Six to receive Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service Awards


Six faculty members will receive 2023 Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service Awards for their exceptional contributions to the development of a culturally and ethnically diverse University of Michigan community. 

The Office of the Provost has bestowed the annual award since 1996 in honor of Harold Johnson, dean emeritus of the School of Social Work. 

The recipients are:

  • Melissa May Borja, LSA.
  • Todd Vincent Ester, School of Dentistry. 
  • John Montgomery, LSA. 
  • Darlene P. Nichols, U-M Library. 
  • Isis H. Settles, LSA. 
  • Matthew C. Wixson, Medical School.

Each honoree will be recognized at a ceremony Sept. 26 and receive a $5,000 stipend. 

The following recipient profiles were compiled from information contained in award nomination letters.

Melissa May Borja

Melissa May Borja
Melissa May Borja

Borja, assistant professor of American culture, works to ensure that all university stakeholders — especially those who have been traditionally overlooked, such as people of color and student parents — have the intellectual and material resources they need to thrive. 

Borja joined U-M in 2017. Her innovative scholarship examines how Asian American religious beliefs and practices have developed in the context of pluralism, migration and the modern American state.

Colleagues say Borja has had a significant impact on the Department of American Culture and in the Asian/Pacific Islander American studies program. As a researcher with the Stop AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Hate Reporting Center and leader of the Virulent Hate Project at U-M, she is at the forefront of scholarly confrontation with rising anti-Asian and anti-Asian American sentiment.

She and a team of researchers have been studying and documenting incidents of anti-Asian racism and Asian American activism since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. That work has shaped media narratives and informed public policy.

Borja has leveraged her expertise to transform public knowledge and discourse about religion, politics and other topics to be more reflective of the diversity of the United States. She was named one of USA Today’s 2022 Women of the Year for leading the charge to “inspire, promote and fight for equity (and) give others a place to seek help and find hope.” 

Other accolades include being named a Young Scholar in American Religion by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture and receiving a faculty fellowship from the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University.

At U-M, she was awarded a 2021 research seed grant to advance anti-racism from the National Center for Institutional Diversity, as well as a pilot grant from the Donia Human Rights Center for a project on Asian Americans, religious freedom and the state. 

Borja authored the 2023 book, “Follow the New Way: American Refugee Resettlement Policy and Hmong Religious Change.” 

Todd Vincent Ester

Todd Vincent Ester
Todd Vincent Ester

Ester is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Cariology, Restorative Sciences and Endodontics and assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at the School of Dentistry. He previously served as director for the school’s Office of Multicultural Affairs.

Described by colleagues as a passionate mentor, effective educator and exceptional leader, Ester has been recognized at U-M and beyond for his commitment to DEI. He drives the inclusive culture at the School of Dentistry, working with the DEI Multicultural Affairs Committee to coordinate bias training and other activities that foster an environment in which students, faculty and staff feel safe and can thrive.

Ester led the Health Science Council’s DEI representatives and coordinated a Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day lecture and program that emphasized health equity. He has organized the school’s Profile for Success program for many years, providing introductory lectures and preparatory instructions for college students who are pursuing dental school education.

In addition, Ester is a talented recruiter of prospective students. As a result of his efforts, the dental school has seen an increase in diversity and improvement in classroom climate toward inclusion of underrepresented students. The Doctor of Dental Surgery program consistently has 10% of its classes represented by African American students.

Ester’s scholarly work elevates awareness of critical issues such as Black or African American men in dental education and strategies for change, the status of climate studies in U.S. and Canadian dental schools and the impact of DEI on oral health.

Accolades include the John Corcoron Graduate Endodontics Award and the Ida Gray Award from the School of Dentistry; a Certificate of Excellence from the Optimist Club in Detroit; a Recognition for Board Service from the Delta Dental Fund; an American Dental Education Association Scholarship, Emerging Academic Leaders Program; a Top Dentist (endodontist) recognition from Hour magazine; a National Dental Association/Colgate Palmolive Faculty Award for Administration; and an ADEA Board of Directors Citation. 

John Montgomery

John Montgomery
John Montgomery

Montgomery, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, the Margaret and Herman Sokol Professor of Synthetic Chemistry and a professor of chemistry in LSA, , has worked to enhance the success of students from underrepresented backgrounds and increase diversity among faculty.

After noticing that students without strong chemistry backgrounds who were struggling in his yearlong introductory organic chemistry sequence often wouldn’t seek help until performing poorly on major exams, Montgomery developed a co-enrollment comprehensive studies program. The goal was to improve outcomes for students from underrepresented backgrounds and underresourced school systems.

The course — which included one-on-one meetings, personalized exam feedback and mentoring — was so successful that it was expanded and incorporated into the regular curriculum.

Montgomery is a strong advocate for DEI initiatives in the chemistry department. He served on the Diversity Committee and led the creation of a core values statement and code of conduct. In addition, he served for three years as the department’s lead for the NextProf workshop in an effort to increase diverse representation in faculty positions.

Montgomery is involved in outreach initiatives across southeast Michigan. In one example, he developed a program in which students from his comprehensive studies course engage with students from their former high schools about college readiness, the application process and navigating financial aid. The program helps the younger students, especially those from underresourced high schools, realize that it is possible to attend a place like U-M.

Montgomery’s service to U-M includes serving on the Provost’s Initiative Planning Group on Student Academic Success, which is developing recommendations on coordinated activities to promote the academic success of first-year undergraduates. He has also served as chair of the Athletic Department Academic Performance Committee and as a member of the Advisory Board on Intercollegiate Athletics.

Darlene P. Nichols

Darlene P. Nichols
Darlene P. Nichols

Nichols, social work librarian at University Library and an adjunct lecturer in the School of Social Work, has contributed to DEI efforts for more than 30 years. Colleagues say her leadership, commitment and hard work has helped make the U-M Library a national leader in DEI.

Nichols has expertise in both the social sciences broadly and social sciences through a DEI lens. She works with highly diverse library user communities, beginning with the Peer Information Counseling program she started in the mid-1980s at the Shapiro Undergraduate Library. The program, which is still going strong, employs students from diverse backgrounds to work at library information desks and do campus outreach.

Nichols’ leadership for many years of the Library Diversity Committee led to efforts to measure, document and improve the library’s organizational climate and its collaborations with other units. She served for four years as librarian for diversity and inclusion, is a mentor to students in the Blavin Scholars program and helps organize U-M’s annual MLK Day Symposium.

Nichols’ commitment to DEI extends beyond the university. She is a founding member and facilitator of Washtenaw R.A.C.E., a community-based interracial dialog group that builds awareness of how race and racism impacts everyone in a community.

In addition, Nichols has an impactful record of publication and presentation on diversity-related topics. Highlights include her foundational article, “Peer Information Counseling: An Academic Library Program for Minority Students” and the monograph “Reaching a Multicultural Student Community: A Handbook for Academic Librarians,”two early publications that were groundbreaking in addressing how libraries should ensure their collections and services include marginalized students and faculty. She also co-edited the book, “Multiracial America: A Resource Guide on the History and Literature of Interracial Issues.”

More recently, Nichols has been working with researchers and other research librarians in the allied health professions to conduct systematic literature reviews on topics related to health disparities, inclusivity of library services and other topics. 

Isis H. Settles

Isis H. Settles
Isis H. Settles

Settles, professor of psychology, of Afro-American and African studies and of women’s and gender studies in LSA, works to increase the success of marginalized researchers and raise the profile of gender and ethnic minority issues within the field.

Settles is a psychologist who specializes in women’s experiences of race, gender and injustice. Her research focuses on important social issues affecting the fields of psychological science. She uses an innovative interdisciplinary, intersectional framework to examine processes and outcomes associated with devalued social group membership, especially among Black women.

Settles is the associate dean for DEI in LSA. She recently served as the associate director of the U-M ADVANCE program, which focuses on four areas related to the success of a diverse faculty: recruitment, retention, climate and leadership development. In that role, she implemented programming to help increase the retention and satisfaction of students and faculty across campus.

In her teaching, Settles seeks to raise students’ awareness of the social and cultural factors that influence the psychological and health outcomes of women and ethnic minority populations. In 2012, she co-organized the first Institute for Academic Feminist Psychologists, a highly successful conference for early-career feminist psychologists that features networking opportunities and programming around crafting strong careers.

In addition, Settles created and leads the Multiple Identity Intersections group, an intellectual community that gives senior undergraduate students, post-baccalaureate students and graduate students the opportunity to discuss research and issues of identity, gender, race and intersectionality. The lab also engages in professional development activities. 

Matthew C. Wixson

Matthew C. Wixson
Matthew C. Wixson

Wixson, assistant professor of anesthesiology in the Medical School, has developed rich DEI programming that includes individual outreach, a new method of residency recruitment that minimizes bias and a more equitable process for faculty appointments.

Wixson’s colleagues say he has had a transformative impact on the Department of Anesthesiology and on the field itself since being appointed the department’s inaugural associate chair for diversity, equity and inclusion in January 2020. His efforts have led to a dramatic increase in the number of women and underrepresented individuals that match in anesthesiology at the Medical School.

Wixson deftly guided the department through the difficult and emotionally challenging aftermath of the George Floyd homicide, bringing people together to share perspectives and learn how to advance DEI through town halls and educational events.

Wixson promotes diversity in all forms, as reflected in the recent anesthesiology resident match process. The incoming class of residents includes an unprecedented number of people who are Black or African Americans, Latinx, LGBTQ, Middle Eastern/North African and Asian, as well as those who have disabilities.

His work extends far beyond the university. Wixson leads an ambitious national initiative called RADAR — Raising Anesthesiology Diversity and Anti-Racism.

The program engages underrepresented and marginalized individuals in the field of anesthesiology at the collegiate level and serves as a platform to educate senior leaders across the country about how best to address structural racism and advance DEI in their departments and institutions. RADAR programming has appeared at all major annual meetings in the field of anesthesiology.


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