Cornell University: Weatherspoon, Lewis honored for diversity contributions

Hakim Weatherspoon, professor in the Department of Computer Science in the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, and Neil Lewis, Jr. ’13, assistant professor in the Department of Communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, have been named recipients of this year’s Faculty Award for Excellence in Research, Teaching and Service through Diversity.

President Martha E. Pollack and Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff announced the awards based on nominations from students, faculty and staff, and the recommendations of a selection committee. The recognition comes with a $15,000 prize to be used for research, scholarship and other activities at Cornell.

“We’re delighted to honor Professor Weatherspoon and Professor Lewis for the commitment, expertise, and creativity they have invested in building a welcoming community at Cornell,” Pollack said. “They are dedicated advocates for diversity in their scholarship, mentorship and service, and the impact of their work reverbeates across and beyond the university.”

Colleagues praised Weatherspoon’s involvement with the Cornell Institute for Digital Agriculture; the CMD-IT/ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing, which hosts the most diverse gathering in computing; and the CSMore summer program for rising sophomores; and the role he has played in encouraging undergraduates and graduate students from groups underrepresented in STEM to pursue computer science at Cornell.

His reach has extended beyond Cornell through the annual SoNIC summer research workshop, which recruits nationally and aims to encourage undergraduates to pursue doctoral degrees; and CodeAfrique, which encourages high school students in Ghana and Eswatini to pursue undergraduate degrees in computer science.

“With each one of these opportunities,” Weatherspoon said, “students first imagine themselves as a computer science student or researcher before they actually become one, and for students from underrepresented backgrounds this can be key.”

Students praised Weatherspoon for being a good listener and making them feel heard.

“My primary goal with these programs and opportunities has been to create spaces where students feel that they belong, giving them confidence to succeed,” Weatherspoon said.

Weatherspoon promoted diversity at Cornell even before formal programs existed in Cornell Bowers CIS, colleagues said. He was the college’s second associate dean for diversity and inclusion, and led the search to hire the first director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. He was awarded the College of Engineering Zellman Warhaft Commitment to Diversity Award in 2014, was named the Black Engineer of the Year by Modern Day Leader in 2009 and was elected Fellow of the Society of Black Engineers in 1997.

“I began my research career at Cornell in 2006 and a long-standing goal has been to be an outstanding researcher who also helped to diversify the representation of students and faculty,” he said.

Lewis’s research examines how context and identity shape people’s perceptions of the world around them, and the implications for their motivation to pursue equity-enhancing goals. He also studies how these perceptions influence their willingness to build diverse coalitions to address pressing social issues and diversify organizations that play important roles in those issues. This work has earned him three early career awards from professional organizations in the social sciences.

His publications in peer-reviewed journals have been cited 1,956 times since 2016, according to Google Scholar. In addition to his academic work, Lewis also contributes to FiveThirtyEight and writes the “Letters to Young Scientists” column in the journal Science.

“Writing academic journal articles is important, but it’s not what gets me out of bed in the morning,” Lewis said. “I engage in public scholarship because I think it’s important to take our work out from behind the paywalls and share it with the world.”

Many students of color and first-generation college students across the university turn to Lewis for support.

“I was an undergraduate and first-generation student at Cornell not all that long ago,” Lewis said. “I remember what it was like to walk around this place feeling isolated and not knowing where to go or who I could turn to for help. When I came back as a professor, I wanted to create spaces here where all students – not just the advantaged ones – could come and be seen and heard and have the kinds of wonderful collegiate experiences that we often advertise on the university website and social media feeds.”

Lewis also works with policymakers to design equitable interventions. For example, throughout the pandemic he helped the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene with equitable vaccination efforts. He was also invited to brief White House staff on an adaptive intervention approach for equitable vaccination.

Launched in 2019, the Faculty Award for Excellence in Research, Teaching and Service through Diversity award recognizes tenured and tenure-track faculty for their sustained and transformational work promoting diversity through research, teaching and service. Nominations for recipients of the 2023 award will be solicited at this year’s end.

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