By Emma Lyons
The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a $2.9 million grant to Framingham State University, Bridgewater State University, and Worcester State University, which went into effect at the start of Academic Year 2022-23.
The grant’s funds were split among the three universities, with FSU receiving $1.5 million, and WSU and BSU sharing the remaining $1.4 million, according to Reema Zeineldin, Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs.
This grant is a part of the Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP). AGEP is a program run by NSF. The goals of the program are to increase the number of underrepresented scholars obtaining graduate degrees within STEM fields and to “enhance the preparation of underrepresented minorities for faculty positions in academia,” according to the NSF-AGEP website.
The Mary Miles Bibb Postdoctoral Teaching Fellowship is named after Mary Miles Bibb, the first African American person to graduate from Framingham State and one of the first Black women to teach in North America, according to the Framingham State University website.
“The Mary Miles Bibb Teaching Fellowship program is designed to honor her legacy as an abolitionist and a woman who dedicated her life to the safety and education of fugitive slaves,” according to the website.
Susan Dargan, dean of social and behavioral sciences, said the goal of the fellowship is to mentor faculty for two years to prepare them for their future careers as tenure-track professors.
“There are all sorts of struggles that we’ve had with it - also the current climate where enrollments are down and we don't have any positions makes it challenging. But we’ve had some real successes with the program,” Dargan said.
She said she hopes the number of fellows in the coming years will not decrease as a result of the lack of open positions. Though there are not many tenure-track positions - positions for which an employee has an opportunity to earn tenure - many departments need full-time temporary positions, meaning there is no guarantee for that employee to permanently hold the position to be filled - which are the positions the fellowship would help fill. “The FFT [full-time temporary] positions - since they’re two year positions for the Bibb fellows - those we’re more likely to have.”
Dargan said the grant and the fellowship fit well together, though not all of the positions available through the Mary Miles Bibb fellowship are eligible to be a part of the AGEP program - since AGEP is focused on STEM and the fellowship is open to applicants from every discipline.
Each of the AGEP faculty members commits to working at Framingham State for the two years of the fellowship. There is no guarantee that a permanent position will be available for them to stay at the University past that time, Kristen Porter-Utley, provost and academic vice president, said.
However, their participation in the grant provides support for them for the five years the grant is in effect. So, even if the AGEP faculty do not continue to work at FSU after the fellowship, they will still be supported by the grant, she said.
“The National Science Foundation and AGEP goal is for us to support the success of STEM faculty members of color. And we have committed to supporting them no matter where they go,” Porter-Utley added.
Zeineldin said if the fellows do not continue to work at one of the three institutions, they will be supported through continued invitations to AGEP alliance events, and they will be provided funds for travel and professional development that are “equal to the amount that the AGEP faculty received during their first year.”
Chantrell Frazier, a Bibb fellow supported by the AGEP grant, formerly participated in an AGEP program while attending Florida International University. She explained through the program, NSF is trying to “create this partnership amongst these different state universities and expose new faculty to all the opportunities that exist across these different institutions for professional development.”
Zeineldin said the grant is a collaborative effort among FSU, WSU, and BSU - however, FSU is leading the initiative.
NSF sends out emails with general invitations for grant applications to several institutions, she added.
“We came across it and we thought, ‘Oh, this ties well with what we would like to do. It ties well with our commitment to anti-racism - to our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and supporting our faculty of color,’” Zeineldin said.
“Really, our goal is to counter the structural racism that exists in the systems of higher education,” she said.
She explained this goal is what pushed the grant faculty to pursue “cluster hiring” with the candidates for the grant. “Hiring as cohorts - as groups across these three institutions - creating shared programming to support them together.”
Porter-Utley said the “idea was that if we [FSU, BSU, and WSU] work together as a three-university alliance, we will be able to hire enough people to actually create a cohort to work together.”
Writing the grant was a team effort by all three institutions. Zeineldin said she and deans from FSU reached out to their colleagues from the other institutions to ask if they were interested in writing the grant with them.
Porter-Utley said she was involved with the grant while she was a dean at Bridgewater State University. She “immediately jumped on board” after hearing about the grant.
She said the three universities are collaborating in the hope of exchanging what is being learned through the grant and “coming up with common practices.”
Each university has a set of “alliance leaders” who assisted in the writing of the grant.
The alliance leaders at Worcester State are Linda Larrivee, dean of the School of Education, Health, and Natural Sciences, Daron Barnard, a professor, and Henry Theriault, associate vice president.
The alliance leaders at Bridgewater State are Martina Arndt, a physics professor,, Arnaa Alcon, dean of the college of humanities and social sciences, Sabrina Gentlewarrior, vice president of student success and diversity, and Nicole Glen, interim associate provost for academic and faculty affairs.
The alliance leaders at Framingham State are Zeineldin, Margaret Carroll, dean of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, Dargan, Porter-Utley, and Elizabeth Foss, NSF grant manager.
Four faculty members were hired at Framingham State this year as the first cohort for the grant: Cheng-Chiang Wu and Rachel Avard, biology professors; Chantrell Frazier, a chemistry professor; and Carol Gray, a political science professor. Each member of the cohort is also a part of the Mary Miles Bibb Postdoctoral Teaching Fellowship.
Porter-Utley said the faculty hired that are a part of the grant would still have been Mary Miles Bibb fellows if the grant was not put in place. “Because we got the grant we were able to say, [to the newly hired fellows] ‘Well, not only can we provide you with support through the Mary Miles Bibb program, but we also have this other grant - you all qualify.”
Zeineldin said the faculty within the first cohort are a “combination of faculty of color and their allies.”
Porter-Utley said the goal “is to hire and support as many faculty members of color as possible through the grant program, but of course, also strong allies who have documented evidence of work in their professional careers in moving the needle to support faculty members of color.”
Zeineldin said the primary goal of the grant is to increase AGEP faculty in higher education.
She said this grant is only the second alliance within the 24 years that AGEP has been in effect that supports faculty in the early parts of their careers.
“We are trying to create a national model for recruiting, retaining, and supporting the academic success of faculty of color,” Zeineldin said. The goal of the grant is to support the faculty in both tenure-track and temporary positions.
She explained there is a “shrinking percentage” of Black and Latinx students and faculty within higher education - Black and Latinx people only make up 33% of students within the U.S., 13% of students who earn doctoral degrees in a STEM field, and 6% of tenure-track faculty at higher-education institutions.
Zeineldin said the money for the grant goes into the support systems for the faculty hired.
She said about $300,000 from the grant budget is planned to be used for external evaluations of the program. FSU is planning on working with the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute. They will generate surveys and conduct interviews throughout the five years of the grant.
Money will also be used to cover the travel expenses for the AGEP faculty to attend conferences and to provide professional development assistance, Zeineldin said.
Bibb Fellow Chantrell Frazier is a professor in the Chemistry Department. She earned a bachelor's degree from Savannah State University, a historically black college, and immediately started her Ph.D. in biochemistry after graduating.
She said the grant and fellowship support her in different ways. “The Mary Miles Bibb Fellowship is helping me hone all my actual teaching pedagogy - so it’s allowing me to be a better professor. The focus of the AGEP grant is to better new faculty in the cycle of tenure-track positions. So, in the sense of being a faculty member, what does that look like to be a successful faculty member?
“They really kind of overlap. So, the Mary Miles Bibb Fellowship is the reason that I’m here, and I feel like the AGEP grant is going to allow me to expand my networking skills and really get information from faculty members that have been here to help me be a better academic professor,” she said.
Frazier said one goal she had for her time as a fellow is to potentially develop a forensic science course at FSU because it was the focus of her bachelor’s degree. If she is able to stay at Framingham State in a tenure-track position after her two years as a fellow, she would like to look into the potential of developing a concentration in forensic science on campus.
She said she is also interested in strengthening participation in the STEM of Color Affinity Group on campus by “figuring out different ways that we can appeal to the students of color who are in the STEM field and give them guidance and give them a safe space to maybe talk about how they feel or where they are and also allow them to note the different careers that exist for them.”
Frazier emphasized the importance of professors adjusting how they teach to assist in connecting with students, as well as having a diverse group of professors.
She said there have been times when she has been mistaken as a student because of her age. “A lot of students don’t know that I’m here because they’re used to a certain demographic of what a professor looks like. We don’t typically see faculty of color and young [faculty].”
The fellowship was the only thing Frazier applied to as she graduated from her Ph.D. program. She said after her first interview with the Chemistry and Biology departments, she was “dead set on coming up here just because the environment was so great.”
“A lot of times, coming out of a doctoral program, you get kind of thrown into these things, especially at the what we call ‘R1 institutions’ - where they are based in research,” Frazier said. “For me, Framingham State is not that. That research is still being done, but it’s more focused on the students.
“I’m very grateful that I can grow my pedagogy skills to be better for the students - because that’s who I care about,” she said.
Lillian Mayhew, a freshman food science major, is taking Frazier’s Principles of Chemistry class. “Dr. Frazier has been amazing this whole semester because it’s obvious she cares about her students and wants us to learn and understand what she is teaching.
“If FSU hires more faculty of the same caliber as Dr. Frazier, then that would really be a gift to students,” she said.
Bibb Fellow Cheng-Chiang Wu is a professor in the Biology Department. He received his bachelor's and master’s degrees in botany from National Taiwan University. He then earned his Ph.D. in organismic and evolutionary biology from Harvard University.
He said the AGEP grant provides additional support in career development, improvement of teaching, and mentorship in addition to the fellowship program.
He said he was a Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) of the Republic of China International Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Life Science at National Taiwan University. While there, he generated data he is continuing to evaluate at Framingham State with his students.
Wu said through this collaboration, his students will “learn how to do research and also learn how to analyze some genomic big data on state-of-the-art, high-performance, computing clusters.” He also hopes to be able to publish manuscripts of the research with credit to FSU students who work on them.
He said when he read the job description for the fellowship, it “resonated with [his] heart” as a scientist of color and a first-generation immigrant.
Wu added Massachusetts has been his home for over 19 years, but he had to leave his family as he worked in Taiwan through the pandemic. So, he wanted to come back to Massachusetts after that time.
He also addressed how the hiring process allowed him to feel the friendliness and inclusivity on campus. During his first interview with Aline Davis, chair of the Biology Department, she asked him how to pronounce his first name.
“I do appreciate that. I could feel the inclusivity and generosity and friendship from this very fine detail. It was very touching, and through this process, I could definitely feel that it was a correct decision to accept the offer to work here,” he said.
Bibb Fellow Rachel Avard is a professor in the Biology Department. She earned her bachelor's degree in chemistry at Assumption College and earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University.
She said she has formerly been a tutor and a teaching assistant and attended graduate school with “the express goal of coming and teaching at a primary undergraduate institution.”
Avard said the grant does help her and the other members of the cohort to establish long-term positions in academia, but also gives them support systems to assist others with their goals to go into higher education.
Avard said the current problem in higher education is the “astonishing lack of diversity.” The solution is not only to increase the diversity of professors, but also to encourage people from “all walks of life - colors, ethnicities, whatever it may be … to pursue higher education.”
Avard said a part of the work she does as a fellow is meeting regularly with people in different academic departments to look at teaching methods from different angles.
“The Bibb fellowship has support coming from so many different angles, both in helping us to be professors and develop our skills, as well as helping us to learn all these new pedagogies on how to teach inclusively, how to move away from standardized testing, and how to actually teach students the material that they’re looking for,” she said.
She said the Bibb fellowship has provided funding that allows her to do research while at Framingham State. She tied the work she has done in her Ph.D. program to her current research and has started working with undergraduate students to use “computer modeling to monitor breast cancer cell migration, to give us a little bit more of an insight on how these mechanisms work.
“It’s helping me keep my foot in the world of research and doing the things that I enjoy doing. But it’s also given me the support system to bring undergraduates into the research realm - which is so, so important for anyone, especially in a [STEM] field,” she said.
Avard said when she saw the job posting, she was “immediately drawn in” because the fellowship’s initiative is something she has been passionate about for a long time.
“The entire goal, not only of this fellowship, but on the campus entirely, is to learn how we can better teach students of all backgrounds, regardless of anything. How can I reach all of my students? And how can I help make sure that they know they are seen, they are heard, and they’re needed in these fields?” she asked.
She said in her classroom, she still brings up topics related to ethnicity, diversity, and inclusion - even though the classes she teaches are not specifically focused on these areas.
She said it is important for students to know the history of racism within their fields.
She noted how many of her students are planning to go into the medical field and “they need to know that these are problems that are happening. And not only do they need to note the problem happening, but they need to be aware of these problems and that they need to pay attention to how they’re interacting with their patients.”
Avard said it is easy for an institution to say that it is anti-racist or anti-sexist, but “Framingham is impressive in the way that they’re actually doing things - not only to prove that they care, but to make things better for the students and for the professors. So, I think that’s heartwarming to see - coming especially from the administration and people higher up in the hierarchy.”
Bibb Fellow Carol Gray is a professor in the Political Science Department. She earned her bachelor's degree in African Studies from Wesleyan University, a law degree from Northeastern University, and a master’s of law degree from Georgetown University Law Center. She was a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar in Cairo, Egypt, and earned her Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Connecticut.
“I have had numerous jobs of different types and even before law school, I was an investigator with a federal defender office in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “Even though they seem like different careers, I see them as all connected.”
She said she is very interested in social justice issues and the intersectionality of law, human rights, and politics - as well as intersectionality as a whole. She added she is focused on the fellowship’s role in promoting racial justice.
“When I first learned about Mary Miles Bibb, I found her really inspiring, and she was someone who not only was the first African American woman to graduate from FSU, but she was also the first African American journalist in Canada,” she said.
She explained how Mary Miles Bibb moved to Canada with her husband after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, where they founded “The Voice of the Fugitive,” a newspaper that featured interviews with fugitive slaves.
Gray said she is interested in the archives of the newspaper and is hoping to apply for a grant to be able to include students in the work of mapping them, which she said has never been done before.
“Many people don’t know about all the good she did in the world, and how she really worked to promote social justice,” she said. “I’d like to recognize her work, and I’d like to ultimately publish an article about what’s the content of ‘The Voice of the Fugitive.’”
Gray said if she was able to continue working at FSU after the fellowship ends, she would enjoy developing courses that deal with different aspects of human rights.
She said though she is not a member of an underrepresented group, she is “grateful for the fellowship seeing that white allies are important to promoting racial justice.
“I’m thrilled to be part of something that, for five years, is going to be helping me on my journey, helping to educate me and collaborate with other people who are all invested in promoting anti-racism pedagogy,” she said.
Wardell Powell, interim chief diversity and inclusion officer, is a mentor for the AGEP faculty at Framingham State. He said his main role as a mentor is helping the fellows develop skills such as teaching, advising, and scholarship.
Powell said these skills will be needed for the scholars whether they remain at one of the three institutions [WSU, BSU, and FSU], or find employment at an unaffiliated institution.
He said this grant is not only an opportunity to help train recently graduated BIPOC faculty, but also to help increase the diversity of the faculty at FSU.
Powell added it is also important that these AGEP faculty members bring in “a lot of knowledge, a lot of innovative ideas.” It helps to increase the diversity of the courses and programs being offered as well.
“It’s a win for FSU, but I also think that it’s a major win for students,” Powell said. “I’m a big believer that yes, we might not be offering doctoral degrees, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t really help people with their doctorates to set that foundation where they can be very, very successful.”
Steven Cok, chair of the Chemistry Department, said the program has been “a wonderful experience so far.
“This is an avenue for us to have access to new, recently graduated professors of color,” he said. Though there is no guarantee for the AGEP faculty hired to stay at FSU permanently, it allows them and their departments to have a pre-established relationship and for the University to know what they would bring to the department if a tenure-track position became available for them.
“It’s very apparent how students on campus respond to having a professor of color. There’s a certain level of instant bonding that occurs because you have a professor who looks like you and it’s very impactful,” Cok said.
Lara Daniels, a freshman psychology major, said she doesn’t think the current faculty represents the diversity of the student body. “I haven’t met a lot of the teachers here, but all of my teachers are white. I feel like the majority of students aren’t white.”
Tadiwa Chitongo, a senior biochemistry major, said they think initiatives like this grant are beneficial to students. “As a student of color myself, I feel like there are not a lot of people of color within my higher-level STEM classes. Nor are there professors of color, either, aside from a handful.”
Sarah Accardi, a senior education major with a natural science minor, also said this grant will be helpful for students. “A diverse group of educators brings more experiences to the classroom, and there are more opportunities for students to have shared experiences with their teachers.”
Christina Galvan Amado, a sophomore marketing major, said, “It would be beneficial because I just feel like I grew up in more of a predominantly black community, so when I’m struggling or something like that, I feel more comfortable going to someone who looks like me because they also understand certain society struggles.”