SGS’s new Vice-Dean, Research and Program Innovation on inclusive excellence and equity in leadership

You’d be forgiven for thinking Vina Goghari just might be able to read your mind. SGS’s new Vice-Dean, Research and Program Innovation is a clinical psychologist with a PhD from the University of Minnesota, where she specialized in both adult and child assessment and intervention, including neuropsychology. And she’s spent just over a decade training the next generation of clinical psychologists, first at the University of Calgary-where she worked for seven years-and later at the University of Toronto Scarborough, where she led the nascent clinical psychology program through its process of accreditation with the Canadian Psychological Association.

With those considerable analytical skills, and a longstanding commitment to integrating research and practice, Goghari is well-placed to take on the challenge of rethinking the way we approach graduate education at the University of Toronto. We caught up with the new Vice-Dean to chat about inclusive excellence, program innovation, and secret superpowers.

Hi, Vina! Congratulations on your new role. How are you feeling about this new leadership role and what does it mean to you?

I think it’s very meaningful, not only to myself but also to the graduate students to see different pathways into leadership positions. I really do think that if you don’t often see models and mentors in certain kinds of positions you may never see yourself in them either, as you may think, “They’re looking for X and by nature, I’m defined as Y.” So having different types of role models and mentors in leadership positions could do a lot for our trainees.

Racialized women, especially if they’re young, often don’t get the position with the word “research” in it. We’ll mentor the students, teach, do the EDI initiatives – but the U of T is a research-intensive university. To get a position that honours your research background, when you’re also a member of a racialized group, especially as someone who represents the values of inclusive excellence – appreciating different kinds of research and excellence – is really meaningful to me.

From what undergraduate students and graduate students at UTSC have shared with me, it is meaningful to them as well. Being from UTSC, I’ve noted that our student population is diverse, but the professors and leadership are more frequently from the majority. Many of our students have the values of today, and they are pleased, whether they are from the majority or whether they are from underrepresented groups, to see the progress, to see different people rising in the ranks. I think those are the values of today. If someone is doing good work, we want to see it recognized.

Can you tell us more about what you mean by “inclusive excellence”?

It means that I take a broad lens to what excellence in research and scholarship represents, because I think that in turn fosters excellence in students. For example, in my program, we train our students to be clinical psychologists –to have both clinical practice and research skills. But often times the way these programs are constructed in prestigious universities, like the University of Toronto, the predominant focus is on the production of research. However, if in clinical psychology programs, you honour student excellence in clinical practice -the creative and intellectual work they’re doing in their professional training – you experience the blossoming of your students, the blossoming of the program, and the blossoming in the field.

So when I think about research, I also think about the application of research to practice, such as in our professional programs. Research and its application can lead to many fulfilling careers and there are many ways to make meaningful contributions.

What’s your vision for your tenure as Vice-Dean, Research and Program Innovation?

When I think about research, I think about inclusive science. That means we value the different kinds of inquiry that are conducted at U of T, whether they be community-based , qualitative, quantitative, wet lab, dry lab, or creative scholarship. I want to highlight the inclusive scholarship that occurs at the University of Toronto and amplify the work of our world class graduate students. We are very fortunate at U of T to attract some of the best graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. I think we can learn as much from our trainees, as they can from us!

As for program innovation – we can think about  the curriculum or about the program structures themselves. I think program innovation can help answer some of the fundamental questions our disciplines are facing now: How can our programs be more inclusive? How can our programs be accessible to different kinds of students, because that’s what our field needs? And how can we, at U of T, continue to attract an excellent and diverse student body?  I think about program innovation holistically – as aligning structures and systems to meet the greater goals of our university, our communities, and our students.

For example, if you modernize your program structure, provide proper finances to your students, and promote inclusive science, you could be building inclusive pathways to your programs. You could attract different kinds of students and faculty, which is something we really need to do in order for creativity and innovation to thrive. If you make your curriculum open to different kinds of knowledges, and diverse students can see themselves in your program, you could harness program innovation as a way of increasing representation. And, thus, program innovation could truly be one way – though perhaps not a visible one – of attracting and retaining students.

You can also use program innovation- again, if you streamline your program- to foster student success. When you’re at a top-ranked institution, we want to offer a high quality education, but sometimes instead of being rigorous and pushing intellectual boundaries, we instead become onerous in our requirements. So we want to be rigorous and push students-with the appropriate support-to excellence, but we don’t want to become onerous and put unnecessary burdens on our students that affect their mental health and their happiness. And we have to make sure that they have the right support. If you ask people to do new and difficult things, they’re often able to accomplish them – but only if you support them. But if you ask people to do difficult things and just pile things on, that doesn’t lead to good outcomes.

What are some of the initiatives you have planned to help realize this vision?

One of the things is we’re going to start is a community of practice for graduate chairs, graduate coordinators, graduate directors, and associate graduate chairs. At SGS, we’re thinking about how we can improve graduate education by providing support at this level. The graduate chairs and coordinators are the disciplinary experts, the ones who are doing the day-to-day work, and the ones who are interacting frequently with our students. They’re very important in how our priorities in graduate education are actually manifested in our programs.

We’ve also just launched a Graduate Education Innovation Fund (GEIF), which is now open for applications from graduate faculty members. It’s a way of providing some pilot money (ten grants of $5000 a year) to enable faculty members to foster innovative educational practices. We also encourage faculty to pair with their graduate students on program renewal.

Another item in my portfolio is Healthy Labs and Research Spaces, focusing on how we can facilitate a stimulating and inclusive environment for students and supervisors to be not only productive in a broad sense, but also to feel a sense of belonging. We want them to feel valued, and to feel like they’re making a difference in their scientific community, while allowing for multiple career pathways.

Personally, being from the Scarborough campus, I’m really interested in equitable graduate student experiences on all three campuses, and in making sure that graduate students, regardless of which campus they are from, think SGS is a resource for them. That’s also one of the values of the School of Graduate Studies; however distance and variation in number of students at each campus, can create complexities.

Let’s do some fun, quirky questions. Are you a cat or dog person?
A dog person! Though I don’t have a pet. I would want to be good my pet, and I don’t have enough time right now.  

If you could only eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I think it would be Indian food, because I’m Indian! I could eat that every day, quite happily.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
Because I’m a clinical psychologist, people always joke that I’m analyzing them or that I can read people’s minds. So I think it would be kind of fun if I could actually read people’s minds! (Though that would probably be terrible).

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