UNH was successful in its bid for a three-year, $1.3 million ADVANCE grant to support the advancement and leadership for women faculty in the STEM disciplines across campus. The NSF grant makes UNH part of a larger national effort to transform institutions of higher learning in areas where women are traditionally underrepresented.

But the ADVANCE Partnership for Adaptation, Implementation, and Dissemination (PAID) program, for which Varner serves as director, is not an “institutional grant” in that it does not seek to implement sweeping, university-wide changes. Rather, Varner explains, “It will focus on specific programs we can implement to make changes over a three-year timescale.”

In essence, the effort is a smaller step towards a potentially larger grant that would support institutional transformation. Says Varner, “There are other institutions across the country that have been funded by NSF for these broader grants in which people have looked at specific practices to recruit, retain, and advance women. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel but, rather, we’ll take some things that have worked at other places, maybe tweak them a little to make them fit at UNH, and focus on specific goals or challenges that UNH has as an institution.”

Varner stresses further that the grant wasn’t awarded to address overt problems with respect to women STEM faculty at UNH but instead grew out of an informal, grassroots discussion among women faculty and administrators and was then formally championed by the administration – specifically, UNH President Mark Huddleston, who is the lead investigator on the NSF grant.

“This is more about subtle biases in policy that, in practice, most of us don’t realize are occurring,” says Varner.

Those biases were detected through a detailed “climate survey” that was funded through the provost’s office and sent to all research, clinical, extension, and tenure-track faculty in the fall of 2008. Among other questions, the survey asked about job satisfaction, the climate of respective departments, and perceived treatment by department heads and colleagues.

“The survey also asked questions about leadership, access to leadership roles, teaching and research load, and how productive people felt compared to their colleagues. We were trying to gauge the overall satisfaction of faculty members – both male and female – here at UNH,” Varner notes. The survey found that women did feel somewhat isolated, and less likely to be in leadership roles and have an impact on policies both at the institutional and national levels.

From that survey the collaborative team of faculty and administrators who crafted the ADVANCE proposal came up with four key goals for the program that were then submitted to NSF. Specifically, UNH proposed to adapt and implement strategies proven effective in increasing the number, retention, and success of women faculty in STEM disciplines by: facilitating their ability to advance successfully through their careers at UNH as leaders in research and teaching; increasing their capacity to influence policy and decisions at the institutional and national levels; increase their satisfaction with resources and research support and minimize feelings of research isolation; and, increase their satisfaction with faculty colleagues, deans, and chairs who mentor them.

Varner asserts that it was the comprehensive climate survey that led to a successful proposal to NSF – this time around. The university applied for an IT or “institutional transformation” grant in 2007 and, according to Varner, in failing to get funding realized that the finer details needed to be worked out, and that a smaller-scale approach to change was a more appropriate path to take.

There will be a follow-up climate survey in a couple of years to see just how well the PAID program is achieving its goals. Additionally, the UNH Institutional Research and Assessment office will collect data to see how effective the initiatives implemented under the program appear to be. Moreover, the UNH Faculty Mentoring and Professional Development Program will also be strengthened in conjunction with the ADVANCE effort.

  Janet Campbell

Janet Campbell
Photo by M.Ross, UNH
Two specific outcomes of the PAID program are the creation of the Collaborative Scholarship Advancement Awards aimed at enhancing collaboration between research and tenure-track faculty, and the Karen Von Damm Leadership Development Grant, which will provide funds to support campus and off-campus opportunities for women STEM faculty to enhance their scientific or academic leadership. Both will be awarded on a competitive basis.

Research professor Janet Campbell of OPAL and former EOS interim director was instrumental in crafting the ADVANCE proposal and, in particular, champions the novel effort to support tenure-track and research faculty collaboration.

Says Campbell, "The creation of seed grants to promote collaboration between research and tenure-track faculty should be embraced by UNH and offered to more faculty. It was an idea discussed at an early meeting of the President’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Research, and seemed to be well received. I am hoping that the university will augment the funds available in our ADVANCE grant to extend this opportunity more broadly across campus."

Karen Von Damm and Ruth Blake  
Karen Von Damm and Yale biogeochemistry professor Ruth Blake on a research expedition aboard the R/V Atlantis.
The UNH ADVANCE office rolled out announcements calling for applications for the awards/grants in February and will announce recipients in early April.

The Von Damm award, named in honor of world-renowned UNH chemical oceanographer Karen Von Damm who passed away in August 2008, will go to women faculty who have taken on a leadership role in their respective field either at UNH or nationally. The funds will help free these faculty members from teaching duties as they pursue their leadership roles.

The collaborative scholarship award will provide seed money to help tenure-track and research faculty members create a joint research project. They will collect initial data and then potentially continue their collaboration by writing another, larger grant to external funders.

“This was created to address the potential isolation that can occur for women faculty, as identified by our climate survey,” says Varner adding, “and this is a way to break down potential barriers and get tenure-track and research faculty working together.”

Varner notes that other universities who have undergone institutional transformation through these NSF-funded programs have found that while the focus may be on advancing women and minority faculty members, ultimately the rising tide lifts all boats. “What they’ve seen is that when you make these institutional changes it pulls everyone up. It may affect women and minorities more directly but it’s about equity across the board.”

  Janet Campbell
Karen Graham
The ADVANCE program is part of a larger UNH effort to increase various aspects of the STEM disciplines, which is administered by the Joan and James Leitzel Center for Mathematics, Science, and Engineering Education. Karen Graham is director of the Leitzel Center and chair of the ADVANCE leadership team.

Says Graham, “The Leitzel Center is pleased to be able to play a leadership role in this important effort. The ADVANCE grant is part of the center's overall goal of increasing participation in the STEM disciplines by traditionally under-represented groups. Improving the culture and encouraging participation benefits everyone.” -DS

by David Sims, Science Writer, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space. Published in Winter 2010 issue of EOS Spheres.