Advancing Equity Through Rigorous Research and Analysis

Q&A with Michael D. Rich

Michael D. Rich

Michael D. Rich reflects on year one of the RAND Center to Advance Racial Equity Policy and the next steps for equity research at RAND.

It has been a year since RAND established the Center to Advance Racial Equity Policy. What has RAND done to advance the mission of the center?

First and foremost, we recruited Dr. Rhianna Rogers to help lead our efforts as the center’s inaugural director. It was critical that we invest in a leader with a strong track record in analyzing racial equity in systems and translating analysis into action, someone with a demonstrated commitment to engaging diverse stakeholder groups and conducting outreach in areas such as community-building and dissemination of research and analysis findings. Rhianna is that and more. She’s off to a fast start and I’m excited to support and enable her vision.

Second, I pivoted our annual investment in researcher-initiated analyses of underappreciated or underresourced policy areas to focus exclusively on matters of racial equity. With this strategic injection of funding, RAND now has several dozen projects underway tackling equity head-on, from policies around mass incarceration to anti-Asian violence to the toxic legacy of neighborhood redlining. It’s inspired important new angles of inquiry and also new teams of researchers to come together.

The July/August issue of RAND Review magazine just did a great series on several of these, and I’ll also soon be posting to the RAND Blog some conversations I have had with researchers involved in these efforts about what they are aiming to accomplish and why their analysis is needed right now. I recently committed a second year of concentrated funding in this area. The result should be a robust pipeline of highly relevant, innovative analyses for the center to leverage with policymakers and communities.

Third, at an institutional level, I’ve committed us to asking hard questions about equity in our own systems and practices and then taking action to advance and grow.

What do you see as RAND’s opportunities in racial equity policy research and analysis?

The center is about converting momentum into sustained effort, about surfacing equity as a principal consideration to be contended with in all policy discussions just as we consider things like cost and effectiveness. The center can also reimagine what’s possible, harnessing decades of RAND analyses and methodological prowess, to identify systems-level change. The center goes beyond asking “why?” and compels us to follow through on “why not?” and working towards what could be.

I also believe RAND’s credibility in navigating sensitive topics in a nonpartisan way could open up a new front in how society grapples with these issues. That’s why a core component of the center is engagement and dialogue. Finding ways to bridge divides, align around shared goals, and integrate the experiences and perspective of affected populations who have been historically marginalized is key.

I’m intrigued by Dr. Rogers’ vision of building a common racial equity framework that is grounded in diverse perspectives and nonpartisan viewpoint and embedding that in a program to help develop equity-minded policy leaders for the future.

For you personally, why did you want to establish this center? Why do you want RAND to focus on racial equity issues?

The evidence is clear regarding persistent racial disparities in the settings that define our daily lives—the neighborhood, the hospital, the classroom, the U.S. criminal justice system. Unfortunately, that’s just a partial list. Our mission at RAND compels us not just to address consequential and persistent problems like these, but to devise new approaches to overcoming them and to see them through to effective implementation.

RAND has undertaken research on the challenges presented by racial inequity across sectors for decades: including how principals and teachers can better support students of color; how California can improve mental health outcomes for Latino and Black residents; how the military and public safety agencies can diversify their ranks; and how to estimate the differential economic impact of the pandemic on communities of color.

But we’ve lacked a focal point to bring together our best minds to focus on these issues and to collaborate with other organizations dedicated to advancing racial equity. By establishing the center, I felt we had an opportunity to embark on a new phase of RAND racial-equity research that pushes beyond documenting disparities to harnessing the power of rigorous research and analysis to design policies and systems that advance equity. An impact-oriented center—embedded in a nonpartisan institution with broad research capabilities and a formal graduate school—has an unmatched opportunity to enrich and extend policy discussions, improve implementation of new approaches, and develop a new generation of policy leaders.

What will continued progress mean for the center and RAND’s work in racial equity policy?

I’ve always defined success at RAND as our research and analysis actually being used by decisionmakers to improve policy and practice that generates better outcomes for individuals, families, and communities. And that’s the ultimate goal of the center, to have that kind of impact. Continued progress to me means we keep our foot on the pedal and don’t let up so that we leverage the momentum of the last 18 months to make headway where decades of policy work before has faltered. A tall order. And not something we intend to do alone. But we have to take some bold swings in the direction of change and our investments in the center and the new projects are the beginning.

Michael D. Rich was president and CEO of RAND from 2011 to 2022.

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