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Every Learner Everywhere

The Role of Equity-Minded Leadership in Campus DEI Initiatives

Though many colleges and universities have DEI initiatives in place, they risk having little impact if they make one of a number of common mistakes, says Chandani Patel, Director for Global Diversity Education at New York University — primarily amongst them asking people who are already marginalized and do not hold institutional authority to take on the extra work of implementing a DEI program.

Patel says success depends on leadership — and not just the endorsement or participation of campus leaders, but leadership that is itself more equity centered.

Why do some DEI plans flounder?

During 2021, Patel has been part of Every Learner Everywhere’s Expert Network, coaching clients on equity-centered education. She sees instructors putting meaningful practices for equity and inclusion in place in their courses. But at a campus level, despite thoughtful, well-developed approaches, she sees some DEI plans floundering.

First, racially minoritized faculty and staff are expected to coordinate and implement DEI plans, but the work is often not aligned with their roles and responsibilities. Patel says, “They’re asked to take it on simply because of their perceived identity.” That leads to burnout, turnover, and a loss of momentum for the DEI plan.

Second, the faculty and staff made responsible for a DEI plan often have not been provided the training they need to execute a strategy. Their lack of experience and opportunities for development create a lack of confidence.

Third, the people asked to take on DEI strategic plans are often not in positions of power and don’t have the resources to push initiatives forward.

“It’s important to recognize that fostering DEI is everyone’s work,” says Patel. “We all need to be conversant in DEI and taking action. People are starting to recognize that DEI work stems from a robust area of scholarship that requires a strong skillset. We need resources and opportunities for development in place first before we ask people to do that work.”

Related reading: How This Diversity Education Director Helps Colleagues Think Strategically About Digital Learning 

Traits of an equity-minded leader

Patel identifies two traits that equity-minded leaders frequently express: compassion and collaboration. 

“When we’re thinking about inequities, we’re thinking about systemic racism,” Patel says. “There’s often a lot of trauma, a lot of pain, and a lot of hurt. Equity-minded leadership requires compassion about the different experiences that people have had, and different paths that they’re navigating, especially in marginalized communities.”

Collaborative leaders have curiosity about their colleagues, their workplace, and its culture. Instead of having answers, they ask questions. That enables them to work effectively with faculty, staff, and other colleagues to identify, confront, and eliminate inequitable structures in a college or university.

“The leaders I know who are equity minded really value bringing in different perspectives because they know that each person has limited ways of thinking about different challenges,” says Patel.

Equity-minded leadership in action

An early step for leaders working on DEI issues is to assess the institution’s current state. “We need to understand in our policies and our practices where we are already doing well and where we’re falling short,” says Patel. “This will help get a clear sense of how to move forward.”

She advises leaders to research what other organizations have already done to successfully implement a DEI plan. Will you need support from other people at your organization? Do you have more to learn about DEI or need to practice a particular skill?

Some other conditions for success include:

  • Buy-in — Equity-minded leaders cultivate engagement in DEI plans throughout the organization. 
  • Time — Strategies can’t be developed and implemented too quickly or through a reactive lens. 
  • Transparency — Engagement and support in equity efforts come from transparency with community members about the steps that need to be taken and why. Invite members of the community into the collaborative process for a bigger impact across the board. 

The responsibilities of an academic dean or provost for DEI programs

“This is part of a leader’s job,” says Patel. “The retention of students of color and faculty of color has everything to do with an institution’s culture. A provost needs to look at his or her institution and ask, ‘What is it about our culture that is not inclusive of our students and faculty of color?’” 

To lead with an equity orientation and make an impact on how inclusive a campus is, Patel advises academic leaders to:

  • Follow up with minoritized students and faculty who leave campus. Then talk to students and faculty of color who are still in the institution. Ask them about their experiences. Find out what you, as an administrator, can do to support them. Ask them what they need to feel like they belong and are part of the community, including what additional resources they need.
  • Invite students to be part of DEI strategic planning committees. Patel says institutions often forget to include the valuable viewpoint students offer as part of their visioning. 
  • And lastly, allocate the appropriate resources. Patel says, “Faculty of color need money to support the extra service work they’re doing. They need a sense of community, and that sense of community can only be fostered if there’s more of them on campus.” 

Patel says one model for increasing diversity in the faculty is cluster hiring — the hiring of multiple scholars into one or more departments based on shared, interdisciplinary research interests — which often helps build community for faculty of color.

Related reading — Student Leaders Speak 2021: Student Voices Informing Educational Strategies 

Leading conversations about equity

Patel mentions two books in particular as conversation starters about equity for campus leaders. The first is From Equity Talk to Equity Walk by Tia Brown McNair, Estela Mara Bensimon, and Lindsey Malcolm-Piqueux, which includes research-based models for campus change strategies.

The second is Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo, which details the consequences of a country telling generations of white men that they innately deserve power over others. 

It’s hard to shift an institution’s culture, Patel says, “But, even though it’s hard, we can’t leave certain students out and we can’t leave certain students behind if we are to do our jobs right. We have to make sure that all of our students who want to pursue higher education are welcomed to campus and can thrive.”

She adds that “our traditional idea of someone who has strong opinions and takes action is not the type of leader we need anymore for the direction that our institutions are going in. Equity-centered leaders know mistakes are part of the process, and when these leaders make mistakes, they acknowledge them sincerely so they can continue to lead and build trust with their community.”

Finally, leaders developing an equity mindset should know they aren’t alone. “These questions are shared across many institutions across the country and across the globe,” Patel says. “We are all contending with systemic racism. There is support out there, and we need to actively look for it, to build those relationships, and learn along with others about the strategies for becoming equity-minded leaders.”