Cluster hire in School of Gender, Race and Nations represents transformative moment in PSU's history

Protesters take to the streets.

Portland was thrust into the national spotlight this summer for its nightly protests, but resistance and activism have long been a part of the region whose history is rife with centuries of racism and oppression. 

It's against this backdrop that Portland State will hire a new cohort of scholars to inquire and engage with Oregon's past, present and future in deeply critical ways. The seven new hires will join the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' School of Gender, Race and Nations in fall 2021. The school — made up of Black Studies, Indigenous Nations Studies, Chicano/Latino Studies, and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies — seeks to better understand and advocate for historically underserved populations through its scholarship and community engagement.

"The School of Gender, Race and Nations is the 21st century answer to the 22nd century problems of America," said Ted Van Alst, chair of Indigenous Nations Studies and director of SGRN. "The protests, the resistance, the struggles that the country is going through right now — our scholarship examines these things and helps provide understanding for how the world needs to look in the coming centuries."

Van Alst says the cluster hire represents the beginning of what will become a transformative moment in PSU's history. Though the new additions will replace faculty who have left or are retiring, Van Alst said the prioritization of SGRN and a reinvestment in its departments amidst a hiring freeze speaks volumes.

PSU President Stephen Percy said he has made promoting equity and justice the central goal of his tenure and the cluster hire is key to that commitment. 

"The hire of new research faculty in our School of Gender, Race and nations is a vital step in the process of further advancing antiracist teaching and learning at Portland State," Percy said. "We are committed as an institution to building a community of scholars who will contribute to our collective, inclusive and future-oriented work of becoming a university that truly lives up to its ideals."

The cluster hire initiative prioritizes "critical thought and activism" and focuses on several broad themes: futurisms, transformational scholarship and regenerative justice; histories of resistance, protest and community struggle; critical theory, and the social and philosophical themes of liberation; and ecology and gentrification. 

The themes build on the work and strengths of other scholars already in the departments. Earlier this year, Black Studies welcomed Walidah Imarisha, a scholar of Black history in Oregon who uses visionary fiction to imagine different possibilities and outcomes.

"Bringing all these folks together in looking at this larger theme while they engage their own disciplines really creates something unique here," Van Alst said. "We have a lot of diverse interests that will be served in this hire that will make us all stronger together. This new hire will enable us to do our best work — that's my hope."

Much like a cohort of graduate students, a cluster hire can help build a sense of community and encourage interdisciplinary work, he said.

"They can have a space where they feel intellectually, culturally and socially supported," he said. "They can feel confident and comfortable doing this really important work."

But it's not enough to recruit and hire faculty of color, he says; PSU must work to retain them by creating a culture where their presence and work is celebrated.

Ame Lambert, PSU's new vice president for Global Diversity and Inclusion, said she looks forward to welcoming and supporting this new cohort of scholars. The cluster hire, she says, is an example of the work that will position the university to be at the forefront of racial justice and advancing Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities.

"While cluster hires are an increasing best practice nationally, what I really love and find unique about our cluster hire is the areas of focus, especially the focus on the future," she said. "SGRN is building a vibrant intellectual home that will have a transformative impact on our students, institution, region and nation. I can’t wait to be a part of that future and to partner in the work that will get us there."

Van Alst said the vitality of a school like SGRN is more important than ever as PSU serves an increasingly diverse student body.

"In hiring folks who represent the increasing communities that are coming to places like PSU, it's not only the right thing to do to have faculty reflect those students, but it's incumbent on us to model and show those students that there's a place for them in the world," he said. "If they want to become faculty, they should feel confident that they have the ability to be hired and do their work at a large institution."

Van Alst also said the cluster hire will also help the school grow its graduate program. It currently offers a Graduate Certificate in Gender, Race and Nations, but hopes to eventually offer a master's and Ph.D. program.

"The demand is there at the grad level just as it is at the undergrad level," he said. "We can make this a real hub that our students, faculty, alumni and community will benefit from."

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