Montana State University

MSU experience contributes to ‘Science’ article about increasing diversity in STEM

April 8, 2016 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

Jessi L. Smith was a co-author of a paper published in the journal Science detailing a short, concise way to bring inclusion to university female faculty. A MSU psychology professor, Smith is a principal investigator of a $3.5 million grant from NSF that has successfully increased diversity in MSU’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics faculty in four years. She is also director of MSU’s ADVANCE Project TRACS program. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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Montana State University’s successful experience diversifying its science, math and engineering faculty contributed to an article published in this month’s issue of Science that details a short and specific list of how to change a university to create inclusion.

“A recipe for change: Creating a more inclusive academy” describes a six-point program for creating inclusion and equity for faculty, especially in what are called STEM fields  --science, technology, engineering and mathematics  -- at universities.

The authors of the article say it was largely influenced by MSU’s successful efforts to diversify faculty in STEM fields after the university received a transformational $3.5 million ADVANCE grant in 2012 from the National Science Foundation. Currently, women faculty account for nearly 28 percent of the university’s STEM departments and 37 percent of social and behavioral science departments, up 8 and 4 percent respectively from the total prior to the grant. In all, 41 percent of MSU’s faculty is now female, up 7 percent from the time the university received the NSF grant.

However, Beth Mitchneck, the principal writer of the journal article who was the NSF program officer who worked with MSU’s ADVANCE Project TRACS, said the value of the work done has been about something other than numbers.

“Our goal was to redirect attention from simply looking at numbers of women faculty to addressing how we make the academy more inclusive. How do we change ourselves where all women and all faculty can thrive?” asked Mitchneck, who is now a professor of geography at the University of Arizona.

“The MSU experience was absolutely integral (to developing the concept).”

MSU’s Jessi L. Smith, an MSU psychology professor who is principal investigator of the grant as well as director of the ADVANCE Project TRACS program, is the second author of the paper. The third author is Melissa Latimer at West Virginia University, which received an NSF ADVANCE grant a few years before MSU.

Smith said she was proud that Science published the article, which is a validation of the work done at MSU through the ADVANCE Project TRACS. It is also a testament to the committed community of professors and staff who have worked hard to advance diversity at MSU in just a few years, she said. She particularly credited Sara Rushing, MSU political science professor who was Smith’s co-director for MSU ADVANCE Project TRACS.

“If we can (bring about inclusion) at MSU – a mid-sized, land-grant, university in a rural community—and if MSU and West Virginia are examples for others, this can be done at other universities and in other locations,” Smith said.  

She said that people often talk about how change at universities is glacially slow.

“But, we made a difference at MSU in a short time,” Smith said.

One of the elements in the formula set out in the paper is that leaders “must understand the context and (be held) accountable for diversity and inclusion.”

Mitchneck said MSU shone in this particular step.

“One of the elements of the recipe is the very clear importance of strong support and the tangible engagement of the leadership in inclusion matters,” Mitchneck said. She added that at MSU, the involvement of MSU President Waded Cruzado and Provost Martha Potvin, co-PIs of the grant, was key.

According to the article, other steps to successfully creating inclusion are:

  • Understand social science research
  • Seek external catalyzing resources
  • Focus at the department level
  • Collect and publicly share data
  • Revisit and change policies.

Mitchneck said MSU’s ADVANCE program also excelled in the step of collecting data and analyzing itself. And speaking of knowing itself, the authors recommend that the person who directs the change program must know the culture of the institution.

Smith said she would like to study whether following the six-step formula could bring about change at other institutions, even those outside of higher education.

“As a society, we are dealing with these types of issues not only in higher education, but also in the corporate world and in scientific industries,” Mitchneck added. “This a phenomenal opportunity for us to work together to solve these problems that are really important for society at large and for the coming generation.”

Science is the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. To read the entire article, go to


Jessi L. Smith, (406) 994-5228