“Follow Your Nose”: 2021 DITE Conference Begins in D.C.

The first full day of the 2021 Diversity Initiative for Tenure in Economics (DITE) Annual Meeting, hosted this year in Washington D.C., is officially in the books. The program, which provides mentorship and workshops to aid the transition from junior faculty status to associate professor for economists from underrepresented groups (most notably, Black, Latinx, and Native American economists), welcomed its 12th cohort of scholars to the nation’s capital to begin a three-day discussion of their recent research. With the conference having met virtually in 2020, Monday–as well as the opening remarks the previous evening from William A. Darity Jr., the director for both the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity and the DITE program, and Mrs. Sylvia Cook–brought many joyous reunions. “This is my first presentation since the pandemic and I was feeling anxious, “ said Mónica García-Pérez, an economics professor at St. Cloud State University, after delivering her presentation on the connections between race, credit scores, and incarceration status in Baltimore. “But now I feel at home.” The day featured a number of presentations considering what has been learned over the tumultuous past 18 months, as well as what, unfortunately, might occur more frequently in the future. Breakout sessions throughout the day featured in-progress research from junior DITE scholars–Mackenzie Alston, assistant professor of economics at Florida State University; Uchechukwu Jarrett, assistant professor of practice at University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Carycruz Bueno, assistant professor of economics at Wesleyan University; and Joaquin Alfredo-Angel Rubalcaba, assistant professor of public policy at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill–each considering wide-ranging but pressing topics such as virtual learning, immigrantion, social justice movements, and climate change. Throughout Monday, senior scholars also highlighted some of their cutting-edge research. Isaiah Andrews, economics professor at Harvard University and a recipient of both a MacArthur Foundation grant and the John Bates Clark Medal, detailed alternative methodologies for ameliorating the winner’s curse bias when choosing between policy options. While not wholly uplifting, the presentation highlighted the rigor necessary for economics research to lead to real-world policy implications that don’t fall flat. “I think it is good to have accurate knowledge about the world and to have accurate uncertainty about the world,” said Andrews. The keynote presentation–from Raffi E. García, assistant professor of finance at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Jorge Zumaeta, senior director at Florida International University; Lauren Russell, Ph.D. candidate in public policy at Harvard University; Aaron Colston, postdoctoral associate at the Cook Center; and Darity–featured a rundown of economic disparities between racial and ethnic groups across the country. Sharing their analysis of face-to-face survey data collected in Los Angeles, the researchers highlighted the economic penalties faced by darker individuals of certain groups (most notably, for African Americans) but not for all. Considering the data in Baltimore, the researchers found that the size of the racial wealth gap was similar to the size of the incarceration gap–that is, blacks who had no incarceration exposure had a similar financial situation to that of whites with an exposure to the carceral system. “The reality is shocking,” said Zumaeta, who underscored the need for these stark investigations to not just lead to citations but to actually foment change. “We don’t want to be one or two generations down the road having the same conversations.” The implied question, of what to research and otherwise do to maximize each day when there are simply so many avenues to consider, lingered throughout Monday. The morning began with a series of questions to the room from Fenaba R. Addo, associate professor of public policy at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Adam Hollowell, senior research associate at the Cook Center: Chief among them was the question of how did the researchers in the room navigate the demands on their personal labor, their household labor, and their professional labor in the past 18 months. The discussion, mostly confined to the individual tables in the banquet hall, was disparate, and the magic bullet to solve the constraints of academia remained elusive. In the evening, however, Darity shared the stage with Lisa D. Cook, professor of economics and international relations at Michigan State University, and Cecilia Elena Rouse, the current chair of the Council of Economic Advisors (and first black leader of the C.E.A. in its history). Here, the pathway to making a difference became clearer, and ideas began to crystallize into the start of a framework. Rouse spoke on the importance (and necessity) of having economists of myriad backgrounds in the academy, and not just in public-facing roles like hers: “We rely on your creativity and innovation to think of and solve problems before they develop,” Rouse said. “We have confidence you have more time to get things right.” Her primary advice to the audience (beyond “get tenure first”) was to “follow your nose,” that finding a research topic that one is passionate about will lead to the best, most “top-notch research.” Cook amplified this refrain, noting that she had followed an untraditional path to tenure, but did so on the firm basis on believing in her own work–which led her to a stint at the White House Council of Economic Advisors working with Rouse, before Cook found stability in the academy.  “We need talented people doing everything,” said Rouse. “Mostly, I think it’s about helping young people find what excites them and enabling them to do their best work.” Following one’s nose, then, is predicated on believing that somewhere, someone will also be smelling the same scent. The belief becomes much easier when witnessing the connections, networks, and mentorship that DITE and other systems can provide. “Think of where this started,” Rouse said to Darity at the conclusion of the conversation, as she gestured out to the audience full of now-established scholars–and brimming with the next generation of brilliance to come. “And look at what you’ve built.” The conference continues with its second day of programming Tuesday. Read more about it here.