In her first 10 days as chancellor of CU Denver, Michelle Marks, PhD, led a series of listening sessions on issues of equity and racial justice. The candid feedback she received from faculty, staff, students, and alumni guided the development of her commitments for action for the next year. Mid-September, Marks checked an action item off her list by appointing the first-ever Chancellor’s Faculty Fellow, who will support diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at CU Denver over this academic year.
Faye Caronan, PhD, head of Ethnic Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS), will serve as an advisor to the chancellor and leadership team on issues concerning underrepresented and diverse students, faculty, and staff. As a woman of color who earned her academic degrees at predominantly white institutions, she wrote in her application, she understands the challenges that students of color at CU Denver face.
“In addition to her stellar teaching, service, and scholarship record, Dr. Caronan’s personal experience and record of commitment to creating an equitable and inclusive culture made her a perfect candidate for this new role,” Marks said. “Under Dr. Caronan’s guidance, we will work to better understand and directly address the concerns across our campus community on diversity, equity, and inclusion at CU Denver. We want to act and we want to get this right.”
Caronan joined the university in 2009 as an assistant professor, earned tenure, and now serves as the head and associate professor of Ethnic Studies. During her time at CU Denver, she’s served on several student- and faculty-facing committees, including the Filipino American Student Club and the CU Denver Asian American Staff and Faculty Group. An established scholar, Caronan’s research focuses on how race as a category is constructed and how scholarship can build understanding across racial categories.
In her new role, Caronan will present ideas for efforts to create a stronger sense of belonging for all on our campus, create and advise a new Equity Task Force, keep CU Denver’s leadership team apprised of significant nationwide policy or initiatives, and maintain an understanding of equity issues currently facing the CU Denver community. She will build upon multiple initiatives underway across the campus and work with the chancellor and others to advance projects such as the goal to achieve Hispanic-Serving Institution designation in 2021.
University Communications virtually sat down with Caronan to talk about her appointment and how her experience has well prepared her for the role of faculty fellow.
How has your previous experience prepared you for your new role as the first Chancellor’s Faculty Fellow?
I am very involved in diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in collaboration with others here at CU Denver. When I saw that Chancellor Marks was looking for someone to advise her on matters of equity and racial justice at the university, I felt that my experience and connections could be useful. Across my research, teaching, and service, I feel that my background fit well for the call.
I’m the head of Ethnic Studies. The other faculty in the program and I center our curriculum and our teaching around the experiences and the histories of different racialized groups in the United States. A lot of our students are first-generation and non-traditional. Many of our faculty were first-generation students, too, so they understand what those students are going through. We’ve really honed our pedagogy to create safe spaces in our courses.
We have students who haven’t learned the histories of racialized minorities. For some of our students of color, an Ethnic Studies class is the first time they begin to see how they belong and fit into U.S. history. That’s really powerful for them. It gives them confidence in different ways.
How have you contributed to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at CU Denver? And how will you do so in the future?
Throughout my time here at CU Denver, I’ve worked very closely with the Center for Identity and Inclusion to reach beyond students who are in Ethnic Studies, and to help give students of color the tools they need to succeed. I’ve also served on committees that helped draft strategic plans for diversity and inclusion at different levels: I co-chaired a committee tasked with drafting the diversity and inclusion portion of a strategic plan for CLAS, and I served on a committee that worked on part of the CU System strategic plan focusing on diversity and access at CU Denver.
I’m also part of various affinity groups, such as the Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) faculty staff group and the BIPOC Faculty and Staff group. Through these groups I’ve met faculty of color who have become friends and who I mentor unofficially. I’ve also mentored younger faculty of color officially through the Center for Faculty Development. I offer advice on how to navigate the tenure track at CU Denver.
In addition, my research specialty is in comparative ethnic studies. My book, Legitimizing Empire: Filipino American and U.S. Puerto Rican Cultural Critique, looked at these two groups together in order to have a more comprehensive understanding of the United States as an imperial power. Filipino Americans are usually understood within Asian American history and U.S. Puerto Ricans are usually understood within Latinx history. We’ve conformed to how race has been constructed in the United States. In my research and in that book, what was really fascinating to me was to look beyond our constructions of race and how that reveals the workings of U.S. global power.
Looking to the future, I’m putting together a graduate certificate in Ethnic Studies that would allow students across CU Denver to think about race not only academically but in their chosen professions, so they can begin to think of how to address longstanding problems in our society.
Tell me about your academic experience and personal experiences. How has it shaped your view on diversity, equity, and inclusion?
I grew up in a diverse suburb in Southern California, and so it was a shock when I began college at Cornell University, a predominantly white university in a predominantly white small town in upstate New York.
During my freshman year, I felt a little rudderless because I still had not decided on what I wanted to do with my life and I was still trying to make Cornell feel like home. It was only after my faculty advisor suggested I take an Asian American studies class that I began to learn more about the histories of Asian American groups and about the relationship between the Philippines and the United States. For me, it was really impactful because I began to understand the historical forces at play when my parents emigrated to the United States. To learn how I fit into the history of the United States was really powerful for me.
I have some students today come ask me, how did you become a professor? How have you navigated these predominantly white spaces? I tell them I had professors who really cared about me and who knew what I didn’t know but should know to succeed in a large university. They helped me to find my place in college and helped me find a professional path to follow after I graduated. That is what I hope I can do for my students.
What will be your top three priorities as the Faculty Fellow?
I see my top priorities as interrelated. Our student body grows increasingly diverse every year. I want to work to identify the needs of our students of color and other minoritized students. I believe one way to support these students is by supporting our diverse faculty and staff. Some faculty and staff of color experience microaggressions on a regular basis and are overlooked when opportunities for promotion open up. I would like to contribute to efforts to systematically support our faculty of color, and provide leadership opportunities so that faculty and staff of color can not only be retained but also promoted. The more students see themselves reflected in faculty and staff, the more they feel that they belong.
Where do you see CU Denver in the next five years?
More people are now recognizing structural and institutional racism as a problem and want to work to dismantle it, so I believe the time is right to tackle those issues head on. CU Denver’s student population grows increasingly diverse every year and the university is making progress toward becoming a minority serving institution, which would make us eligible for extra funding to create programming and strengthen already existing services to create an inclusive campus that better serve all of our students. I believe that these efforts are bolstered by the chancellor’s stated commitment to equity and racial justice.
If we take seriously the work of identifying structural racism at CU Denver and figure out how to address it meaningfully and put resources into addressing it, we perhaps can serve as a model for other urban campuses with diverse student populations. If we develop courses to help students find solutions to these problems in whatever career they choose, it will have a big impact on our campus, our city, and in our world.
If CU Denver were to institute mandatory DEI training for staff and faculty, what should it include?
First of all, I believe DEI training should not just be one-and-done. I believe that DEI trainings should be thought of as continuing discussions that reference what’s going on at the university and beyond. Since racism is a structural problem, these trainings should also interrogate structural racism at our university and in academic disciplines. For example, a department might ask, what racialized and gendered norms were embedded in the creation of our discipline? As a department, does our curriculum address this?
Interrogating structural racism in addition to the individual anti-bias exploration that is normally part of DEI trainings will help create more inclusive cultures, where hopefully the contributions of faculty and staff of color will be valued more. It is my hope that building more inclusive office and departmental cultures will create spaces where faculty, staff, and students of color experience microaggressions less frequently and thus build a sense of belonging.
As a university, we might think more seriously about the fact that in order for our campus to be built, the Aurarian neighborhood—which was primarily Latinx—was displaced. Thinking about that might guide us as a community in acknowledging how much we gained because of the displacement, and acknowledging the hardships that were put on those who were displaced. That might inform how we respond to processes of neighborhood displacement occurring in Denver today and help us move toward social justice.
What is the importance of the Faculty Fellow to the DEI initatives?
As I mentioned before, work on DEI initiatives is already taking place across the university. I hope that in my capacity as the Chancellor’s Faculty Fellow I can amplify that work, advocate for the excellent ideas and plans that are already out there, learn from others at the university doing this work that I have yet to meet, and implement work that will start to address institutional racism at CU Denver, so we can develop an equitable, inclusive, and just campus culture.
What do you think it means to be a Lynx?
The way that our mascot, Milo, is so recognizable really speaks to how CU Denver as a campus has put so much effort into building a sense of belonging and community in the past decade. That to me is what it means to be a Lynx— striving to create a community and wanting to do better at being a community.