A look inside the work of Dr. Mary Murphy in celebration of Black History Month
Picture this: you’re a Black student on a large college campus. This is your first year. One day, you are accosted by a White male slinging racial slurs and threats, as your peers (~70% of whom are White) stare, yet stand idle. This was the experience of several IU students just 1 month ago, and just days before MLK Day 2019.
Considering how this student must have felt, how it impacts the student’s engagement in the IU community, and how to improve IU’s response to and prevention of these types of incidents is a primary role served by Dr. Mary Murphy, an associate professor in IU’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and, since October of 2017, associate vice provost for diversity and inclusion.
Both the research and administrative work of Dr. Murphy, who herself identifies as Latina, strongly reflect the spirit of Black History Month: to “recognize the differences and commonalities [between diverse individuals and groups] and ways we can support one another,” promote coalition building, and eliminate minority gaps that result in under-representation and under-recognition.
Dr. Murphy’s work for the Office of the Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion (OVPDI), as she describes it, is “focused on identifying and supporting students (undergraduate and graduate) in the challenges they face and the ways the university can help students foster a sense of belonging, value, and acceptance on campus.” You can easily tell how important this role is to Dr. Murphy from the passion and resolution in her tone. As she explains it, “Provost Lauren Robel was visionary; there was only one vice provost of diversity and inclusion for the entire campus in the past.” Recognizing that “no one person could do that large of a job effectively, Provost Robel built out the position. Now, Vice Provost Dr. John Nieto-Phillips is accompanied by three associate vice provosts focused on (1) institutional programs and projects, such as faculty training in implicit bias, (2) faculty needs, and (3) student needs, which is where Dr. Murphy comes in!
Dr. Murphy is incredibly well-suited for this role for multiple reasons: Her experiences witnessing structural barriers and challenges faced by her peers compelled her from the beginnings of her career to advocate for and support underrepresented groups. These interests drove her toward undergraduate studies at the intersection of psychology and public policy, which eventually took her on a path to graduate school, where she studied identity threat, or the “concern that [someone] will be judged or treated negatively because of [their] social group membership,” under the mentorship of Claude Steele at Stanford University.
To understand how Dr. Murphy’s research influences her decisions and expertise in policy, let’s return to the incident described at the beginning. The OVPDI immediately mobilized upon news of this horrific racial incident, hosting a meeting with Black students on what could have been done to increase their sense of support and community. One student raised the obvious concern that nobody in the local vicinity came to their aid. It became clear that there was a need for coalition building, to provide allies and support in the event that something like this occurs again.
Assembling “student groups for listening sessions about how students are experiencing campus and how student leaders with an interest in diversity advocacy could show their support, for example, by leading workshops or being active in diversity events” is one major initiative Dr. Murphy has instituted at the university. This approach has been one way Dr. Murphy has used research to inform her work in campus policy.
One of Dr. Murphy’s larger projects uses her own and others’ research to educate faculty and university employees who impact student experiences. As such, her lab investigates the “role of different situational cues in university procedures and processes that might have unintended negative consequences for underrepresented groups.”
Bureaucratic hassles are one of these cues. Specifically, Dr. Murphy and colleagues have determined that hassles with bureaucracy and documentation can undermine the sense of belonging and confidence of first-generation students, who often do not have the social support or resources of continuing-generation students to navigate these bureaucratic hassles. To simulate this problem, Dr. Murphy brought students into her Mind and Identity in Context Lab to encounter such hassles: one group filled out a standard financial aid form, while the other group attempted to fill out the same form rigged to crash. Dr. Murphy then asked for feedback about the form and also about the participant’s college experiences and their perceived likelihood of graduating. She found that first-generation students who experienced the hassle (crashing form) reported a lower sense of belonging in college and lower expectations regarding on-time graduation compared to the hassle-free students. In contrast, the hassle did not produce such an effect on belonging and graduation expectations among the continuing-generation students. These findings were further replicated using a paradigm that asked students to navigate a simple vs. a difficult course plan. All students were thoroughly debriefed after the study and informed about the studies’ purpose and Murphy and colleagues provided resources and access to services to help students navigate the challenges they experience on campus.
Another cue is the mindset beliefs about intelligence that instructors endorse and communicate in their teaching. In a recent paper (hot off the press!), published in Science Advances, Dr. Murphy evaluated student motivation and achievement outcomes as a function of whether their professors self-reported more of a fixed mindset about education (ability is a fixed trait; i.e., scientists are born scientists) vs. a growth mindset (ability is learned and develops; i.e., one can learn to be a scientist). As she reports, when faculty endorse growth mindset beliefs, the race gap in student performance is narrowed by about 50% than in similar courses taught by an instructor who endorses fixed mindset beliefs. Although instructor mindset impacted all students regardless of their identity, “The performance effects of faculty mindset beliefs were strongest among Black, Latino, and Native American students.” These findings were not related to time spent in class and, surprisingly to Dr. Murphy, faculty demographics (gender, race, age, experience) did not predict professors’ mindsets. Dr. Murphy sees this as good news: “these mindsets and the behaviors that convey them in class are malleable!” Instructors can, in other words, learn to create a growth mindset culture in their classes.
Dr. Murphy has presented her findings around campus, speaking at advisor retreats and to campus stakeholders regarding “how [are] we as faculty and staff communicating to students and [how can we] create more of a growth mindset culture, with the hope that this can level the playing field for students from all identity backgrounds.” Dr. Murphy also stressed the importance of using a bottom-up approach, “asking people who work directly with and try to support students what they notice as barriers and reaching out to students to understand their experiences in a nuanced way, then using this information to seed ideas about what needs to change–as future areas for intervention.”
She applauds IU’s Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education’s (OVPUE) data-driven approach (as IU keeps track of admissions process, time to degree, and other metrics), which helps identify what’s working well for students when it comes to their academic journeys and where some of the challenges are. To create “identity safe spaces,” Dr. Murphy says, we should understand the latest science of diversity and evidence-based practices  so that we can communicate with respect to diversity and address students in a “psychologically wise way.”
For example, Dr. Murphy also serves as the faculty advisor to the CommUNITY Educators (CUEs) in IU’s dorms. This is a unique program in which students living in the dorms are specifically trained to be resources for underrepresented students and talk about and implement diversity inclusion programing within the dorms. Dr. Murphy effortlessly describes the wealth of data showing that “education around positive intergroup friendships has extensive benefits, academically and socially, for students of all backgrounds” and that dorms are important because they serve as “Ground Zero for intergroup relations on college campuses, lowering the barrier to entry for positive intergroup relations and intergroup friendships.”
The next big project for Dr. Murphy is to create an evidence-based guidebook and database for faculty, staff, and students that includes accessible, published research on strategies for promoting diversity at any level to help people feel empowered to acknowledge and engage with diversity and use the tools we know work.
It is encouraging to hear how well received Dr. Murphy’s work on diversity and inclusion issues has been from both the research and policy perspectives. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) are “very interested in reducing barriers and increasing the number of people from all backgrounds who pursue science, medicine, engineering and technical fields,” she says. In fact, she recently received NSF funding for a multi-site, randomized controlled trial study for the development and implementation of a faculty-based classroom intervention to increase motivation and performance among all students–and particularly students from underrepresented backgrounds–in STEM fields.
And, as she notes, this is only the beginning. Success with these initiatives “sends a message that the goals of inclusion and belonging are a core value” and may ultimately contribute to a broad social shift in the way we respond to and embrace diversity.
 Evidence-based practices (EBPs) are methods or techniques that have been rigorously tested or investigated in conjunction with research-based knowledge of the population of interest and related factors (e.g., values, culture, environment, etc.). EBPs ensure that the most ethical, appropriate, up-to-date, and well-informed approach is being applied.