Nicholas School Responding in a 'Smart' Way to Challenges of a Multicultural World

May 27, 2015

Tim Lucas, 919-613-8084,

Diversity and inclusion are central to the mission of any school, but especially a school of the environment, says Glenda Lee, assistant director of alumni affairs at the Nicholas School.

“We live in a multicultural world. By mid-century, America is going to be a minority majority. The message we’re hearing from employers is that if we don’t get more people of color and from diverse backgrounds on our team, the environmental profession might go the way of the horse and carriage,” says Lee, who co-chairs the Nicholas School Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

The school is responding to this challenge with a new, more strategic approach to how it recruits and trains students, faculty and staff, she says. “Diversity has always been a high priority, but now we’re working smarter.”

A big part of the new school-wide push is partnering with other conservation and environmental groups to leverage one another’s strengths.

“For example, we’re now partnering with Conservation Trust North Carolina, which has a very successful diversity internship program that attracts hundreds of qualified applicants each year for 15 spots,” Lee says. “We’re developing a way to introduce their applicants to the programs and opportunities we offer, including by hosting professional development and recruitment workshops for them at the school.”

The Nicholas School’s Marine Science and Conservation Division—which recently received a prestigious Graduate School Dean’s Award for Inclusive Excellence in Graduate School Education for its leadership in diversity and inclusion—will host the students at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort this year, Lee says. In coming years, other units or divisions within the school will have the opportunity.

Other innovative diversity partnerships and initiatives being offered or developed at the Nicholas School include:

  • A Duke Immerse student-exchange program on urban environmental justice and social entrepreneurship with Paul Quinn College, a historically black college in Dallas, Texas;
  • Rising TIDE, a 20-hour diversity and inclusion training module for masters and PhD students;
  • Pipeline, an outreach program to introduce K-12 students from diverse backgrounds to Nicholas School programs and the environmental field in general;
  • Diversity and training programs for faculty and staff, such as the Ally Training workshop on sexual and gender diversity hosted at the Marine Lab this February.

Members of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee are also in the early stages of investigating the creation of a new executive education training program on diversity for working professionals, potentially offered in conjunction with a new course for residential Master of Environmental Management students.

In addition to boosting awareness of diversity and inclusion and aiding recruitment, initiatives such as these can yield major benefits in the lab and classroom, says Joel Meyer, associate professor of environmental toxicology, who co-chairs the Diversity and Inclusion Committee with Lee.

“There’s pretty good data to show that being around people who are different from us makes us work harder and be more open-minded in terms of the research questions we ask,” he says. “If we constrain the environmental field to working within a narrow range of demographics, we’re going to miss a lot of the important problems, and also a lot of the most important solutions, that might be out there. If the end goal is excellence, diversity is an essential ingredient.”

Tim Lucas is senior writer for Dukenvironment magazine and is the Nicholas School’s director of marketing communications.