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Research for Peace & Prosperity

Across the disciplines, DU’s research community is dedicated to serving the public good and to fostering peace and prosperity

May you live in interesting times. 

So goes the ancient Chinese curse. And whatever else naysayers or irrepressible optimists might proclaim about the year ahead, no one is likely to dismiss it as uneventful. After all, strife and war rage within and between all too many localities and countries. And with economic challenges persisting, with environmental dilemmas looming (think diminishing biodiversity), and with social problems mounting, a shared prosperity seems increasingly out of reach.

At the University of Denver, scholars across the disciplines are focusing on projects and initiatives that aim to improve individual lives by advancing local and global prospects for peace and civility and by exploring new routes to sustainable prosperity. They’re studying ways to promote economic stability by improving the power grid. They’re contributing to our understanding of how immigration changes communities and how to optimize the benefits of diversity. They’re examining the conundrums resulting when citizens disagree over constitutional rights. And they’re looking ahead to how a rising China could affect everything from diplomacy and the projection of military power to economic conditions in the United States.  

All of these efforts are part of a growing and robust research enterprise, one buoyed by the news in early 2022 that the University had been designated a Research 1 (R1) institution by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. That’s Carnegie’s top designation, and it signals that DU is engaged at the highest levels of research activity. According to the University’s annual report on research and scholarship, DU’s research expenditures topped $43 million in fiscal year 2022. “That’s the highest value our institution has ever achieved,” says Corinne Lengsfeld, senior vice provost for research and graduate education.

Lengsfeld expects that momentum to continue. “DU faculty research and scholarship are on fire right now, and the impact from [the institition’s many] grants is awe-inspiring,” she says.

This fiscal year, research expenditures are tracking about 8% above last year’s expenditures. From July 1 through Oct. 31, 2022, faculty researchers received more new awards from external sponsors than they did from July 1, 2021, to June 31, 2022. Meanwhile, the backlog of unexpended awards has continued to grow, reaching more than $65 million.

As a research enterprise, Lengsfeld says, “We are no longer a diamond in the rough. We are unstoppable and here to stay.”

A rising China portends a different world

By Emma Atkinson

As China has grown its economy and international influence over the last half-century, it has become known as a major world power, working alongside—and sometimes against—the U.S. to advance its interests.

Now, new research from the University of Denver’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures suggests that China may overtake the U.S. as the world’s greatest power sometime in the next 20 years. If that happens, it will mean a very different world. 

Jonathan Moyer

To get a handle on that different world—and possibly on how to avoid it—Pardee Center director Jonathan Moyer and his team use the International Futures (IF) model, developed at DU by professor Barry Hughes over a 40-year period, to forecast and examine development within major systems such as economics, demographics and governance. 

“We’ve also done quite a bit of work on thinking about how to measure power and influence in the international system,” he says. “This is a really messy, kind of complicated area, because you can’t measure power and influence directly in an aggregate way, for a variety of reasons.”

But the IF model’s index-based approach allows researchers to measure these things—power and influence, specifically—in a more indirect way.

“We create indices that try to approximate measures of power and influence, and then we use those within the International Futures system to forecast what’s the most likely development trajectory,” Moyer explains. “Then, the last bit of the puzzle is to create alternative scenarios. So, we’re not interested in just simply predicting what’s going to happen, but instead, we’re interested in better understanding the range of uncertainty and the things that would have to happen to dramatically shift these development trajectories across time. That’s the focus of this kind of U.S.-China work.”

In most of the scenarios that the Pardee team played out—about 90%—China did overtake the U.S. as the world’s next great power. What would need to happen for the U.S. to remain in that top spot?

Collin Meisel, associate director of geopolitical analysis at the Pardeee Center, says that for the U.S. to remain the world’s No. 1 power, China’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth would have to slow—a lot. 

“In the analysis that we did, we did look across a broad range of scenarios, and those included pessimistic growth forecasts for China,” he says. “But some analysts would say that we should be even more pessimistic. And so, if Chinese growth really stagnates, or if current GDP figures are sort of overstated, then then there’s a chance that China wouldn’t pass the U.S. as the world’s leading power.”

Moyer says a world with China as the globe’s top power may look quite different than the reality we’re living today. For example, because China’s ambitions are disparate from those of the U.S., international conflicts could be managed in a different way.

“There are lots of other countries that have decent capabilities. The Europeans are still going to be powerful in the future; South Korea, Japan will still be influential in the future,” Moyer says. “And the world’s going to look very different with India. India’s going to be growing dramatically over the next number of years for the same kind of structural reasons. And so how does China deal with India [and Pakistan]—two-nuclear armed countries that have had border conflict?”

Diplomacy isn’t the only aspect of international dealings that could change under China as the world’s leading power. Moyer says the economic relationship between the U.S. and China might undergo some significant re-wiring—a strategic uncoupling of sorts.

“Let’s say you depend on someone for your daily lunch because they make a great sandwich, better than the sandwich you are able to make. If they become a jerk and start withholding that sandwich or raising the price of that sandwich, you’re likely going to make your own sandwich, even though it’s less desirable. Strategic decoupling is kind of like that—you stop depending on someone (or some country, in this case) for your well-being because you’re concerned about how that dependence can be used against you.”

The specifics of the situations aside, the researchers say that one thing is for sure: The countries that matter in the international system are changing, and tools and research can help us better understand how these changes will impact our lives.

A jolt of innovation for the power grid

By Connor Mokrzycki

“The electric power grid is the largest machine ever built,” says Amin Khodaei, professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science. He’s also director of KLab, a collaborative research group focused on improving grid design, planning and operation by making the grid smart—smart enough to withstand the many challenges looming on the horizon.

Amin Khodaei

The lab’s work comes just in the nick of time and just as the U.S. Department of Energy has announced a major scientific breakthrough—the achievement of fusion ignition—that promises a future of abundant clean power to distribute where needed. 

Spanning the entire United States, the grid relies on a complex network of power plants, transformers, and transmission and distribution lines that send electricity to consumers as far as hundreds of miles away. But the nation’s aging energy infrastructure—70% of which is more than 25 years old—needs significant upgrades. What’s more, a combination of decades-old infrastructure, escalating demand and climate change is pushing the existing grid to its limits. 

A resilient electrical grid will require more than building new power plants and repairing worn or damaged components, Khodaei says. That’s because, from health care and education to work and leisure, all aspects of consumers’ increasingly electrified lives require a grid that can meet demand without disruption. Disruptions, after all, can be costly and even deadly. 

The grid in Texas certainly reached its limits in February 2021, when a severe winter storm hit and power plants shut down one after another. Non-winterized infrastructure and inadequate planning resulted in a loss of power to more than 4.5 million shivering customers. According to Texas’ Department of Health and Human Services, 246 people lost their lives due to the outages. 

Extreme cold and snow are not the only threats to the grid. Severe weather events like hurricanes and tornadoes, many linked to climate change, are growing in frequency and severity. Meanwhile, hotter and drier conditions across much of the American West have heightened the spread of wildfires. All of which can leave businesses and homes in the dark. 

Building the grid of tomorrow, Khodaei explains, also requires a commitment to long- and short-term planning that accounts for emerging challenges and accommodates much-needed new technologies, especially those that can reduce the harmful impacts that electrical generation from fossil fuel has on the environment. Renewable resources such as wind and solar generation offer a low-emission option that can often be easily integrated into residential homes and businesses. But, Khodaei points out, many renewable sources of electricity have one major shortfall: They only provide power intermittently, classifying them as a nondispatchable form of generation. 

Khodaei also notes that nondispatchable renewable resources—solar panels, for example—are considered to be grid-following resources, meaning they will fail to generate electricity during a blackout or other grid failure. “Considering these two drawbacks, having a dispatchable resource that can be matched with a nondispatchable renewable resource is a must, be it a fossil-fuel resource, a fuel cell, a battery or any other technology,” he says. 

While existing technologies will remain as essential components of the grid for years to come, new ways of sustainably generating electricity continue to emerge. “The power grid relies on technological innovations, both evolutionary and revolutionary, to address the emerging and growing needs of the future,” Khodaei says. “The recent fusion breakthrough at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility offers the promise of sustainable and clean energy without many issues of nuclear fission power. This is a significant step to support the grid’s journey in becoming more resilient and sustainable.”

Another essential component of a reliable grid, Khodaei says, are networks of distributed generation and control. While the existing grid primarily relies on large utility-scale generators as a means of supplying consumers with electricity, the installation of hundreds or thousands of smaller generators operating within a vast interconnected network will make the grid of the future more resistant to disruption. A trend toward decentralized infrastructure, Khodaei says, is accompanied by calls for decentralized control over the power grid. As households and businesses are beginning to generate their own electricity, “centralized frameworks for optimal grid operations are increasingly becoming more complex,” he says.

Networks of distributed generation and transmission, referred to as microgrids, allow for redundancy, boosting overall reliability as disruptions at one or more generation sites would not completely cut the grid off from electricity. 

Furthermore, clusters of interconnected microgrids allow for even more resilient operation, as seen in the 8-megawatt community microgrid that KLab and its partners designed and implemented in Illinois’ Bronzeville neighborhood. Connected to the 11-megawatt Illinois Institute of Technology campus microgrid, the Bronzeville Community Microgrid can provide power to consumers in the event of a grid outage, a practice known as islanding, by utilizing battery storage, solar power and other energy sources. 

A flexible grid supports consumers’ ability to transition to sustainable and distributed generation, Khodaei says, adding that long-term planning to allow the grid to utilize more distributed resources and short-term planning to maintain and upgrade the reliability of existing grid resources are essential. Developing plans for a grid that will continue to expand and decentralize, however, grows more complicated with each additional component. Larger amounts of data need to be collected from the grid and analyzed—a task that Khodaei says will require a smarter grid.

Back at KLab, Khodaei and team are developing technologies to ensure that smarter grid. Much of their work enlists quantum computing, which differs from traditional computation in its ability to process and analyze huge quantities of data. Its expanded computational capacity, Khodaei says, will allow for grid operators to account for the extreme complexity and scale of data from a decentralized grid, dramatically increasing the speed at which grid data can be processed, analyzed and used in decision making. 

Building the grid of tomorrow is an intensive process, Khodaei explains, but a resilient, smart grid will make sure that the lights stay on.

What can be done about hate speech?

By Janette Ballard

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects Americans against government limits on freedom of expression, even if that expression includes hateful speech. But who decides what is hate speech? When does hate speech cross the line? And what are the consequences?

Alan Chen

Those questions intrigue Alan Chen, a Sturm College of Law professor who specializes in First Amendment law and who pays close attention to the roiling discussions around how to contend with problematic speech.

The term “hate speech” refers to any form of expression where speakers intend to vilify, humiliate or incite hatred against a group or class of people. However, Chen says, there is no agreed-upon definition for what hate speech is, which makes it difficult to regulate.

“The United States Supreme Court has not recognized that hate speech is a category where the government can prohibit or regulate speech in the same way that it is free to regulate, for example, obscenity or threats, two categories of speech not protected under the First Amendment,” he says.

“In public settings, somebody who engages in what many of us may view as hateful speech, whether that’s based on race or religion or political affiliation or another category, is generally protected by the First Amendment,” he adds. “The principle has generally been that if you are subjected to speech that is unwelcome in the public space, you can always walk away.” 

There is room, however, to regulate hate speech based on where it takes place. The Supreme Court recognizes what is known as the “captive audience” doctrine, allowing government to regulate speech in places where it’s difficult for people to escape or walk away, such as workplaces, school rooms, dormitories, even our own homes.

The government also is free to regulate hateful rhetoric that rises to the level of a threat or that will likely incite violence.

Beyond that, the United States has a system that largely trusts the people—not the government, not legislators, not even the courts—to determine what is within the realm of acceptable speech, Chen says. If people don’t like what they’re hearing in the town square or the marketplace, they can elect to exit that space and go elsewhere.

Consider recent developments at two well-known companies grappling with hate speech:

• Kanye West, also known as Ye, enjoyed a lucrative partnership with Adidas until the sportswear giant cut ties with the rapper over his antisemitic comments, saying Adidas “does not tolerate antisemitism and any other sort of hate speech.” 

• Elon Musk, espousing free speech, said that his ownership of Twitter would come with fewer restrictions. Within hours under his new leadership, the platform saw a spike in hate speech. Concerned that Twitter might tarnish their brands, a growing number of advertisers withdrew their ads.

According to Chen, boycotts have proved to be an effective way of expressing discomfort or disagreement with a private company’s policies regarding hate speech. 

“You might think, well, Twitter is free, Facebook is free, so what are they going to lose if you drop off the platform? But, of course, they rely on advertisers, and the lower numbers they have who are using the platform, the less revenue they can generate with that,” he says.

Free speech and the free exchange of ideas are essential to American democracy. But how can a healthy democracy contend with hate speech and minimize its impact?

“To some degree, I think regulating hate speech seems like it’s treating the symptoms and not the disease,” Chen says. “That is, hateful speech is really sort of a product of the long history of entrenched systemic racism in our country. And those problems run to the core of many of the things that we are as a nation.

“If I could waive my magic wand, we would address the types of systemic inequality in this country and differences in opportunity that have become embedded in the structures of all our institutions.”

A more direct response, he adds, would be for people to speak out about equality and protecting those who might be subject to hateful intimidation. Or try to educate people about the effects of hate speech on other people.

At the very least, Chen argues, when confronted with hate speech, people can vote with their feet.

Complex immigration issues demand transformative solutions

By Janette Ballard

Migration is one of the urgent issues of our time, but also one of the most misunderstood, according to migration scholars Lisa Martinez and Rebecca Galemba, co-founders of the Center for Immigration Policy and Research (CIPR) at the University of Denver. 

Lisa Martinez

Launched in 2020, CIPR is a hub for faculty, students and community partners who work in migration to address pressing issues facing migrant and immigrant communities in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West. The center disburses small grants for research projects that will provide a more accurate understanding of those issues.

In this conversation with the University of Denver Magazine, Martinez, a professor of sociology in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Galemba, an associate professor of anthropology in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, explain how a better understanding of immigration issues can lead to transformative solutions.

Rebecca Galemba

What are some major issues facing immigrants in this region? 

They are the same issues currently facing many communities, such as inflation, affordable housing, jobs, accessing education and health care. The difference is that, on top of these issues, immigrants in the region must also navigate the precarity of their status, whether they are green-card or TPS holders, refugees or asylum seekers, “DACAmented” people [a reference to individuals protected under a provision known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] or those ineligible for relief based on legal reforms. For them, the specter of enhanced immigration and deportation is ever-present in their daily lives, which dictates how they live, work and engage in their communities. Moreover, given the number of mixed-status families and households—where some members are citizens or documented and others are not—there are often ripple effects insofar as a parent’s migration status affects everyone in the family.

How will research and community engagement provide a better understanding of these issues?

By bringing together colleagues with expertise in these core areas—social, economic, legal/political—we aim to shed light on these issues but also use the tools of our respective disciplines to show the nuance and interrelationships among them. For example, we have colleagues with expertise in K–12 education, while others focus on the immigration/criminal justice system. They might not seem to be interrelated, but the threat of deportation of parents affects their children’s school outcomes or socioemotional health and well-being. By collaborating with community partners, we endeavor to share this work beyond the walls of the ivory tower to potentially impact the lives of immigrant community members who are dealing with theste issues. In other words, we want our reach to extend beyond academic circles—to engage and partner with service providers, educators, policymakers and elected officials as well as immigrants themselves. 

What do you hope to accomplish through this work?

We hope for DU to become a renowned center for work on migration that is rigorous, transformative and community-engaged. We aspire for policymakers and community advocates to turn to DU for cutting-edge advice, recommendations and implementation support on key immigration issues impacting the country, state and city of Denver. The Sturm Immigration Law & Policy Clinic has opened the way for DU to play this role, training some of the top immigration lawyers in the region and designing and testifying for legislation that made Colorado a trend-setter in severing the ties between the criminal justice system and immigration enforcement. We build on the legacy of our colleagues at the law school and bring together the research expertise, creative works and teaching prowess of our affiliates [across campus] to provide a more holistic contribution to immigration dynamics.

Why is it important for CIPR to provide a more robust picture of migration dynamics? 

Opinions about immigration are often deeply held but also a product of our own experiences, socialization and even media exposure. Our affiliates, through their research, teaching, creative works and partnerships, provide both a data-driven response and human face to, as journalist Todd Miller wrote, “build bridges, not walls.” Some centers focus on policy, legal representation or social services, or may focus on the humanities and undergraduate education. Our center is unique for bringing these elements together to build on one another. We aspire for law students to work alongside international studies students; social work students to collaborate with students from theater and music; Spanish language students to help translate for psychology clinics; and for history students to sit alongside law students to learn about immigrant detention together. Centers that pigeon-hole themselves to law, policy or the social sciences may miss the creative sparks and generative potential emerging from the arts that allows us to imagine alternative possibilities.

When the crickets stop chirping

By Matt Meyer

Across huge swaths of rural countryside, and perhaps even in your backyard, the chirping of crickets weaves into nature’s songs of the night. 

But where urban development confronts nature’s splendor, those chirps can be drowned out, affecting the insect’s ability to attract a mate and procreate. While traffic noise is the main culprit, everything from construction to power generation can overpower the voice tiny crickets use to connect with one another. That’s even true in protected areas miles from the nearest big burg. In fact, the National Park Service estimates that 63% of the land it manages has noise levels at least double that of their natural state. Some areas were measured as much as 10 times higher than their natural estimates. 

Robin Tinghitella

University of Denver professor Robin Tinghitella, an evolutionary biologist with the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, has an ear tuned to the voice of crickets—and to the widespread implications of evolutionary pressures placed on them over several generations by the encroachment of humans. 

Cities and human activities, she says, “are imposing different selective pressures on animals.” 

Tinghitella and her team use a mixture of field and lab research to study these pressures and how they generate rapid evolutionary changes. Her findings, which have advanced our understanding of evolution and the impact of urbanization on wildlife, have implications for anyone concerned about preserving the planet’s biodiversity. 

“The advantage of being able to watch evolution happen in real time is that we can make predictions about what processes allow organisms to persist when we keep changing their environments,” Tinghitella says. “Are there parts of an animal’s life that are going to more easily adapt to human-induced change? Are there things that are going to be really stubborn, that are really important to their fitness—their ability to survive and reproduce—that just can’t evolve to match the changes that we’re imposing on their environments?” 

A particularly telling example of evolutionary triggers comes from Tinghitella’s research across multiple islands in Hawaii, where the chirps of crickets disappeared entirely for a time. 

Hawaii is home to a population of Pacific field crickets, a non-native species from Australia introduced to the state by humans. Alongside the cricket, a non-native fly from North America was introduced, creating an isolated area that is the only place in the world where these two species interact. 

At first, the Pacific field crickets chirped much like their counterparts in Colorado. But the flies used their song as a beacon to locate male crickets. The fly would then parasitize the cricket, spraying its larvae on the carapace. In the insect equivalent of the chest-bursting scene from the movie “Alien,” those larvae burrowed into the cricket, devouring the insect from the inside out and emerging to pupate and become adult flies. 

Before long, the cricket population fell silent, but their numbers soon dipped, likely because reproduction—typically initiated through chirping—was taking place only when the crickets haphazardly bumped into one another. However, a few generations later, something remarkable happened. The crickets began to rattle and purr. These new noises increased the ability of the crickets to find one another for copulation, while sparing them the grisly consequences of serving as a fly factory. 

Tinghitella says much can be gleaned from that process. Evolutionary pressures might take hundreds—if not thousands—of years to play out in humans, but they can do so in the span of mere months or years, as the 90-day lifecycle of a cricket brings one generation after another. 

How does animal behavior evolve? That question keeps Tinghitella busy. “It’s important,” she says, “because when animals come into contact with each other and don’t encounter each other anywhere else in their range, which is common when human actions bring them together unnaturally, they exert selection on each other. That’s how you get these rapid evolutionary changes, like the crickets with the flies.” 

The examination of natural and urban environments makes for a collaborative research space. For Tinghitella, a highlight is the number of undergraduate researchers who can make meaningful contributions to the work. 

“In a lot of universities, there’s one lucky undergrad in each lab,” Tinghitella says. “We’ve got 11 in the lab right now. They’re our partners in crime. They’re out in the field, and they stay up all night with us collecting cool data. It’s a super collaborative situation and something that’s not only extremely valuable to them, but also to us.”

Bigger than the ‘bad apples’: How data gets to the root of inequality

By Heather Hein

Could a college dining hall full of undergraduates intermingling and eating lunch together hold the key to racial understanding and equality? 

Reggie Byron

Reggie Byron thinks we have a lot to learn from that everyday setting, and his research aims to inform practices and initiatives that foster equity and inclusion on college campuses, in workplaces across the nation and in society at large. 

An associate professor of sociology and criminology, Byron came to the University of Denver from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, to direct the University’s new Critical Race and Ethnic Studies (CRES) program. He has spent nearly two decades conducting research and publishing on the topics of employment discrimination, public accommodations discrimination, criminology, college campus climates and JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion). Across these spheres, his work exposes and examines the embedded racism and sexism in U.S. social institutions.

But what do interactions in a dining hall, of all things, have to teach us? In one of Byron’s racial climate studies, conducted at Southwestern, he and a colleague looked at microclimates across campus—classrooms, residence halls and the dining hall. The latter turned out to be the one environment that students considered to have a positive racial climate, specifically because it offered the opportunity for them to eat together—and authentically connect—across racial groups. 

That caught Byron by surprise.  

“You’d think it would be the classroom,” Byron says. “But students have really divergent experiences in the classroom—some are eye-opening and life-changing, and some are negative, filled with microaggressions and problematic.” 

As one student in the study explained to Byron, “In the classroom, we have to be politically correct. So, we can’t talk about race in a candid way, even though professors think we are. We’re worried about saying the wrong thing or being made fun of. But we do that in the lunchroom. We do that with our friends who are sitting with us; we can joke about things and learn about each other.”

Joking, of course, can go too far, as Byron and his colleague discovered when students in the same study repeatedly reported the prevalence of racialized joking. That led to a second study, which dug into the question of who was telling and hearing the jokes, their racial and gender attributes and the impact the jokes had on them. 

“Kids in my residence hall are always joking about me being Asian, and the shape of my eyes or whatever,” one Asian American student told them. “I know it’s all in good fun, but it does affect me.”  

These types of interactions are always uneven, Byron says, because the victim is often fearful of speaking up and, as a result, just goes along with it. They don’t want to look like they’re too sensitive or complaining, and it could be socially damaging to say something.

As a result, the perpetrators—mostly male students—perceive the joking as not harmful. Byron and his colleagues call this “neutralized hegemonic banter.” The students neutralize the harmfulness of the joke and also get positive attention from peers for telling the joke. This reinforces what’s known as “hegemonic masculinity,” or the idea that certain performances of masculinity are more rewarded than others, which makes them feel good about themselves. 

The research team also found that female college students who witnessed this type of joking reported feeling that they wanted to intervene but didn’t know how. 

Byron argues that, until we pay attention to these nuances—how microaggressions reward some people and silence others—the harmful jokes and behavior will continue.   

From microaggressions to macro understanding

It’s not hard to imagine the campus climate findings being a microcosm for how society at large grapples with issues of race and equality. 

“Today, many people have a ‘colorblind’ ideology, where they dismiss these things, say it’s not a problem, that it’s relegated to history, we shouldn’t be talking about this as an issue anymore,” Byron says. “Our work is to document these incidents to show they still exist. Because when we talk to people, that is their lived experience.”

The big-picture goal, he says, is to get people to see beyond individual incidents of racism and inequality and, rather, see how these are embedded at the institutional and organizational levels. The neutralized banter noted earlier, for example, was most prevalent in male-controlled fraternity spaces, which takes the analysis beyond individual interactions and prompts questions about how the design of these institutions may foster such behavior.

To illustrate his point, Byron shares this scenario: “A Black man goes into a store and is surveilled or followed by the worker in the store. The story may be, ‘Oh, that’s just a Karen being a Karen. She’s surveilling this person unfairly.’ It’s kept at the individual level. But what people don’t think about is there are probably store policies directing this worker to profile certain customers. Companies hire loss-prevention teams, for example, that tell them to do this to reduce theft.”

Byron’s recent work on employment discrimination across eight states shows how loopholes are built into laws—including the Civil Rights Act—that allow organizations to get away with discriminatory practices.

For example, an exception in Title VII called a “bona fide occupational qualification,” or BFOQ, gives companies permission to discriminate against certain people if they can prove it’s in the best interest of their business, primarily when it comes to privacy, safety or authenticity. A case brought by an Asian employee against the Walt Disney Co., to name just one instance, found the company was justified in letting the employee go because he was not “culturally authentic” enough and lacked the requisite familiarity with Norway to work at a Norwegian-themed restaurant in Epcot Center. Though BFOQs were meant to be a limited exception, such rulings, Byron says, underpin the logic of “fit” that is found in other employment discrimination cases—noting that a tiny fraction of claims ever make it to court.  

This issue, Byron argues, is bigger than Disney or a single worker in a store. “It’s embedded within different types of laws and within policies across many organizational types. Until we pay attention to that, we’re never going to bring about any meaningful change. We’re so focused on the ‘bad apples,’ right? But even if we got rid of all the bad apples, we’d still have inequality because it’s embedded within these organizational logics and ways of being.”

Dismantling these organizational ways of being may seem impossible, but Byron finds hope in his students. 

“Undergraduate students, in particular, have a lot of experiences that they’re trying to understand and explain, and CRES provides a lens to view and deconstruct those experiences,” he says. “I see it as planting seeds, in a way, because then those students develop their own critical analyses and engagements and go out and affect the world.” 

Because CRES is interdisciplinary, with coursework in law, history, sociology, psychology, criminology and more, graduates can draw on different approaches and methodologies once they enter the workforce. 

“Most people abstractly want equality. The sticking point is how we get there and the path we take,” Byron says. “When people can look beyond the preoccupation with bad individuals, when they can understand the data and understand what’s really happening at an institutional level, there may be more room for allyship and systemic solutions.”

What can individuals do to chip away at institutional inequality? Byron shares some tips here

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