Synergies, Not Silos: Why Isolated Initiatives Won’t Disrupt the Status Quo

More Info
Becky Wai-Ling Packard, Ph.D.
Mary E. Woolley Professor of Psychology and Education
Mount Holyoke College
More Info
Joi-Lynn Mondisa, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
University of Michigan
More Info
Beronda L. Montgomery, Ph.D.
Professor; Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the College
Grinnell College
More Info
Zakiya S. Wilson-Kennedy, Ph.D.
Ron & Dr. Mary Neal Distinguished Associate Professor of Chemistry Education, Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, College of Science
Louisiana State University

STEM departments have struggled, as has much of higher education, to advance student success while achieving racial equity.1 The continually-low numbers of Black and Latine students in undergraduate STEM degree programs reveal only part of the challenge.2 The dearth of racially-diverse graduate students and faculty available as educators discloses another.3 Problematic climate4 for minoritized students and faculty? Yet another.

Disrupting the Status Quo

For decades, STEM fields have attempted to address this challenge by targeting issues through the creation of special initiatives rather than changing the systems within which they reside.5 As a result, the STEM landscape now offers a sprinkling of successful programs. However, programs are often limited to a select number of students, while the vast majority of students pursue STEM outside of special programs.6 Aside from limited scope, a problem of investing in program-level innovation is the way it tends to happen: in disciplinary or unit-level isolation. The status quo– at the macro-level– remains undisturbed and the possibility for synergistic activity and learning is diminished.

Our efforts have focused on strengthening mentoring ecosystems as we see a strong mentoring culture as a necessary condition for cultivating the future of STEM. The building of synergies between programs is critical to maximize resources, share efficacious practices, and provide networks of support for the stewards of programs. Paths toward building synergies include cultivating communities of learning between program directors and coordinators, maximizing resources and minimizing administrative redundancies through pool-based administrative support, and providing recognized avenues for sharing challenges and successes among programs across disciplines.

What’s Needed?

We are a multi-disciplinary team, and three women of color, who collaborate across disciplines of educational psychology, biological science, and engineering. Together, we developed a STEM Mentoring Ecosystems (STEM-ME) framework7 which argues that to elevate the impact and outcomes of mentoring, efforts cannot be approached or assessed solely program by program, but instead from an ecosystem-wide cultivation of success. While advancing mentoring within one department is valuable, it is even more advantageous to see how a departmental approach could inform or connect to other departments’ and campus-wide initiatives. Institutions benefit by taking stock of strengths across departments and units; collectively, they can step back and assess potential vulnerabilities including areas where mentors are in short supply or programs lack sustainable resources.

Cross-department and cross-discipline collaboration is absolutely vital to the collective project. Yet, collaboration is exactly what is discouraged when working in disparate department silos. Although departments may strive to be completely autonomous, achieving racial equity within STEM student success requires departmental coordination at the very least.

With NSF support, we translated our STEM-ME framework into tools, including an inventory of campus mentoring assets and a visual map where campuses can display patterns of mentoring activity. Using these tools to conduct institutional self-assessments, campus teams reflected on their strengths and vulnerabilities. In our sessions, teams noted what stood in the way of coordinating across departmental lines: limited time afforded to do so and departmental leaders lacking the necessary commitment to mentoring or racial equity.8 And while stewardship from “the top” can certainly help to provide resources as well as systems of accountability and rewards, it is also possible and necessary for departments to exert agency in the process.

Departments who are willing to work together disrupt the status quo as they resist intra-institutional competition for resources and recognition and push for collective infrastructure. Disruptive departments move away from isolated progress as they engage in the unabashed vulnerability necessary to share what’s not working with one another. Together, they seek synergies that can lift up the entire enterprise.

Where to Start?

First, critically review program initiatives and ask: should this become institutionalized, and if so, how? Step back and consider how an isolated initiative connects to others in the ecosystem.

Many higher education institutions have at least one special program, originally funded by an external grant, that is predictive of student success, especially students from minoritized backgrounds. Take for example the M-STEM program at the University of Michigan where an original NSF S-STEM grant initiative became the model for an integrated mentoring solution in the College of Engineering.9, 9a-9d Launched in 2008 as a joint program between the College of Engineering and the College of Literature, Science, and Arts, the M-STEM Academy Program aimed “to strengthen and diversify the cohort of students who receive their baccalaureate degrees in STEM…”9e Through a series of supports including faculty mentoring, peer mentoring, and social community activities, the program creates an integrated and thriving ecosystem for student success. Now, the M-STEM Academy is an institutionally integrated multidisciplinary program with dedicated human and financial resources.9e The M-STEM Academy is an example of a university’s commitment to an initiative that supports historically marginalized students across science and engineering disciplines and illustrates how an institution created synergies across disciplines thereby strengthening the institutional ecosystem.

Using our STEM-ME framework for institutional self-assessment, one would likely notice the presence of a student success program in one area (e.g., science) and the absence in another (e.g., engineering), creating an inconsistency in the STEM mentoring ecosystem. If departments and colleges did more of this cross-unit brainstorming, we imagine a more cohesive STEM experience would result for students, regardless of entry point.

Second, consider strategies to maximize the impact of limited campus resources. Working across disciplinary and departmental boundaries offers ripe opportunities for discovering synergies.

So many departments are stretched to capacity. Without a set of special programs to inventory, they may contemplate where to begin. Many campuses may already offer a centralized institutional resource such as a peer tutoring or mentoring center, and with whom departments may already coordinate as part of their introductory science courses.10 Research shows that beyond typical supplemental access, students particularly benefit from in-class support that peer mentors provide when they are embedded within the course structure.11 We notice, however, that the location for such innovations tend to be within a single department (e.g., biology or chemistry) rather than being adopted across departments in a more coordinated fashion.

Using our STEM-ME assessment, we would ask faculty to strategize across departments by considering: “What would it take at the institutional level to resource this peer mentoring infrastructure across introductory STEM?” Even if particular solutions play out differently across departments, the act of coordination disrupts the status quo as they consider how their department solution contributes to the collective project. We observed in our STEM-ME sessions that participants from different departments and disciplines learned so much from thinking together about how to mobilize limited institutional resources. Research shows that even informal mentoring spaces co-constructed by faculty and staff can be better leveraged when working together intentionally.12

Third, recognize that faculty success is crucial to student success. Departments need to be open to new mechanisms for hiring and rewarding faculty.

We cannot get to student success when faculty success is still under threat in many predominantly white campuses. There is too much complacency about faculty of color hiring and departure.

There is much opportunity to synergistically examine faculty success across institutional types. While HBCUs, MSIs and community colleges are not infallible, they do produce the largest numbers of graduates of color in STEM.13 A recently awarded NSF INCLUDES grant features universities from the University of Maryland System, North Carolina University System, and University of Texas System who are collectively working on supporting underrepresented postdoctoral fellows.14 Cross-alliance teams are seeking to identify institutions’ assets as related to their cultures, and leveraging that knowledge to support postdoctoral fellows’ matriculation into tenure-track positions within and beyond their systems. These teams recognize that faculty success is critical to student success as they harness mentoring, develop collaborative approaches, and form institutional networks to support the recruitment and retention of minoritized postdoctoral scholars into STEM faculty positions.

Departments can also evaluate where they place their limited resources. Faculty time, whether for mentoring or institutional self-assessment, is not free, yet feeling taken for granted for invisible labor has been documented repeatedly for white women and persons of color.15 Further, faculty of color often work on community-engaged research, and too frequently, such work is viewed as an add-on beyond assigned teaching16,17 despite improved outcomes for minoritized students.18-21 If support is provided for such work, it is often as a teaching release or stipend, without being embedded in the existing reward structures. More meaningful support may involve providing teaching equivalents that are more relevant in academic environments that count and reward teaching therein.

In our STEM-ME sessions, we saw the challenge of recruiting and retaining faculty as top of mind across departments and institutions. If more conversations that bridge faculty and student success happened across department and institutional boundaries, disruption and progress would be more likely.

So, Where do We go From Here?

Institutions cannot make progress toward racially-equitable student success by investing in isolated programs alone. Without coordination, departments run the risk of underutilizing institutional resources or undermining their investments when students navigate an inconsistent ecosystem. And we know that no one in higher education has time or money to waste.

To disrupt inequitable systems in STEM, we call upon institutional leaders stewarding their ecosystems to resource and reward departments that work together. And we call upon department chairs and department members to see themselves as part of the collective project by reviewing promising initiatives, and moving to integrate these into the ecosystem, rather than seeing them as stand-alone successes. Campus teams can inventory and seek connections among programs, and in the process, document and leverage key champion knowledge.

Institutions and departments alike can benefit from learning what others are doing. Synergies arise when departments share successes, disclose their vulnerabilities, and optimize their limited existing resources. And we must underscore faculty success as critical to student success. We believe we can get there, by bringing currently siloed knowledge into a broader conversation. And we are excited about being part of that future.


The authors would like to acknowledge National Science Foundation grant #2133544, our collective research teams, and the institutions who contributed by using the STEM-ME framework and tools.