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Home » Discover Rackham » An Interview with Associate Dean Tabbye M. Chavous, Winner of “Cornerstone Award”

Associate Dean Tabbye M. Chavous recently received the “Cornerstone Award” at the Black Celebratory, one of many intimate, identity- and culturally-based graduation celebrations on campus. “The Black Celeb is a truly joyous event” she says, “All of the graduates’ names and the programs from which they earned their degrees are read aloud, allowing each to be celebrated and acknowledged by family and friends. Also, there are often announcements of ‘firsts,’ for example, being the first Black woman to graduate from a program. There are inspirational speeches from current students and alumni. So, in addition to recognizing each individual student, it’s a collective experience, a celebration of our accomplishments as a group.”

The Cornerstone Award is given to those who contribute positively to the lives of Black students on campus. The fact that students nominate and select the awardees makes this award all the more meaningful for Dean Chavous. She says that receiving the award is a “highlight of her career,” especially because so much of her research and work as a faculty member and dean is inspired by students. “A great deal of my work as a researcher and faculty member has been in the service of improving the educational experiences of Black students–that they feel positively about ways I’ve worked to support them helps me remember why I do the work.”

The work she’s done over her career so far is expansive: developing programs, developing educational resources for departments, providing resources and feedback for different organizations and initiatives, and all of these projects carry deep meaning for Dean Chavous. One project that she’s particularly excited about currently is her work as the cofounder of the Center for the Study of Black Youth in Context (CSBYC), a center that develops research projects related to the positive development of diverse Black youth and families. Along with its research mission, CSBYC supports the training and development of early career scholars in rigorous research methods, the involvement of communities as partners and collaborators in research, and the dissemination and application of research within community settings.

All of this is alongside her own research that currently investigates the ways race and gender relate to the experiences of Black students pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degrees. She also teaches and works closely with her lab of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, undergraduate students, and project staff. She says her days often involve a lot of juggling: “Some days I get a rhythm going, and some days all of the balls are on the floor!”

Dean Chavous says that her role as an administrator is “shockingly interesting,” because she loves learning about how organizations work, and she routinely applies her skills as a social scientist in her administrative role. She makes an effort to share this with graduate students, as the work of what an associate dean does is often a mystery. She notes that “My role at Rackham is all about analysis and problem solving. I work to engage graduate programs in thinking about their goals for their students and the ways that their current structures and practices may support or unintentionally undermine those goals. This analysis can lead programs to make changes that improve their students’ experiences and outcomes. I also work to systematically gather information about students’ experiences of their programs so that students’ perspectives are represented and considered in programs’ decision making and efforts. This type of position is particularly fulfilling, because I can bring my own strengths and priorities to the position and I’m working on things I care about.”

Thinking back, as a graduate student she never would have imagined occupying a role as an administrator. But, what she could envision for herself was a career in which she would be active in her community–working on teams, projects, and activities to support and improve her communities. She’s found that her current role has allowed her to work in the U-M community and in local communities to encourage diversity and to help improve the experiences of all students. Given that, Dean Chavous encourages graduate students to be active participants in their own communities and to remember that their experiences and skills are applicable to and needed in many places, within and outside the university context.