How to be Racially Inclusive as Students, Educators, and Scientists in the OR/MS Field

Prof. Julie Simmons Ivy
Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering
North Carolina State University

My name is Julie Simmons Ivy. I am a tenured full professor in the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at North Carolina State University. I am also the first and only African-American female full professor in my department and the second in the College of Engineering. It seems overnight I went from having no voice to being asked to be a voice for all African Americans. I am not sure that I am ready. In fact, it is not a role that I can play – I cannot speak for all African Americans. I can only share my story and my vision for what I would like to see in the future.

I know for many members of the INFORMS community these are very confusing and scary times. If you are not from the United States (US), it can be even more confusing because you have one vision of the US. You may be realizing that it is not really living up to this vision for all people. You may not have realized that for some of us, it has never lived up to its constitution.

In fall of 1995, I was selected to attend the INFORMS Doctoral Colloquium and Annual Meeting in New Orleans as a relatively early stage doctoral student from the University of Michigan. It was my introduction to my community of practice and to the home of my profession. It was an overwhelming and life changing experience. I now saw the greater community of operations researchers and management scientists – people who looked at the world from the same lens I did. However, there were very few people who looked like me. Although I have attended most if not all of the Annual Meetings since my first in 1995, INFORMS has not always been the most comfortable place for me.

Despite this, since completing my PhD in 1998, I have become an active member of INFORMS, serving in many officers roles in the Health Applications Society (it was a section back then), serving on panels, committees and working to build a relationship and network within my community of practice. Then in 1999, the INFORMS Minority Issues Forum (MIF) was formed by Mark LewisIllya HicksWilliam Christian and Tasha Innis. With this INFORMS became not only my community of practice but my professional home. I remain involved in the MIF community – my home within INFORMS. I am particularly enjoying watching it grow and flourish as more underrepresented minority graduate students join and transition to faculty members and industry leaders and MIF leaders. While our numbers are growing, they are not representative of the population and they are still extremely small.

While MIF is a comfortable place, INFORMS can improve in the areas of inclusion specifically for underrepresented minorities. As operations researchers and management scientists, we know that it is always possible to do better, that is the foundation of our science. It is our role to think about how we can as a community do the hard work to become more inclusive and serve as a model for our profession and for others. I believe this conversation and the work that has been done over the past couple of years with the introduction of the INFORMS Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee are setting the stage for this hard work to commence.

I appreciate the student editors of OR/MS Tomorrow for the invitation to write an article about the current events around racial injustice and the thoughtful questions that they have posed. To provide the best possible answers from a variety of perspectives, I have shared the questions with the INFORMS MIF Board and former MIF Board members. All of their opinions and experiences are represented in the responses.

Thank you to the current and former MIF Board members for their thoughtful responses to the questions from our INFORMS student members.

Dr. Shannon L. Harris,
Assistant Professor of Supply Chain Management and Analytics,
School of Business,
Virginia Commonwealth University
Dr. Illya V. Hicks,
Professor of Computational and Applied Mathematics,
Former Faculty Advisor to the President,
Rice University
Dr. Mark E. Lewis,
Professor and Director of the School of Operations Research and Information Engineering,
Cornell University
Dr. Emmett Lodree,
Professor of Operations Management,
Culverhouse College of Business,
University of Alabama
Dr. Maria E. Mayorga,
Professor of Personalized Medicine,
Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering,
North Carolina State University
Dr. Rubén A. Proaño,
Associate Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering,
Rochester Institute of Technology
Current President of the INFORMS Minority Issues Forum

What racial biases, if any, exist in the classroom or workforce that bar students of color from entering the OR/MS fields?

Illya Hicks: Implicit biases. This shows up in teaching through the Pygmalion effect (how a teacher’s expectations correlate with a student’s performance). We have to get beyond just the metric of research in academia and focus on holistic people that are good researchers that also care about people and are aware of their implicit biases.

Mark Lewis: Just like the rest of society, we are battling history. For a long time, when I said “HBCU” I was met with a blank stare. If I were (again) a young Black student, why enter a field that has very few Black people? I love what Gabriel Zayas-Caban and Emmett Lodree are trying to do. Show the young URM students that this can be an exciting field with several places like the MIF that are welcoming, encouraging and hopeful that you will succeed.

Emmett Lodree: Like Mark said, a major barrier is that there just aren’t enough URM students and faculty in the field to begin with. Students may not be as likely to pursue the field where they are not as likely to fit in socially or where they feel like they can’t really connect with any of the professors. For students who do have the courage to give it a try, they may end up feeling isolated because there are no or too few URM students and faculty in the department.

Rubén Proaño: There are language biases toward minority students. English is a fluid language that does not have a governing body. Yet, as soon as people hear you speaking with an accent, there is a judgment, and people stop paying attention to what you are trying to say.

How can we create an anti-racist class and teach equality in our class of graduates?

Illya Hicks: Here is a link my school has. Faculty members should make an effort to incorporate more diverse scholarly research within their courses. For example, if a URM made some contribution that is relevant to the course, explicitly state that and highlight it with historical context.

Mark Lewis: Most schools have humanities departments. Connect with someone who studies Race/Ethnicity within those schools and ask that their course gets listed as a humanities elective. Depending on your school, you might find a set of courses. If you have the right leadership, they could require that all students take a course from that set of courses.

Emmett Lodree: Think about some different delivery mechanisms: (i) a formal course, (ii) a seminar series, (iii) orientation training, (iv) subsets of (i), (ii), and (iii). Mark touches on (i), so I will address (ii) and (iii). My department has a seminar series for PhD students, as do most PhD programs. You could request from the PhD program/graduate coordinator in your department that one or more of these seminars address this topic. For option (iii), petition that any graduate student who receives funding from your department, college, and/or university complete training related to implicit bias and race relations. Request that the training be a mandatory part of the in-person orientation process as opposed to watching a video on their own time. This request may have to go to your college dean or associate dean.

Rubén Proaño: An anti-racist class will be mostly attended by those who are already non-racists, and even by those who have been victims of racism and biases. We need to consider how everyone could take courses that raise awareness of inequities, disparities, and racial biases. Several liberal art courses in History, Sociology, and Public Policy can offer a thought-provoking perspective on these issues. As faculty members, we can suggest students take different course sequences to meet the degree requirement. We should try to suggest more courses to help students learn more about racial/ethnic issues in the US.

When we see racism in the lab group, how should we react and what should we do?

Illya Hicks: Talk to a supervisor (grad student, postdoc) and the professor. If you have to, go to the department head and dean.

Mark Lewis: This is a difficult one, because you are going to have to go back to the same lab. My recommendation is to seek out an advocate on the faculty to do the reporting for you. Ask that they document it. Most universities (in my opinion) are not going to react to an isolated incident unless it is severe. Documenting helps establish a pattern.

Emmett Lodree: If racism in your lab affects someone else, be there to support the person it happened to. Try to be there every step of the way in helping to identify formal and informal channels to get the situation resolved. If it happens to you, get it off of your chest by talking with your friends who are there, extended friends and family who live somewhere else, and mentors. In general, just talk with people you trust, and together you will likely formulate an action plan on what to do next.

Rubén Proaño: Faculty members should update their course syllabus to make it clear that any explicit or implicit form of racism among students and faculty is not tolerated.

Maria Mayorga: It is also important to acknowledge what you see. Often people experiencing racism are told that maybe they misinterpreted something, it was just a joke, or they are overreacting. If you see something, acknowledge it and say something.

How should we react to racism among our fellow faculty members toward both other faculty members and students?

Illya Hicks: Report to department head, dean, provost, president. They should be uncomfortable.

Mark Lewis: I like the idea of reporting it, but I would start with a person (who may not be in leadership) who you trust to discuss it. And always document your complaints.

Rubén Proaño: We should report it. All universities have a process in place, which should be well known to all faculty members. Universities also have an ombudsperson who can help channel these reports if there is a concern for reprisals.

Emmett Lodree: In addition to documenting the actual incidents, also document what happens after reporting to your department head, dean, president, etc. If you do not receive satisfactory responses and actions from your administrators, seek legal counsel.

What is the most impactful way we can be an ally and anti-racist through research publications and projects? For example, should we seek out citing black researchers? Should we include a section on disparities in our work?

Illya Hicks: Yes, cite URM researchers. Try to collaborate with URM researchers. I would caution to only include disparities in research when it is a part of the research though.

Mark Lewis: Where we can, we should advocate for each other on all levels.

Emmett Lodree: OR/MS as a field needs to figure out ways in which we can contribute to research in the racism/discrimination space. The work that Dr. Michael Johnson does in the area he calls “Community Operations Research” is an example of research that is relevant to race and discrimination. I would personally like to see a subfield called OR/MS applications in race and discrimination that would eventually become a mainstream INFORMS section or society, and also a department area in top INFORMS journals, namely Management Science and Operations Research. I see this as a longer term goal to work towards.

Rubén Proaño: Our journals often ignore the impact of innovative ideas. We have tons of publications that deal with marginal technical enhancements. However, there are ideas whose influence over time grows in diverse ways. Yet they are dismissed in our review processes because they are considered simple applications of published theory. This behavior incentivizes volume rather than long term impact. Not all faculty, especially minorities, have access to resources that can help produce in volume. We need to change how we assess publications so that we reward the impact of ideas.

How can we empower and encourage young black students to pursue STEM fields or graduate study?

Illya Hicks: Focus more on applications that black students would be interested in. Do a survey of the black undergrads. We also have to expose them early to research and show them that academia is just as exciting and important as an industry job out of undergrad.

Emmett Lodree: (1) Money - financial incentives including scholarships, fellowships, grants, research assistantships, and teaching assistantships set aside for URM students to pursue undergraduate, masters, and PhD studies in our field. Meaningful stipends for URM undergraduate students to participate in research projects/programs would also be helpful (the stipends I’ve seen are not substantial enough to make much of a difference relative to the cost of tuition and fees). (2) Black professors, professionals, and current PhD students have to recruit them by reaching out to promising undergraduate URMs that they interact with in their courses or on their jobs. Unfortunately, there are only a few URM undergraduate students in the field at my university, which means that even fewer of them have the desire or mathematical ability for graduate studies. (3) With so few students in undergraduate programs, we need to solve that problem first by recruiting high school juniors and seniors possibly through project-based research projects in our field. This would take money.

Shannon Harris: MIF and INFORMS should volunteer at local middle/high schools to help empower and encourage young black students to pursue STEM. If they see us and can talk to us, I think that can help.

Maria Mayorga: Make undergraduate students aware of your research; show your enthusiasm and encourage them to engage in undergraduate research. Many students may have never considered graduate education. (For me it was not until I met several URM graduate students that I even thought it was a possible avenue.) Be sure to encourage and advise talented students.

How can we best support the success of our black peers and friends in graduate programs?

Illya Hicks: As faculty, we need to be advocates for URM graduate students. As students, collaborate and help increase their visibility.

Mark Lewis: The strongest advocate you can be is to be present. Start a Slack channel to let people know which conferences you will attend and make it a point to connect.

Emmett Lodree: Mentorship program.

Rubén Proaño: I agree with Lodree. Mentorship programs at an early stage are key to encourage students to consider STEM disciplines and to succeed in their efforts.

Maria Mayorga: As students, be intentional in including your peers to activities both social and academic; for example study groups, review groups for talks, etc.

There are almost no African-American faculty in my school! How can we make sure that universities and especially engineering schools consider equality in hiring faculty members?

Illya Hicks: Put pressure on your dean, provost and president. Have a petition. Have the minority organizations write a letter. Ask for a meeting with them. Minority faculty members or allies should try to be part of search processes, and actively invite minority graduate students to apply for the position.

Mark Lewis: Agree with above, but also do your homework. What are other universities doing? Here is a report from a task force on faculty diversity I chaired a couple of years back. The focus is on both URM and women faculty. If your university is doing very little, you should ask if they would be willing to glean ideas from the greater community.

Emmett Lodree: (1) As mentioned above, go to the higher ups at your university and ask what they are doing to increase the percentage of URM faculty there. This should come from a unified voice that includes as many URM student and faculty organizations as possible at your university. (2) There aren’t enough URM applicants to begin with, so get your university to invest in fellowships, assistantships, recruiting trips, etc. to increase the number of URM students in PhD programs. This is a solution that would address the problem in the long run, and other universities would have to do the same for it to work.

Rubén Proaño: In my department, as part of the faculty search process, we ask the candidates to interact with our undergraduate and graduate students over a meal (breakfast, lunch, or dinner). During these meetings, our students can assess the candidate and offer a perspective on the candidate’s interest in the students, teaching, research, and her/his capacity to attract a diverse pool of students to our department. Minority students are encouraged to volunteer and participate in these meetings. The students’ evaluations are carefully considered during the candidate’s final assessment. Ask your university to consider having an informal meeting between faculty candidates and groups of students. Make sure that representatives of minority student organizations are invited to be part of these meetings. I agree with Lodree’s comment that universities must increase the number of URM applicants.

What are the specific operational and recruitment policies that industries and universities should follow to encourage diversity and equality for all?

Emmett Lodree: (1) I can’t really think of operational policies, but strategically your college should have an administrative position dedicated to diversity and/or URM issues. If your college doesn’t, petition your dean to create such a position and/or run the idea by URM faculty in your college. As a URM applicant, I would be more comfortable working for a university that has a dean for diversity in the college for the department I would be in. (2) Invite URM scholars as guest lecturers and/or seminar presenters on a regular basis. That way, both sides can “feel each other out”, and the formal interview can come later. (3) Money. Your college and/or university has to finance a dean/director of diversity position in your college, and finance a URM seminar series.

Illya Hicks: We need more minority candidates making the short list and being allowed to interview (look at the NFL Rooney rule)for graduate study. Focus on what I call the gatekeepers. We have to have hard discussions about how one defines success; what is a good or baseline acceptable candidate; that everyone has different backgrounds; and that an insufficient background is not an indicator of an unsuccessful candidate.

Mark Lewis: In hiring there are multiple “pools”. There is the talent pool of people that apply, and then there is the interview pool of people that get interviews (Zoom or otherwise). What a lot of places have focused on is the first and not the second. At the faculty level, there should be oversight at each level...all the way up to the offer letter. Check out the Strategic Oversight Committee. We have had some success for women hiring. We need more for URMs. As for graduate students, make certain to recruit at national events and then follow up. Secondly (and more importantly) find out what metrics people use to evaluate candidates.

Should we talk about race with students?

Mark Lewis: This is a loaded question. Who is the “we”? If you are African-American, you talk about and are asked to talk about race all the though one person speaks for 50 million people. If “they” are serious about it, they need to discuss it, and discuss and discuss it.

Emmett Lodree: I assume you mean talking with students who are not underrepresented minorities, and I also assume that you are referring to informal settings (e.g., in between classes or at lunch) as opposed to formal (e.g., a panel discussion on the topic of race). I agree with Mark that this is a loaded question and that there are many possible answers. A general answer is that it depends on how comfortable you are with the student(s) you interact with.

Rubén Proaño: Yes, do not be afraid to talk about race, ethnicities, and cultures. It is worth sharing different perspectives on problems. We need to help our students realize their prejudices.

How can we talk about race when the majority of the students are white?

Illya Hicks: Just do it. Have an informal open forum setting with food and breakout rooms to induce open and honest discussion.

Mark Lewis: You can have a facilitator. Most universities have them on staff. You should do a “pre-meeting” with the facilitator to explain what concerns you might have with even having this discussion.

Emmett Lodree: Connect with Black organizations on your campus. When I was an undergraduate student, that was NSBE (the National Society of Black Engineers). As a graduate student at U. of Missouri, we had a really active organization called the Association for Black Graduate and Professional Students that brought students from many different majors together, many of whom I am still in contact with. I suspect most universities would have student organizations like these, but if yours doesn’t, consider starting one. Lastly, do exactly what you’re doing now: reach out to the INFORMS MIF.

Rubén Proaño: As minorities, we often try not to share our different perspectives on daily problems with our students. We should take every opportunity we have with students to share our opinions on current events and life in general. American minorities have a very diverse cultural heritage that is not shared. Engaging with students beyond the classroom to talk about life, sharing meals, and offering a different perspective on their problems helps students realize that, as human beings, we share similar problems and goals. Yet, not everyone has the same opportunities to resolve their conflicts or succeed in achieving their goals. Sharing our cultural heritage with our students also helps them realize that there is usually no unique solution for similar problems.

Do you have any suggestions or programs that can be implemented in the INFORMS student chapters to promote racial inclusion?

Illya Hicks: Call out double standards when possible. Also, as a group, have hard discussions on equity within the chapter and the profession.

Julie Ivy: A student chapter of INFORMS can host events to build community among members and expose other students particularly undergraduate students to the field of operations research and management science. This can include events that allow your members to share their cultures with each other - food always helps - consider a potluck. A student INFORMS chapter should consider partnering with other student organizations such as NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers), SHPE (Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers), AISES (American Indian Science and Engineering Society), and SWE (Society of Women Engineers) on a research symposium, poster session, or case competition - activities that expose students to OR/MS. A student INFORMS chapter could partner with their department or college to invite underrepresented minority researchers to visit your campus for a seminar. Consider having service activities within K-12 students to expose them to OR/MS with a focus on schools with higher populations of underrepresented minority students. An important component of creating an environment that promotes equality is building relationship, community, and trust among members. In doing so creating environments that are comfortable and safe for all members of the community.