Batten's New Postdoctoral Researchers to Focus on Diversity, Social Identity

The School's new postdoctoral fellows will investigate perceptions of minorities in academia and the workplace, among other subjects.

Garrett Hall (University Communications)
Garrett Hall (University Communications)

Imagine you work for a company that just issued a new diversity statement. Creating a diverse workforce is a savvy business decision, the statement says.

Soon after, your employer hires ten new people, all from minority groups. With the statement in the back of your mind, how do you feel about working with them?

Lyangela Gutierrez, who just completed her PhD in management and organizations at UCLA, is asking people to imagine a similar situation in a new study about perceptions of minorities at work. This summer, she will join the Batten School alongside Gerald Higginbotham, who also completed his degree from UCLA, with a specialty in social psychology, as the dean’s inaugural research associate in diversity, equity and inclusion.

Pointing out that diversity increases profits might sound like a smart way to win support for more inclusive policies. But Gutierrez wants to investigate possible unintended consequences of that sort of messaging.

“It all sounds good in theory, but it might dehumanize the people who ‘add to the organization’s diversity’—people who are marginalized and underrepresented in these domains,” she said. “There’s a potential to see those people more instrumentally, so that’s something my colleagues and I are looking into right now.”

For the next two years, Gutierrez and Higginbotham will perform independent research, work on scholarly publications and teach one course to Batten students.

Dean Ian Solomon said he was thrilled to have both researchers kick off the new program. “They are working on critical issues of identity, race and belonging, and they are developing insights that are extremely valuable to leadership of diverse and divided communities,” he said.

Higginbotham, whose research spans everything from college athletics to gun rights advocacy, said the Batten School’s multi-faceted, collaborative approach to addressing policy issues felt right for his own work. As he spoke with Batten professors during his initial interview for the position, he was struck by the feeling that he was on the same wavelength.

“People were engaging my research where it was and thinking about how it connected to theirs,” he said. “I didn’t need to adapt the things I was talking about to fit in.”

Exploring diversity from a slightly different angle than Gutierrez, Higginbotham has focused his recent research on racial stereotypes in academic settings. One of his most recent studies found that young Black men who liked academics in high school saw themselves as less similar to their peers. If these students also liked sports, however, their athletic identification acted as a kind of buffer, providing them with a sense of connection to other Black men, even with their devotion to academics.

These findings have inspired Higginbotham to think more deeply about the history that might have shaped the results. Historically, sports scholarships have provided a path to a college degree for many young Black men, he noted. In the first half of the 20th century, playing a sport was one of the few mainstream, non-menial careers that Black men could pursue due to racism, and star athletes like Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson became symbols of Black pride.

“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, Black people just like sports,’ but that’s not the whole story,” Higginbotham said. “It’s in response to a specific kind of treatment in the U.S.”

Thanks to these reflections, Higginbotham’s newer research looks at history’s influence on our current behavior. In a new study, he is asking participants to first watch film clips or listen to audio covering historical events and then answer questions about the relevance of those events to their own lives. Higginbotham is especially looking forward to pursuing this work in Charlottesville.  “It’s obviously a place where history is very salient, particularly history as it relates to race,” he said.

In her own interview for the position, Gutierrez was impressed with the Batten School’s relationship to Charlottesville. She remembers professor Jay Shimshack telling her about Batten’s IDEA Project Competition, where teams of students came up with policy solutions to local problems concerning diversity—including affordable housing, police brutality and the “opportunity gap” in Charlottesville public schools.

“That was when I saw that it wasn’t just theoretical,” she said. “These students are really trying to engage with these issues.”

In addition to Gutierrez and Higginbotham, Batten also welcomed a third postdoctoral fellow, Naseemah Mohammed, this spring. Mohammed has already begun work on projects concerning social identity and education policy with Batten’s Global Policy Center. Solomon said he is excited that Batten students will have the chance to work with all three researchers.

“Today’s postdocs are tomorrow’s leading teachers and scholars in higher education,” he said. “Bringing in talented people at this point in their careers increases the number of role models for our students, research partners for our faculty, and potential candidates for future positions at the University of Virginia and across academia.”

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