A Year in Review for the Ronin Institute: 2021

Looking back on last year’s 2020 Year in Review, it’s amazing to see how far we’ve come. The Ronin Institute is really hitting its stride. We know more about who we are, what we want to be, and what “re-inventing academia” means to us: creating a place where all scholars who seek Truth with Empathy can thrive and flourish. 

This year, we’ve been tackling the challenges of Gender equity and Just culture at the Ronin Institute. We’ve also been deepening our commitment to being a community-based, mostly volunteer-operating academic institute. Our Working Groups are key for providing ways for the community to be involved in the governance and operations of the institute–and we have our dedicated Advisory Board to thank for their leadership! To support our institutional goal of enabling collaboration and connection between our members, our topical Interest Groups have been growing in number and depth. Finally, our financial health and ability to manage research grants at the Ronin Institute has been steadily improving–thanks to our committed Board of Directors. Overall, we’re more focused on deepening our intentions as an Institute and community, rather than aiming for exponential growth. 

Gender equity

We’re well aware that women, and especially women of color, are one of the largest underrepresented groups in professional academia–despite more women graduating with advanced degrees over men. So, we expected to have more women coming to the Ronin Institute, while also being active voices in our community. Realizing in 2021 that we have been trending in the opposite direction was confounding to us (see the graph below titled “New members”). Worse, when we looked a little more closely, we found that the women participating were mostly serving male-dominated activities (women in the kitchen, men at the dinner table..). What were we doing wrong? It was traditional academia all over again!  

Here are some things that the Ronin Institute has been doing to try to turn the tide: 

  • Taking a community-first approach to our membership. We now ask prospective members to attend a community event first, and consider if they feel that the community is a good fit for them before applying to the Ronin Institute. Why? We noticed that women were more likely to take the community aspects of the Ronin Institute more seriously.  
  • Encouraging community-based organization of self-nominated presentations. Why? We noticed that women were less likely to self-nominate themselves for activities that promote their work. 
  • Collecting “diversity” data from our members, and monitoring changes over time. Why? Knowing the composition of our community and the roles they take within the Institute is important for understanding how well or poorly we are serving scholars–both within and beyond the Ronin Institute. 
  • Encouraging the creation of identity-based Interest Groups, which are open to anyone who identifies as or is an ally to these groups. We now have these Interest Groups on Slack: #ig-Ronin-women, #ig-Ronin-of-color, #ig-english-as-a-second-language. 

Just culture

At the Ronin Institute, we’re pretty serious about tackling the toxic environments that drive people away from academic work. We know that there are many “acceptable” behaviors in academia that are exploitative, unjust, and abusive. Our goal is for the Ronin Institute to be a “safer” place for all of us to thrive. To that end, we’ve implemented no-nonsense processes for addressing toxic work behavior and incidents that violate our Code of Conduct and our fundamental values of Truth & Empathy. 

We define harassment In our Code of Conduct as “unwelcome conduct that deprives another individual of the opportunities and peaceful enjoyment they may take from participating in the community or an activity.” Therefore: 1) If a member is being harassed or knows of harassment occurring, we have an expedited process that aims to halt the behavior immediately; and 2) If the issue is not urgent, we pull together a team from our Advisory Board to ask questions like: How harmful is this issue to the people involved and the broader community? Was the harm intentional? Is there a history of questionable practices? 

We aim for restorative justice as the outcome of our Just Culture processes (i.e, if the person is willing to own their mistakes and make amends), but we also accept that some people might not be a good fit for our community, and parting ways with the Institute is OK too. 

Working Groups

We’ve been working hard to decentralize the Ronin Institute as it finds its feet as a community-based institute (see our principles: Everyone drives a truck & Pay it forward). Today, the Ronin Institute is less representative of our Founder (Jon Wilkins), and a lot more representative of our community of scholars. A major element of this governance structure is our Working Groups, which are led by our Advisory Board. The decisions they make and the projects they spearhead are really what our Institute is all about. Here are some of our Working Group successes over 2021: 

Governance Working Group (WG)

  • Exploring solutions to improve gender equity at the Ronin Institute
  • Developing a Just Culture process 
  • Streamlining administrative workflows to improve the Institute’s responsiveness to the community

Communication WG

  • 52 weekly Updates were sent to our Scholars in 2021. (I didn’t miss a beat 😉 – Arika)
  • 4 Kitsune newsletters were sent to our broader mailing list, which grew by about 150 new members over 2021 (with about 850 members so far) –Thank you to our outgoing volunteer co-editor Yasmina Jraissati and incoming new volunteer newsletter co-editors! 
  • 34 blog posts were published on the Ronin Institute Blog by 22 different Scholars– Thanks to our seamless team of volunteer blog co-editors Heather Maughan, Alex Lancaster, and Keith Tse
  • Streamlined social media process–thanks to our volunteer social media team including Keith Tse, Alex Lancaster, and Jelena Komlos
  • Slack is the center of our communication, and our activity there has increased to a height of 80 active members per week (see image below). 

“The Communication working group is excited to have Keith Tse on board as co-leader, our key communicator both inside and outside of Ronin. We also are happy to expand our group of Kitsune editorial contributors, welcoming Varsha Dani and Ainara Mancebo!”

Emily Monosson & Keith Tse, co-leads of the Communication WG

A line graph showing our Slack activity (weekly active members and members who posted) from 2016 to 2021, as well as notes about some key events that might have affected our activity. 

Events WG

“We’ve developed so many different kinds of events at the Ronin Institute, ranging from seminars, speed networking, lightning talks, and unconferences. I feel like we’re finally coming into our own as to what events work best for us, and how to make space for community members to develop events as part of the fabric of the Institute.” 

Arika Virapongse, lead of the Events WG

A screenshot of our new Ronin Institute website homepage.   

Infrastructure WG

  • Re-vamped the Ronin Institute website (new design, brand colors, and messaging!).
  • Implemented a new achievements library for Ronin Research Scholars (Our Work).
  • Transitioned the website to a new server.
  • Streamlined our volunteer workflow for keeping the website up-to-date (e.g., adding and updating scholar profiles).

“The Infrastructure WG thanks Vesta Korniakova for all her contributions as co-lead of the WG over the last 2 years, and welcomes Rami Saydjari as a new co-lead.  Although the migration was a little bumpy, we are happy to have transitioned to a new server (thanks Jon Wilkins!) with a snappier and more secure website, including a new Zotero publication database.  We always welcome new folks to the WG to help keep our lights on!”

Alex Lancaster & Rami Saydjari, co-leads of the Infrastructure WG

Membership WG

A map of where our Research Scholars are located around the world. 
  • Decentralized the on-boarding process, so volunteers from the Membership WG and Infrastructure WG could get involved in the process.
  • Fine-tuned our approach for collecting diversity data about our membership.
  • Implemented a community-first approach to membership, including prioritizing this approach with the new member application process. (The line graph below shows that this new approach may have slowed down the exponential growth of our membership–in a good way!) 
  • Hosted 6 orientations.
  • Increased our membership with 80 new members; total of 441 Research Scholars in 57 different countries (see map).

“Membership WG welcomed Sheilamae Ablay as co-lead and is especially proud of our work refining all membership materials and processes to emphasize community and equitable engagement and participation.”

John Paulas & Sheilamae Ablay, co-leads of the Membership WG

This line graph shows the annual growth of new members at the Ronin Institute, including differentiating by gender. 

Research WG

  • Developed the start of an approach for linking more experienced proposal writers with scholars seeking to build their capacity (i.e., through Slack aliases and channels).
  • Began the process of developing a broader Research Ethics Guidelines for the Ronin Institute. 
  • Completed the process for being able to officially do ethics reviews of human subjects research projects for exemption from IRB review.

“It’s nice to see the vision of an IRB become a reality for future work.”

Michelle Susberry Hill, lead of the Research WG 

Interest Groups

Our 30 Interest Groups play an important role in helping support multi-disciplinary collaboration among our scholars. Topics range broadly, including health, open science, book admirers, and basic income. This year, we implemented an Interest Group Life Cycle, which helps guide a process for Interest Groups to level up to an Interest Group Plus in order to further their commitment, reach goals, and engage in outreach. We’re especially proud of our Center for Advancing Mathematics and Physics (CAMP) IG+ that kicked off in Feb 2021, and has met 1-2 times each week since it got started. 

Financial management

Our Board of Directors has been working hard to keep the financial component of the Ronin Institute going strong. In 2021, the Ronin Institute managed nine awards from sources like the US National Science Foundation, US National Institute of Health, private foundations, and individual donors. As a result, the Ronin Institute had eleven different people on our payroll–people being paid to do their research work. Additionally, we were able to award 10 Scholars with “travel” (very loosely defined) grants this year.  

We’ve got high hopes for 2022! 

We couldn’t be prouder of the work that we are doing at the Ronin Institute. It really feels like we’re doing something different, and changing the course of our future for academia. 

Here’s our wishlist for 2022: prototyping a Ronin College, implementing a membership management platform, hosting more Interest Group Pluses, kicking off an invited speaker series, organizing a mentorship program for Scholars, developing an institutional evaluation approach, finalizing a new membership web page with diversity indicators, articulating our first strategic plan, and many other unforeseen ventures and dreams.  

We’re looking forward to an even more successful and exciting year! 

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