U Office for Research sets anti-racist agenda

Andy Weyrich

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

In June, Vice President for Research Andy Weyrich issued a statement expressing the commitment of his office to addressing systemic racism. In this conversation, Vice President Weyrich shares what that commitment means and steps his office has already begun to take in this effort. Recorded on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams, Emily Black and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to U Rising podcast, where you get to meet some of the people who are helping the U achieve great things. I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the university, and my guest today is Andy Weyrich. Andy is our vice president for research, and we're going to talk about how research and Andy's team relates to systemic racism and white privilege and the efforts Andy, as our vice president for research is taking to address these issues. Andy, warmest welcome to you.

Andy Weyrich: Thank you. It's great to be here.

President Watkins: Now, Andy, in addition to being our vice president for research is a distinguished scholar on our campus. He's the Edna Benning Presidential Endowed Chair. This is a recognition that honors our university's top medical researchers. He's been the vice president for research for about four years, he is a remarkable scientist and also a leader for our campus. We're a better place because of Andy's leadership.

Now I think our listeners are aware that we have been talking a lot at the university about our need to look at our own policies and practices and consider where systemic racism persists and what we can do about those policies and practices to make change. Andy, I know that in June you issued a statement to the research community, and really on behalf of your whole team, about the importance of social justice and addressing these issues. Tell us a little bit about that message and what led you to issue it.

Andy Weyrich: Yeah, so just a little background. With the tragic events with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the entire Black community, we took a little bit of time just to reflect and say, ‘What should we do? How can we help in the research space? What do we need to do in the research space?’ So with that, the statement, even though it came from me, it was really a partnership and a community effort over about a week. And our office reached out to the University of Utah, people of color, the community research in that area, our research administrative units and leaders and there was a lot of conversation and open dialogue that systemic racism is really rooted in our research community, whether it's unintentional or intentional. We just have not really figured that out.

And we when we think about trainees, how we mentor trainees and how we strengthen programs for diverse backgrounds—that was really one of the main reasons why we supported, at the same time, the statement was released during the shutdown of STEM, and in line with it. It was really an opportunity for us to have what I think are tough, but needed conversations, that acknowledge racism, implicit biases within our community. I think most importantly, what it really did was helped us reflect and learn what actions were needed from leadership, especially in our lane, which is research leadership, to combat racism and research. So denouncing racism was the first step. However, saying it and then actually coming up with action plans are really two different things and we needed to do a lot of work. So that's started how the statement happened. And I would say one thing that I really liked in the statement is that it was a prioritization of partnerships that were campus-wide and in the community.

President Watkins: I think, Andy, that the statement from the Vice President for Research's office means a lot because we are one of America's leading research universities. Listeners would benefit from hearing a bit more about digging deeper into what you mean by some of those issues and what can happen in our research work to promote equity, diversity and inclusion.

Andy Weyrich: I think one of the first things we realized is we needed to recognize, kind of say, who are we and recognize our deficiencies, our gaps and what we need to address inequities across the research space and how we recruit, retain and how we train, how we mentor people of diversity in our community and more broadly the range, too, with economic disparities in addition to people of color. And we've also taken really close looks at gender in that sense. So, we really felt like we needed to see who we are and then come up with and develop new processes, find processes that needed a lot of work, and then also programs with our community, with community input.

And one of these is to strengthen our demographics, to really understand what it's like for people of color and how they're getting research and how they're getting awards and how they're getting opportunities and where are we in that space and what can we do to improve and enhance that? How do we train our young investigators? I think that's a really big one, not only about just recruiting investigators, how do we train our mentors to mentor our young investigators of diversity? And then how do we engage the community? One thing that we've really done, and maybe we can come back to talk about some of the specifics, is that we realized that our human subject recruitment really wasn't diverse and really wasn't representative of the population in general. So, we had a lot of work to do. I think the big thing initially was who are we and then get this conversation, everything going and moving forward.

President Watkins: I believe that as part of understanding who we are, you reached out to some of our scientists and scholars of color and asked about the kinds of barriers they've experienced as they've come to the university and launched their own research careers, and maybe in some cases, extended their research careers here for many years. What did you hear when you listened to the community?

Andy Weyrich: Yeah, I think the first thing is, being a white male, I don't think I could ever imagine or speak to a person of color's experiences in academia, so it was really critical to talk. And we talked to multiple people—not only faculty, but staff trainees across campus, in health sciences and the main campus, and it was really critical to listen and to learn. And it wasn't just me, it was our team. We had many team meetings with the two associate vice presidents for research, Diane Pataki and Erin Rothwell, and we learned a couple things. I mean, one of the things I think that was really striking is there's a lot of skepticism in the community that's based on, okay, it's great for you to say something, but is there going to be action that goes with it? Are we committed to the long haul of changing the culture?

And so I think that's something that we really need to think about. It's not just what we say, it's how we kind of walk the walk. I think there's a lot of burden on our minority community for things that we do and we ask them to do, so we need to think about that in regards to their time and effort and how we actually acknowledge that and work with them and partner on that. Again, in coming back, we realized it wasn't just about our immediate community at the University of Utah, but it was also our participation in getting our diverse community of Hispanic people of color to be involved in research. There's a lot of reasons why they're nervous about doing that stuff, there's historical things, and so we have a lot of work to do on that and have developed programs to address that. And then I think that it became very apparent to us there are opportunities for privileged groups like myself that potentially people of color have not had and so we really needed to address all these things as it pertains to research.

The podcast is great here because it provides a platform for people of color to tell us their stories and they'll help inform us and hopefully change the flaws in our systems and get things corrected.

President Watkins: Well, I think that active listening and then acknowledging where you need to act is a pretty important step. Are there things that have taken place since you issued that call to action early in June and what's in play now?

Andy Weyrich: Oh, there's a lot in play and I want to say that it's fluid. We're adjusting as we get more and more input, which is great. And what we're putting in play is probably going to look a little different six months from now, in a year, once we get things going, but we've really started initially on two areas, which are research processes and programs. And so we have written out policies now on our processes and so we are collecting very closely demographic analytics and our relationship to research outcomes. Sometimes you'll see things that we do, which is proposals and awards we're doing really good. How does that look with women? How does that look with people of color? How does that look during COVID, during these times, and has that impacted other groups specifically within that? I think we have the strongest program in the United States on Research Participant Advocacy led by Sadie Gabler.

We can translate now into 26 different languages. And so, we put a lot of resources into that on the VPR side, Vice President for Research, and with Erin Rothwell and Sadie to work with our community to actually get diverse research participants in here. So, we spend a lot of time on that. We are now in the process of evaluating all the different types of implicit bias training and so that is to be incorporated into our research education series. And so that's going to be mandatory. We're just trying to figure out, with help of our people of color, what are really the types of implicit bias training that we should be doing. We're partnering with our graduate school now, so we actually have a certification program to look at research misconduct. There's a whole bunch of stuff in there with discrimination and harassment that is related. We have offered a research ethics course now.

We just hired Joyce Havstad. It was a One U hire from philosophy and our CCTS and from Erin Rothwell's office to really look at all of these things that we're talking about today. And then I think, from a program standpoint, we are now expanding our training grants. So, if somebody has a training grant, now we are adding and paying for that if they have extra slots to bring in diverse trainees. And so we're partnering with Dan Reed and Mike Good on that particular area. We are also pretty close to rolling out in October what we call an administrative supplement, which is recruitment and retention for people of color, for folks who are funded. And so with that, though, we're linking, this is one of the things we really learned, Ruth, was that that was great to have that program, but what happens if we aren't training the mentors on how to mentor our trainees that are diverse and so we're working with our community on that in detail.

And then we're also offering small grant programs for people with childcare, disability, or if they're ill and things that we can help them, put their proposals together. And so it's actually a lot of fun right now because it's been informed by so many different people. And so, yeah, there's a lot going on. Some are already happening. We intend to have them all rolled out, though. The majority will be rolled out by the end of this year and some of the processes, like the training where we really need to look in depth, is going to take a little bit longer, but no later than June 30th of next year. So, we are on pace and so it's actually a lot of fun.

President Watkins: Wow, I'm so grateful to you and your team for the leadership that you're showing, your willingness to examine policies and practices, to listen to our community and then swiftly design both educational and learning opportunities, as well as concrete investments that can support our researchers of color in succeeding in so many vital, vital areas. You've addressed a number of issues related to social justice and equity, and really taking an anti-racist stand in terms of how research is conducted at the University of Utah. I know that a big part of your emphasis over the last six months or so has been coronavirus, COVID-19, and a range of elements of the pandemic and, of course, that links to issues of social justice.

We are seeing before us health disparities, differential impacts. We like to say we're all in this together, but the fact of the matter is this is not affecting everyone equally. There are incredibly disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 for our communities of color, for individuals from different economic backgrounds and in different environmental circumstances. It would be wonderful, I think, for listeners to hear a bit about the COVID-19 work that's happening on our campus, and maybe particularly the types of work that relate to equity, diversity, inclusion and social justice.

Andy Weyrich: I would love to tell you just a little bit. As you know, University of Utah research is on the rise. We had another record-breaking year, $600 million, and I think that that wouldn't have happened actually, if it wasn't for COVID, in some ways. We had more proposals sent out. Our research community submitted more proposals in June than we've ever had, and we got more awards than we've ever had. And so I think our community really has taken this as an opportunity, not only a challenge, but an opportunity. We also have over 130 projects on COVID right now in research and that's across the broad, a spectrum, and I'll tell you about a few of those. As you know, we had a huge seed grant program where we supported over 50-some grants across campus. It was a great One U initiative, and there's a lot of things going on.

The one thing I will tell you is the wastewater project was a seed grant, as you know, which is really interesting and we're using that now. But we have a lot of seed grants that have impacted a lot of things we're talking about today. Robert Welsh in psychiatry is working on minority health disparities during the COVID 19 pandemic. We just had a huge NIH grant submitted from Larry Cook, Sara Knight, Matt Samore and Louisa Stark—it's an NIH rapid acceleration—for diagnostics for underserved populations. Sonia Salari in Family & Consumer Studies and Sharon Talboys from the Division of Public Health are working on research for domestic violence in the age of COVID, which is really, really, really interesting. We have COVID projects that are looking at how COVID and malaria [relate], so you can think about that with Africa and South America where malaria is very susceptible.

Jake Jensen is doing some really cool stuff on how do you think about health communication during COVID? How do you think about it for different communities, to the Hispanic community, to the Black community, to people who are living in places where they're economically disadvantaged? And so, there's just so many different things going on in the area, and that's just to name a few. As I said, there's 50 some projects that were seed grants, over a hundred and some, going on at the University of Utah, but I'm just thrilled with all the outstanding work and it's so eclectic. It's not only in the health care field, but we're studying air quality and how that might impact it with environmental racism. It's a testament to our community and the strength of our community in so many different areas.

President Watkins: It really is an important time to be one of America's leading research universities. You've helped us achieve that success, Andy. We're grateful to you and you've made a couple of really important statements today that effective research will reflect the society we serve. We need to always be conscious about how we think about social justice, race, equity, inclusion, in all of the types of research do. It has been one of, I think, the academy's flaws in the past. I am really grateful for your leadership to say the University of Utah wants to openly address the challenges we've had and make a difference by being different and thinking about what we can do in our research community to focus on equity and inclusion and diversity in all the work we do. Andy, grateful to you. Thank you for being my guest today and even more for the way you're leading research at the University of Utah.

Andy Weyrich: Thank you and thank our community.

President Watkins: And listeners, thank you for joining us and I hope you'll tune in to the next episode of the U Rising podcast.