When Susan Cochran, chair of the UCLA Academic Senate, advocates for diversity, equity and inclusion, she backs it up with science.
A professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, Cochran has devoted two decades to studying the antithesis of diversity — discrimination — and the toll it takes on the health and well-being of people who are subjected to it, from poorer physical health to a greater incidence of mental health disorders.
Society also pays a price. “From a public health standpoint, I think about the extra resources we would have if we were not acting unfairly toward other human beings,” Cochran said. Her research found that in California, mental health disorders and the public resources required to treat them “would be reduced by about 5 percent if lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals did not feel as marginalized as they do in this state.
“Inclusion, diversity, treating each other fairly, with civility — that’s just good science,” said Cochran, who carries these principles to students in her classes.
Cochran herself is a model of diversity academically. She’s a three-time Bruin with graduate training in both epidemiology and psychology and joint faculty appointments in the public health school as well as in the UCLA College’s statistics department.
Cochran also applies the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion to her senate service and leadership. For more than a dozen years, she has served on senate committees and councils tackling such issues as planning and budgeting; undergraduate and graduate curricula; and LGBT issues for faculty and the UCLA community.
“Everything the senate does, every decision we make, has the goal of achieving excellence at UCLA,” Cochran said.
Emblematic of this is the senate-formulated and approved diversity requirement, designed to ensure that students are prepared to live in a multicultural world. Effective this past fall quarter, UCLA undergraduates are required to take their choice of a class that focuses on diversity in many forms — pertaining to race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic, sexual orientation and religion.
“The diversity requirement is working … and working well,” Cochran said. “Some very interesting classes have come out of the implementation of the requirement. Faculty are doing really innovative things.”
Students can select such classes as “The Neurobiology of Bias and Discrimination” or sign up for the interdisciplinary seminar, “Food Studies and Food Justice,” which includes a community service component so that students can explore these issues by working with residents of low-income, predominately Latino, African-American and Asian-American neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
Achieving excellence can be an arduous task in the face of budgetary constraints and other challenges UCLA has faced in recent years. High on the list of current faculty concerns is the influx of new students: This academic year, 9,700 new freshman and transfer students have joined the campus community, an increase of more than 10 percent over the 8,800 new Bruins who enrolled in 2015. The student body will continue to grow over the next two years, in accordance with a UC Office of the President mandate to boost enrollment of California students.
“Our job is to continually think broadly about the impact of these changes and do the best that we can do,” Cochran said. “So we’re going to have larger classes, which changes what you can teach and the way you teach it.” Larger classes and a busier schedule of classes also makes greater demands on faculty time, sometimes in not-so-obvious ways, said Cochran, offering the example of young faculty who are raising children. “We have to think about scheduling classes so that it doesn’t impact their ability to be good parents.”
UCLA's growing student body with no accompanying growth budget means “we have to do more with less," she added. "And we have to be sure that the more we’re doing is still excellent … which means we have to be as innovative as possible.”
One innovation now under way, in a collaboration between the administration and senate faculty, is the digitization of the complex academic review process and the creation of a database called Opus that will serve as the information system of record for all faculty. While Opus will streamline the paper-laden review process, attention must be paid to “constructing a record that respects all the diverse ways in which faculty practice scholarship across the campus,” the senate leader said. “How I record my accomplishments in epidemiology is not at all how people do it in theater and film. This requires broad, complex thinking.”
This same type of thinking applies to preparing undergraduates for life and work in a complex world.
“We don’t really know what work they’ll be doing 10 or 20 years from now,” Cochran said. “It’s not going to be about being an encyclopedia because Google has already done that. The jobs out there are going to be jobs of thinking and creativity. And our students, we hope, are going to be at the forefront of that.”