The Virginia Tech Department of Economics has won the American Economic Association’s (AEA) 2021 Award for Outstanding Achievement in Diversity and Inclusion.

The award was presented at the recent all-virtual AEA awards ceremony during the Allied Social Science Association’s annual meeting. According to AEA, the award recognizes academic departments and organizations demonstrating outstanding achievement in diversity and inclusion practices. Sudipta Sarangi, a professor and head of the Department of Economics, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science, said, “This is nationwide and the panel had some of the biggest names in the AEA dealing with these issues.”

The department’s effort “include substantial changes in programs and practices that align with the AEA’s … aim to create a more diverse and inclusive environment for faculty and students,” according to the AEA. Leading the ongoing diversity and inclusion efforts in the department are faculty members and professors Melanie Fox, Melinda Miller, Suqin Ge, and Niloy Bose and instructor Zhou “Joe” Yang.

The organization added, “The department’s initiatives for diversity and inclusion are wide-reaching and involve the principles curriculum; new courses on race, gender, and diversity and inclusion; graduate student training; a new postdoc position; faculty recruiting; and public outreach.” Outreach efforts included department-made videos on creating equitable classrooms, mentoring, and work-life balance.

Among the highlights was the creation of the new minor, economics of diversity, equity, and inclusion (tentatively called EDEI), now going through the curriculum committee for approval. “This new minor was developed in part with support from the College of Science and is designed to give students a toolkit for understanding issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion through an economic lens,” said Fox, a collegiate assistant professor and director of undergraduate programs for the economics department.

The department currently serves 3,100 students universitywide with 340 majors.

Coursework is centered on developing a core set of economic tools, developing an understanding of issues facing specific populations, and developing analytical abilities to study these issues in more depth, Fox added. “I am proudest of the new minor. It is, as far as I know, the only minor of its type.”

The new minor should be appealing to students who want to work with varied populations, for example, students interested in human resources or public policy, who want to also signal that they have developed the critical thinking and analytical skills that the study of economic requires,” Fox said.

“The Department of Economics’ dedication to diversity and inclusion, and support of women in science, is inspiring as the college itself focuses on creating an environment that is welcome to all,” said Ron Fricker, interim dean of the College of Science.

The college recently launched its own Women in Science Leadership program to strengthen the influence of women leaders in scientific fields as well as a Coalition for Diversifying Science, working closely with the Virginia Tech Office for Diversity and Inclusion. Among the coalition’s goals: recruit, retain, and invest in students from populations who have been historically marginalized, underserved, and underrepresented in science.

Yang, the instructor, developed two new “pathway” courses: Economics of Gender and Economics of Race. “Since the new courses we were developing were to be offered by College of Science, I strongly believed that we should let the courses reflect our comparative advantage in quantitative analysis,” he said. “As such, I designed the courses so that they involve both model-based reasoning, which is deductive and analytical in nature, and statistical analysis of data on gender and racial issues.”

Yang said students who have taken the courses come from across the university, including STEM education, humanities, social sciences, agriculture, architecture, public health, and business.

“For many students at VT, these courses have provided a unique and transdisciplinary subject for study, right at the border between economics and gender/race studies. The STEM students taking these courses have found them to be not only intellectually interesting, analytically rigorous, but also provide them a unique exposure to both economic and social issues that interest them,” Yang added.

Miller, for her part, said the award is an inspiration to keep working. “While we are honored to have won the AEA’s award, we do not view this as an end point. Instead, we view it as recognition for our commitment to diversity and encouragement to continue our efforts,” she said, adding that with their detailed AEA application being online, “We would be honored if others followed our footsteps.”

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