UWRF psychology professor honored with Board of Regents diversity award

Posted January 29, 2017

In recognition of her outstanding efforts to promote inclusivity on university campuses, UW-River Falls psychology Professor Cyndi Kernahan has been honored with a 2017 Board of Regents Diversity Award.

According to a press release from the UW System, the award is given to individuals and teams that “foster access and success for students who are members of historically underrepresented populations.” Kernahan is one of two individuals in the UW System to be given this recognition, and the award includes $5,000 that can be put towards the recipient’s future work.

Kernahan also is the assistant dean for teaching and learning in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Brad Caskey, dean of the college, was heavily involved in the process to get Kernahan nominated for the award. Having known her since she began working at UWRF in 1999, he is familiar with the wide range of efforts she has made over the years to promote inclusion and diversity on campus. He and several other of Kernahan’s colleagues wrote letters of recommendation, and these were sent to Madison along with a portfolio of her work. About a month ago, officials told Kernahan that she had won the award.

“Sometimes there are awards where a person has done something very specific, and you nominate them because they did X,” Caskey said. “But this isn’t that case. When Cyndi’s name came up, it was really me thinking of a kind of a lifetime achievement award.”

Kernahan has served on a number of campus committees, including the Bias Incident Response Team and the Diversity and Inclusivity Committee. She has numerous publications on the topics of diversity and inclusivity, gives workshops on the subject across the UW system, and teaches the courses “Psychology of Prejudice and Racism” and “Introduction to Ethnic Studies” at UWRF. The audience for her work encompasses both students and instructors, and she puts a lot of focus on how best to provide a welcoming campus for students and faculty from minority groups.

“What I do is I look at the science,” Kernahan said. “I try to translate that for other instructors and translate that for people on campus so that we can create policies that have a chance of being helpful. I’m a big believer in using evidence to make decisions like that, and also I try to convey as much of that in my teaching and my workshops as possible.”

Promoting an inclusive campus is especially important, Kernahan said, because the demographics of River Falls are shifting. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the white population of the city of River Falls dropped to 94.8 percent in 2010, compared to 96.6 percent in 2000. The five-year American Community Survey estimates that the white population dropped even further in 2015, to 86.5 percent.

Ethnicity, however, is not the only demographic Kernahan looks at. First generation students, she said, must be taken into account when trying to promote diversity on a campus. Her work in the past has also touched on topics such as gender, sexual orientation and veteran status, and how these factors play into how comfortable and successful a person is on campus.

“If we want to maintain our enrollment,” Kernahan said, “and we want to stay relevant as a university, we have to serve all these populations, and we have to serve them well so that they’re retained and successful.”

This is the ninth year that the Diversity Awards have been presented by the Board of Regents. Kernahan and the other winners will be honored during the Feb. 3 Board of Regents meetings in Madison.