On January 9th, Margaret Beale Spencer, PhD’76, Marshall Field IV Professor of Urban Education, and Chair of the Department of Comparative Human Development received the prestigious 2017 University Faculty Diversity Leadership Award, presented by the Diversity Leadership Council. The award recognizes a faculty member who works to advance social justice across the campus and beyond. With a career spanning over 30 years, Spencer is a pioneer in her work on developmental processes, ethnicity, and social context. Her widely cited Phenomenological Variant of Ecological Systems Theory (PVEST) speaks to the intersections of diverse human systems and the richness those intersections bring to bear in mitigating multiple forms of inequality and social injustice.
For Spencer, the receipt of this award provokes complex emotions. She says she experienced a degree of dissonance concerning the acknowledgement of her efforts and receipt of the award.
When I heard of the award, I was very surprised and, initially, lacked immediate professional comfortableness. It is humbling to be honored in this way. At the same time, the recognition is uncomfortable because engaging in inclusive scholarship from a justice perspective—although significantly more challenging—is what good research represents.
Nonetheless, she says she is optimistic about what this award, and the university leadership’s dedication to it, signifies for the campus, explaining:
Today more than ever, matters of diversity, inclusion, and justice are of critical importance, and, without question, an extraordinary amount of work still needs to be accomplished. I can only infer from the recognition that the University of Chicago is sincerely committed to addressing these issues through meaningful and sustained action, providing incentives for authentically designed inclusive programs of research and, thus, encouraging and celebrating scholarship embodied with a foundation of fairness, intellectual integrity, and justice.
Spencer has dedicated much of her distinguished career to identifying and exploring context-linked influences associated with ethnicity, gender, and race and determining their implications for healthy child and adolescent development. Her work has focused on the cognitive and socio-emotional aspects of development, particularly with young people of color from low-resource family backgrounds. She has been instrumental in enhancing our understanding of resiliency and vulnerability, and her contributions have informed scientific standards and social policies aimed at maximizing human potential. To gain a deeper understanding of her research, visit her faculty page.
She continues this important work with the development of a major ten-year multi-city study to assess the character of and develop systems of authentic support for highly vulnerable communities. Through this project Spencer hopes to garner support for underrepresented and chronically under-resourced urban populations by focusing on and augmenting the protective roles of parents, teachers, social service and health providers, and police for improving children’s coping mechanisms and lifelong outcomes.
David Nirenberg, Dean of the Division of the Social Sciences, nominated Spencer for the honor, citing her devotion to her work. “Margaret’s commitment to diversity, as evidenced through her distinguished academic career and her mentorship of colleagues and students, reflects core values of the University of Chicago. She embodies the aims recognized by this award, and I thank her for her many accomplishments.”
Spencer completed her doctoral work in the Department of Comparative Human Development, of which she is currently chair. In this role, Spencer has supported the broadening of criteria for faculty hires and student admissions, resulting in increased numbers of minority applicants and admissions. One of her most profound influences has been on her students, producing generations of scholars who continue to add to the canon of scholarship she began. Even before returning to Chicago in 2009, she made significant advancements in understanding the multiple dimensions of human diversity as director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Health Achievement Neighborhood Growth and Ethnic Studies (CHANGES), and the director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Collective Research Institute. Early in her career, Spencer was one of the first African American women to be appointed to a tenure-track faculty position at Emory, in a field and academic department that was starkly lacking in diversity at the time. Similarly, at the University of Pennsylvania, as a full professor with an endowed chair in the Graduate School of Education, she was one of the first individuals of color to hold a tenured position.
Carol Camp Yeakey, Marshall S. Snow Professor of Arts & Sciences and Founding Director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Urban Studies and the Center on Urban Research & Public Policy, Washington University in St. Louis, is Spencer’s longtime colleague and collaborator. Yeakey says Spencer is renowned among colleagues for her ability to “build a safe, positive, and nurturing environment for herself, her students, and those fortunate enough to have contact with her.” Yeakey elaborates:
As a psychologist, and one concerned about the human development of all individuals, her life choices embody diversity in all of its forms, moving beyond simple tolerance to embrace and celebrate the rich dimensions and complexities of behaviors contained within each individual. While employing diversity in all that she does, she understands that the term, fully employed, promotes hard work and creativity by encouraging the consideration of alternatives and approaches to make better the human condition of us all.
The University’s Diversity Leadership Awards are now in their ninth year. They recognize a member of the faculty, a member of the alumni community, and a staff member who foster diversity and advance social justice and equality across campus and in the community. Read about all the 2017 recipients here. President Robert J. Zimmer presented the awards at a special reception on January 9th, and the recipients were recognized at the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel the same day at 6pm. The program is always free and open to the public.