SoE's Cook-Chennault Named Diversity Dean

“For us to continue to thrive and be successful as a school, we have to be diverse and competitive.” – Kimberly Cook-Chennault

Kimberly Cook-Chennault is the School of Engineering’s associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusive excellence, and an associate professor in the  Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. She joined the faculty in 2008 and holds a BSE and PhD degree from the University of Michigan and a MSE degree from Stanford University.

Why did you become an engineer?

I was encouraged to go into engineering by my sixth grade science teacher, who thought I would be good pursuing a science field. A few other teachers saw I was good in math and science and mentioned that engineering might be an ideal career. I entered the field based on the recommendations of teachers. Teachers have a special place in my heart – without them I wouldn’t have done this.

What fueled your passion for mechanical engineering?

I have a really unusual path because I was initially a dual major in music and engineering. I wasn’t quite sure which engineering field to pursue because didn’t know that much about any of them.

I picked mechanical engineering because I liked the subjects, but was also good in them. It seemed like a natural fit. Eventually, I had summer internships that helped me to understand what engineers did and gain insight into what I enjoyed doing. It’s one of the oldest disciplines in the engineering field, and its basic principles can be applied to so many different areas.

My BS, and MS degrees are in mechanical engineering and my PhD is in biomedical engineering. I consider myself really fortunate to have learned what fit me and what I liked to do.

When did you first get involved with the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive Excellence Standing Committee?

The committee is the byproduct of an anti-racism lunch group initiated by SoE graduate students who sent out an email to the whole school inviting people to sit down for lunchroom discussions about anti-racism when they saw what’s going on in our country.

I joined in on calls and listened to what mattered to students and faculty and staff. I reached out to Dean Farris, who agreed there was an opportunity here and who gave me the go-ahead to create something and run it. So, I went off to develop a committee comprised of faculty, student leaders, and staff within the dean’s office to further discussion on diversity, equity, and inclusion that started meeting in 2020.  

Initially, we met with school leadership and student organizations, to do a climate survey. We wanted to know what they felt, what opportunities for growth they saw, and what was going well.

Since then, we’ve been trying to shape and understand where we are presently. The school has been recognized as doing well in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but there are always ways to grow and do better, especially since our location, and our state demographics and diverse population allow us to serve and represent a community of tremendous ethnic, economic racial variability.

Are there any particular initiatives that you are most excited about?

One thing we’re excited about is to continue our pursuit and retention of a diverse and representative faculty. We want to make our environment as appealing as possible to attract the best and brightest faculty – so that they love coming to work once they get here. There’s something to be said about coming to work with a smile on your face and going home smiling. This promotes a healthy and holistic environment for everyone.

We also have an advantage of having a rich graduate program that has a good representation of international students, so diversifying that group even more is something to look forward to.

As a state institution, we look to enrich our community with more students from New Jersey. But because the school has national stature, there’s an opportunity for us to look to bring in students from outside the state as well. I personally think that we advantage all of our students by enriching them with opportunities to meet others.

Why is DEI so important to you?

Personally, I think it’s important as a researcher. A number of research studies have shown how productivity and creativity are enhanced when research populations are diverse. For us to continue to thrive and be successful as a school, we have to be diverse and competitive. Those most successful, and most referenced research teams, are diverse. They can see things from multiple vantage points that others might not.

Personally, as a woman and woman of color, it’s important for me because I want to be in an environment that is comfortable, equitable, and inclusive – I  know what it feels like not to be in that kind of environment.

What do you most hope to accomplish as Assistant Dean of DEI?

I empathize with and relate to all of those I call the invisibles – because of race, gender, economic disadvantage, or physical differences. I want them to come here, and I want them to thrive.

We all benefit when we aim to serve all who are invisible. Inclusivity means a lot of things. As assistant dean of diversity, equity, and inclusive excellence, I wish and hope to bring all of those who are invisible to light, with a goal of identifying their needs to better serve them – and everybody in our school community.

Do you have any particular new programs or initiatives in mind?

I want us to get a handle on how to collect our data better. We need to figure out where we are and what questions we need to ask in order to set meaningful goals. That’s what I’d like to do. With a handle on what we’re doing well, we can figure out how to grow to best serve students, faculty, and staff.

How will you interface with the Standing Committee as the assistant dean? 

We are all working together to get a handle on what each department is doing and how the school can best support and leverage existing programming and then branch things out. I am so grateful for the committee and thankful for the university’s DEI initiative, which are really helpful.