Conference showcases diversity-based research

by Ken Eisinger

Shuffling between presentations Friday, attendees of the first annual “Diversity through the Disciplines” conference heard about minority issues from “flying slaves” to biases of standardized testing.
Twelve University professors from different disciplines, races and ethnicities showcased highlights of two-year research projects during the event held at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
The projects stem from President’s Faculty Multicultural Research awards given out as recruitment and retention tools for faculty of color. Former University president Nils Hasselmo established the award two years ago, which carries with it up to $14,000 in grants.
Robert Jones, vice provost for Faculty and Academic Personnel, said the award is one factor for the rise in minority faculty. For years, he said, the number of nonwhite faculty hovered around 10 percent; this year the University increased its faculty of color to 12 percent.
“That’s not a dramatic increase, but in light of where we were 10 years ago, I think it is significant.” Jones said.
Professors from a variety of disciplines took turns presenting research results to ethnically diverse crowds. Following four hours of presentations, researchers stood in the lobby by displays of their work and answered audience members’ questions.
“Their work applies to not only improving diversity within the University but to improving the quality of life in society,” said Patricia Spence, vice chairwoman of the Board of Regents.
Terri Ervin, a sophomore at Roosevelt High in Minneapolis, listened attentively as one professor detailed his program to prepare minorities for standardized tests. Ervin said she would consider taking a seminar by Ernest Davenport, Jr., to help her overcome cultural biases he outlined.
Maria Cheng, an associate professor of theatre arts and dance, used her grant to write and produce a play.
The play, “Wok Up,” is a comedic-drama about a modern Chinese family dealing with generational differences, overachievement and cultural identity.
Cheng said the grant gave her time to polish her script and recruit a high-caliber cast — one that she said is the best available in the Twin Cities.
Angelita Reyes, a professor of Afro-American and African Studies, presented her research on the reoccurring theme in black American folklore of flying slaves. Reyes somberly concluded that flight was a metaphor for the ascension of the souls of slaves who had liberated themselves through suicide.
The reality of it was too much for their living peers to bear, Reyes said. “The survivors became myth-makers. They developed deliberate amnesia, which is actually a defense mechanism.”