This post is the second in a series highlighting fulfilling, innovative work from leaders across campus that you might not otherwise hear about. I welcome your ideas for individuals to write about in the future.

Cara Cilano has long held a deep commitment to advancing student success and providing equity in access to education. She joined the MSU faculty a year and a half ago as chair of the Department of English, moving from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington where she ran the General Education curriculum. Dr. Cilano is an expert in Pakistani literature. Her office is warm and inviting, and despite a desk covered in papers, portrays a sense of calm. The lighting is low, and the walls are lined with shelves holding books and artwork from her travels. A bicycle is also a prominent feature; she rides to work most days, even in the winter. She says she loves the snow.

Portrait of Cara Cilano

Portrait of Cara Cilano, chair of the Department of English. Photo credit: Jeff Janowski

Dr. Cilano arrived on campus during the relative quiet (and warmth) of the summer, in July of 2016, and began informal, individual conversations with the faculty in English. She says, “I was quickly struck by the extraordinary work faculty were doing for student success.” She admits to being a bit surprised to see the high level of investment in undergraduates at a research intensive university, and was pleased with the match to her values and interests. Dr. Cilano was at the same impressed with the exciting work being done in diverse areas of scholarship and creative activities.

She appreciated the opportunity to get to know people in the department individually in her early weeks on campus, and hosted a retreat for the department in August 2016. The approximately 40 faculty members and academic specialists in this unit represent diverse sub-disciplines and include writers and film makers, as well as scholars of literature, popular culture, and English secondary education. Dr. Cilano was excited about the challenge of bringing them together to develop a shared vision and some initial action items. What she did not anticipate during this first group meeting was assistant professors, many of whom are faculty of color, describing racism in the department. She was unaware of this history.

Eager to improve the climate, and with support from the College of Arts & Letters, Dr. Cilano enlisted an external advisor to facilitate a self-study and generate some recommendations. A safe environment was created for discussions. Results include some concrete measures, such as revising departmental bylaws, and a continuing focus on open, respectful conversation. Dr. Cilano is also building bridges among academics in subfields that have not worked closely together, in part by initiating short-term, “pop-up” projects. A current initiative involves a group of students and faculty merging film and creative writing.

Dr. Cilano has an infectious smile, and emits confidence when she shares her enthusiasm for helping her department to move forward in positive ways. The beginning was not quite what she expected, but she is pleased that members of her department are collectively tackling such an important issue, while continuing to advance what she describes as the “phenomenal” work of individuals.