Lewis, Michener honored for diversity contributions

Mark E. Lewis, director of the School of Operations Research and Information Engineering in the College of Engineering, and Jamila Michener, associate professor in the Department of Government in the College of Arts and Sciences, are the recipients of this year’s Faculty Award for Excellence in Research, Teaching and Service through Diversity.

The awards were announced by President Martha E. Pollack and Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff based on nominations from students, faculty and staff, and the recommendations of a selection committee. The recognition comes with a $15,000 prize.

“We’re so pleased to honor Professors Lewis and Michener for the wide-ranging and sustained roles they have played in building a community of belonging at Cornell,” Pollack said. “They are dedicated advocates for equity and inclusion in their scholarship, pedagogy, mentorship and service, and their impact has extended across the university and beyond.”

The award, launched in 2019, was created to recognize distinctive and outstanding accomplishments that lead to systemic and transformational change in research or creative work, teaching and mentoring, and service and outreach. Students, staff, and faculty are invited to nominate tenure track and tenured faculty.

Students praised Lewis and Michener for taking an interest in them beyond their academic pursuits. Lewis, who is also the Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Engineering in the College of Engineering, once asked a student how her job application was proceeding.  Discovering she was discouraged for failing an automated exam, Lewis reached out to the employer who ultimately hired her.

An accomplished researcher, Lewis said, “Seeing my doctoral students grow, graduate and flourish” is more gratifying than counting citations.

Michener regularly extended office hours to meet with long lines of students pre-pandemic. Despite being on sabbatical the past year, she continued to meet with students on Zoom.

“I know how it feels to be an undergraduate who desperately wants mentorship from a faculty member who understands something about their experiences,” she said. “That knowledge inspires me to do as much as I can for as many as I can.”

Michener co-directs the Cornell Center for Health Equity and chairs the Cornell Prison Education Program Advisory Board. She sits on dozens of academic and nonacademic advisory boards, including those of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Scholars Strategy Network.

Lewis’ leadership roles at Cornell have included associate dean and senior associate dean for diversity and faculty development in the College of Engineering. During his tenure, the college reached gender parity in overall undergraduate enrollment and first-year classes.

As associate dean he pushed faculty search committees to diversify interview and applicant pools. Search committees sought out highly talented women for interviews, resulting in an increase from 16.7% in 2014 to 22.5% in 2019 in the number of tenure track women faculty in the college. Aside from overseeing new faculty hiring and the promotion of junior faculty, he tackled the challenge of finding employment opportunities for the partners of new and existing faculty.

“Mark served as the college’s conscience on all matters related to equity and inclusion,” said Lance Collins, who served as the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering at Cornell from 2010 to 2020.

Lewis also chaired the Provost’s Task Force to Enhance Faculty Diversity in 2017-18. Based on the group’s recommendations, the university now provides colleges with additional funding to bridge the hiring of faculty who contribute to the diversity of their unit; requires applicants for tenure-track faculty and senior leadership positions to submit statements outlining how they will advance diversity at Cornell; and offers a postdoctoral fellowship program supporting those with exceptional promise with additional time and mentoring prior to starting the tenure track at Cornell, among other changes.

Lewis’s leadership was instrumental in securing funding for the Cornell Sloan and Cornell Colman fellowship programs for underrepresented doctoral students.  Cornell is one of eight institutions nationwide and the only one in the Ivy League to offer these fellowships.

Lewis also co-created the Ephraim Garcia Engineering Society, providing community for underrepresented minority faculty and opportunities to meet with leadership in the College of Engineering. He supervised the Diversity Programs in Engineering, giving tutoring and academic support for first-generation and underrepresented minority students.

Lewis earned his Ph.D. in industrial and systems engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology. His research explores the dynamic control of service systems, developing mathematical models to determine what happens next in a moving operation. He has developed models of transportation, manufacturing, call center service and large-scale computing networks. His work has been published in Queueing Systems: Theory and Application; Mathematics of Operation Research; and Probability in the Engineering and Informational Sciences, among other journals.

Prior to joining Cornell in 2005, Lewis was on the faculty at the University of Michigan, where he founded the Minority Issues Forum (MIF) within the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science, the leading international association for professionals in operations research and analytics.  Still operating today, the MIF provides opportunities for underrepresented minorities to deliver talks in a supportive environment, make personal and professional friendships, and develop research collaborations – all of which help pave the way to a successful career.

Michener received her Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on poverty, racial inequality, and public policy in the U.S. Raised in Brooklyn and Queens, she saw her neighbors, friends and family living at the intersection of economic and racial marginality.

“I always wondered whether we had the power to change the systems structuring their lives – and how such power could be cultivated,” she said. “I still wonder such things. These questions drive my work.” 

Her first book, “Fragmented Democracy: Medicaid, Federalism and Unequal Politics,” illustrates how benefits for Medicaid – the nation’s public health insurance program serving 74 million low-income Americans – vary depending on where a beneficiary lives, as opposed to their health care needs. Michener describes how this unequal distribution exacerbates inequality and dampens beneficiaries’ interest in participatory democracy.

Her articles have been published in the American Journal of Public Health, the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, and Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, among other journals.

Like Lewis, Michener most appreciates the results not shown on her curriculum vitae.

“I am proud of any of my work that changes the way someone looks at, experiences, or operates in the world,” she said. “Or any effort that alters (even if slightly) the arc of institutions in a way that bends towards justice. Because ultimately this work is not about me.”

Nominations for the 2022 award will be announced later this year.

Lori Sonken is the communication and program manager for the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity.

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Abby Butler