I could see the answer coming. When I asked Assistant Dean Shelly Conner if she had something she was proudest of accomplishing during her 10 years as Assistant Dean of Rackham Graduate School, she firmly said, “No.” It’s all equally important to her, and in my short time talking with Dr. Conner, that much became very clear. She is one of those extraordinary people who devotes all of her focus and her passion to whatever project she is working on in the moment.
Dr. Conner is one of the seven recipients of the University of Michigan’s Distinguished Diversity Leaders Award, and she will be honored at a ceremony tomorrow in Palmer Commons. Dean Carol Fierke nominated Dr. Conner for the award, and the nomination material (which I had the privilege of reading) includes five solid pages detailing Dr. Conner’s foundational work. What I want to emphasize in this, my interview with and impression of Dr. Conner, is how very much of her labor she devotes to expanding support of graduate students.
Here is an overview of her recent accomplishments; currently, or should I say concurrently, Dr. Conner is taking the lead on developing procedures that allow undocumented graduate students to have access to in-state tuition rates at the University of Michigan. She has also led efforts to develop procedures and tools to enable the graduate school to document as well as understand the experiences of all students. And not-so-finally, she advocated to expand graduate student health benefits and sought to inform university administrators of potential unintended consequences of new student background checks.
Dr. Conner is a graduate of the University of Michigan; she earned her Ph.D. in Psychology. She says the reason she chose to attend Michigan is that when she visited the program for the first time, there was a visible community of other African American psychology Ph.D. students, which is unique to Michigan. Part of her devotion to the work she does as Assistant Dean of Rackham is to expand the benefit she saw in that level of diversity: “I’m firmly committed to diversity. Not because of the fact that I’m a Black woman, but because of the fact that I truly believe that diversity brings excellence to everyone. It’s with different perspectives that we’re able to get to a better solution on whatever problems we’re trying to solve. Something as common as ‘brainstorming’ doesn’t work if everyone is coming from the same place — and using the same approach.”
She further attributes her focus in the Dean’s Office to another of her experiences while pursuing her degree at U-M: “I am a firm believer that for all doctoral students, their dissertation can be a pretty bad experience for them. The details of why that is could vary dramatically, but that’s part of the doctoral experience. It’s hard.” So, she took a break from writing her dissertation and pursued an internship at the National Research Council (NRC), where she said, “While I was there I discovered the power of policy. My dissertation was looking at a topic that is teensy, and NRC does policy that impacts everyone. They do policy, literally, from the stars to under the ocean and everything that’s covered in between. If they say something, it changes the world, and that had a dramatic impact on me: the power of policy.” At the NRC, Dr. Conner researched graduate funding packages and particularly noticed the disparity between those packages: “That was my internship. I had no idea how much that would be foreshadowing the rest of my life!” Since then, she has been fighting to ensure that all graduate students have equal access to the resources that they need to be successful (including completing their dissertations!).
Since this is primarily a blog for and by graduate students, I asked Dr. Conner what her graduate-student-self would have thought of the work she’s doing now. She paused and said thoughtfully: “My graduate-student-self understood the fact that graduate school funding is not the same across campus, so I think she would be very proud of the work that I’ve done going forward. Because I’ve always tried to give more access and resources to more people. Equity is really important. I can’t say that I ever imagined I’d be doing what I do now. The NRC internship was in many ways a version of my job now, and I really enjoy it. I enjoy making a big impact. I’ve taken on projects that make big impact. I try to, anyway.”
As for the efforts of others, she is quick to extend gratitude towards the community of people on U-M’s campus who are also working with her to support the projects she cares so deeply about: “I do think it’s important to acknowledge that I’m working with other people. I’m working in collaboration with our deans, and I have a team of staff who I rely on to help me get the work done. I couldn’t do it without them!”
Dr. Conner is heartened by the Strategic Plan that President Schlissel and the rest of the university are implementing. She praised the courage that it takes for an institution and its constituent parts to be transparent as they work to make campus life better for more people: “I’m glad that the university has the courage to talk about diversity explicitly. And I do mean courage, because it is so easy to say, ‘I’m not going to talk about that.’ I believe that this additional dialogue increases understanding and increases tolerance, but you have to be willing to look under the rock and understand it may not be so pretty, but then you can figure out what to do about it. I’m proud that we’re doing that.” She is particularly proud of Rackham’s continued efforts to support diversity. More recently, Rackham is including student voices at the Rackham Diversity forums: “I love the fact that Rackham is including a student voice in our diversity planning. I think the student voice is critical.”
As an advocate for students, she unsurprisingly has a lot of faith in their ability to be an impactful force on a college campus: “Students have lot of power. Students have a voice. They need to be strategic about when they use it, because people are listening. My project to increase graduate education access to undocumented students was actually a follow up to a student coalition’s work with administration […] Fundamentally, the administration cares. We can be allies with students to help them impact graduate education.”
Dr. Conner has some pretty monumental things on her plate, but she’s still finding time to think about the future. Within the next year she hopes to continue her work on expanding the Rackham Merit Fellowship (RMF) for master’s students, evaluate trends in Rackham’s funding to programs, and look into the tuition structure for doctoral students.
If I had to capture what it is about Dr. Conner that makes her such an effective leader for diversity, I’d say that this quote sums it up: “Sometimes you can get so bogged down with trying to get it exactly right, but then you never get anything done. So I do as much as I can to get something good. Then, I learn from that experience by listening and adjusting the project so it can be great.” Dr. Conner is focused on creating a supported and diverse graduate campus, but she’s also focused on being effective in that work. She fundamentally believes that the best kinds of change happen when many minds collaborate.