Sara Pozzi, professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, is the inaugural Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) at Michigan Engineering. The new position gives DEI a dedicated seat at the table within the dean’s cabinet.
“We created this position to bring new focus to our ongoing efforts to make the College a more diverse, equitable and inclusive place to learn and work,” said Michael Wellman, associate dean for academic affairs and the Lynn A. Conway Collegiate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering. “Professor Pozzi has been highly engaged in DEI matters, and we look forward to her leadership.”
The DEI initiative had formerly been among the responsibilities of Wellman’s office. Now, Pozzi leads the DEI implementation committee, which includes Wellman and the associate deans of research, and graduate and undergraduate education; leaders in the Center for Engineering Diversity and Outreach; and staff directors in academic and student affairs, resource management and communications.
“I was honored to be asked to serve in this position, and I was glad to accept because I feel I can have an impact,” said Pozzi. “It’s a great group to work with because we have people who can actually make change sitting on the committee.”
Pozzi first became interested in DEI as a PhD student, when she was one of only a few female engineers in her circle. She got involved with initiatives helping other women in engineering. However, at her previous institutions, she hadn’t experienced the kind of focus on DEI that Michigan has undertaken.
“Coming to Michigan was a defining moment,” she said. “I realized that this institution has a commitment to DEI, and that made me feel welcome.”
Her passion for building an inclusive culture in engineering comes from her desire for scholars to be able to do their best work.
“Research shows that more diverse teams make better decisions and find better solutions to problems. So we’re looking to cultivate excellence and diversity as two virtues that go hand in hand,” she said. “We want the best teams.”
She also believes in taking a proactive approach, as the passive approach has led to only modest gains in women and underrepresented minorities joining the field in past decades. When decision-makers mostly have experience with white men as their colleagues, it is easier for unconscious biases and schemas to color the way that they perceive and evaluate engineers who are women or underrepresented minorities.
To combat this problem, U-M runs the Strategies and Tactics for Recruiting to Improve Diversity and Excellence (STRIDE) committee. Pozzi has been on this committee for three years, reading up on research into unconscious bias and schemas as they relate to faculty hiring.
The STRIDE committee produces workshop materials to educate all faculty hiring committees about internal biases that might come into play. Those who adopt the lessons of the training can evaluate candidates more objectively because they are mindful of the way that human brains—including their own—categorize people.
“While overt sexism or racism is easier to recognize, it is more difficult to detect and overcome the subtle effects of unconscious biases and schemas. That is why education and outreach on these topics is so important.”
Already, Pozzi sees many success stories of the DEI initiative on campus, from faculty hiring to underrepresented students graduating, or the sea change in department leadership as women now head six of the thirteen engineering departments.
“Those are very fulfilling and exciting,” said Pozzi. “It’s very worthwhile work.”
Pozzi is also an internationally recognized leader in the field of nuclear nonproliferation, and she currently leads researchers from 12 universities and 9 national laboratories in the $25 million Consortium for Verification Technologies.