University of Cincinnati Uses Education and Dialogue to Advance Inclusion

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Diversity Champions exemplify an unyielding commitment to diversity and inclusion throughout their campus communities, across academic programs, and at the highest administrative levels. INSIGHT Into Diversity selected institutions that rank in the top tier of past Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award recipients. 

At the University of Cincinnati (UC) in Ohio, the belief that an inclusive campus is one where everyone — students, faculty, and staff — is able and willing to participate is shared by all.

Bleuzette Marshall

“We are about bringing out the best in our students, faculty, and staff and making sure that members of our community have the open mind, the curiosity, and the willingness to understand and learn about different cultures so that we can help each other thrive,” says Bleuzette Marshall, PhD, vice president for equity and inclusion. “If people don’t feel like they can participate in any given activity or experience, or even in a classroom, then they withdraw and don’t become as engaged as possible, not really give their best or do their best work.”

Recognizing the crucial link between an inclusive environment and an individual’s level of engagement, UC works to address barriers to inclusion — an effort in which every member of the campus community has a role to play. The administration expects all new employees to have an interest in and a willingness to contribute to advancing equity and inclusion. In fact, a policy implemented in July 2016 requires that all job candidates submit a diversity and inclusion statement with their employment application, the purpose of which, UC officials say, is to establish diversity and inclusion as campus-wide priorities.

Job candidates to UC — including those applying for student-worker and hourly positions — are asked to respond to the following statement, which is designed to gauge an individual’s experience with and commitment to diversity and inclusion: “As an equal-opportunity employer with a diverse staff and student population, we are interested in how your qualifications prepare you to work with faculty, staff, and students from cultures and backgrounds different from your own.”

“We want people to understand our values and commitment coming in the door, and what better way to do that than through the application process,” says Marshall. “We want to know what types of experiences people have had working in a multicultural environment. From [their responses], we are able to garner where a person is and anticipate how he or she might contribute [to campus].” Although expertise in these areas is not a prerequisite for employment at UC, she says the new practice has already helped attract more faculty and staff who are eager to contribute and willing to learn.

Proctor Hall on UC’s campus

Inclusive Training and Education
UC offers faculty members many learning and professional development opportunities focused on techniques for leading multicultural learning environments. One such activity is its annual Equity and Inclusion Conference — now in its ninth year — which brings faculty, staff, and students together for a full day of workshops and speakers.

“The purpose of the conference is to highlight pedagogy and best practices that really create an inclusive environment,” Marshall says. “[We are] equipping faculty with the skills and knowledge to be able to make substantive changes in their areas.”

The 2017 Equity and Inclusion Conference, which took place March 29, centered on the theme “Moving Toward Solutions.” It featured sessions on LGBTQ advocacy and ally training, leadership development for underrepresented students, accessibility of online education, and cross-cultural learning and teaching, among other topics.

Recipients of UC’s Diversity and Inclusion Incentive Grant — designed to fund research around building a more vibrant, equitable, and inclusive community — are required to present their findings at the conference. Past grant projects have focused on how to enhance the recruitment and retention of underrepresented individuals, issues faced by foster-care students entering higher education, developing nonviolence training using methodology developed by Martin Luther King Jr., and more.

Grants range from $1,000 to $10,000, depending on the proposal, and project leaders or their college or unit are required to match the award. In 2016, UC funded 16 projects across the university.

Beyond the Equity and Inclusion Conference, UC provides other professional development avenues for faculty. Through the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (CETL), lead by Director Bryan Smith, PhD, professors learn how to improve classroom environments and student outcomes. The center brings faculty members together for a common purpose: to learn how to build inclusive classrooms and develop culturally responsive instruction.

CETL workshops focus on everything from implicit biases and microaggressions to mindset and stereotype threat, as well as ways to mitigate and manage situations in the classroom. The one element all the sessions have in common is a concentration on creating inclusive spaces. “We try to integrate some aspect of inclusion into all of our programming, whether or not it is the explicit focus. For example, when working with faculty on assessment, we might include a discussion on blind grading to mitigate implicit bias, or we might talk about accessibility in the context of teaching online,” says Smith. “We also have programming where inclusion is the explicit focus, such as an upcoming institute where we are working with faculty to think about how they might incorporate principles of Universal Design for Learning into their classrooms.”

According to Smith, ensuring that a classroom is inclusive requires consideration of a variety of factors, such as the syllabus, course content, comprehension, and sense of belonging. But perhaps more important, he says, is being able to lead difficult discussions among students, giving them the opportunity to engage across difference.

To help professors better manage such conversations, CETL has sponsored a training at UC over the last year. While Smith says topics and the methods for covering them vary depending on the specific course in which they occur, he does recommend certain practices that can be used across disciplinary contexts; some of these include setting up participation norms and ground rules, as well as examining course content with an eye for what perspectives are represented.

Furthermore, Smith and his five-person, full-time staff conduct individualized classroom assessments in which they observe interactions and offer recommendations. “Part of this role can be to point out who seems to be engaged or which voices are being heard and which ones are not,” Smith says. “In some cases, especially when there is conflict in the classroom, we also use a process for getting feedback from students about their perceptions and help faculty formulate a productive set of actions to try to respond to students’ needs.”

One of the overall goals of CETL’s efforts is to ensure that all students are achieving learning outcomes, and Smith and his staff are currently working on developing a more formal training for all faculty to ensure further progress in this area.

“Affective things actually do matter in the classroom.— it’s not just content delivery,” Smith says. “So a lot of [this work involves] things that I think before 10 years ago would have been pejoratively termed ‘soft skills.’”

RAPP participants engage in small-group discussions about race and social justice.

Respectful Communication
The Racial Awareness Program (RAPP) — previously called the Racial Awareness Pilot Program.— emphasizes the importance of similar “soft skills.” Founded in 1986 by former UC employee Linda Bates Parker in response to a racially insensitive party hosted by a UC fraternity, RAPP was originally designed to get black and white students to engage in dialogue about race. It has since expanded to include additional topics and several iterations.

The nine-month intensive program, referred to as RAPP, gives up to 35 students per year the opportunity “to challenge, debate, and educate each other on issues of social justice,” according to the program’s website. Beyond race, participants discuss issues related to gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and “everything in between,” says RAPP Program Coordinator Brice Mickey.

“[Students are] communicating across difference, learning that they can make change, and understanding that oppression is systemic, pervasive, embedded, and interlocking,” he says. “[We try to get at] the fact that oppression is more than just saying a racial slur or getting fewer call backs because your name looks different on your résumé. We really get into systems of oppression and why they exist.”

RAPP participants

Throughout the curriculum, which centers on leadership outcomes, students meet 14 times for three hours, as well as participate in three overnight retreats.

RAPP’s Accelerating Racial Justice (ARJ) intensive, a five-day, off-site summer program, accepts up to 30 students each year and concentrates solely on race. Participants “build their awareness, knowledge, and skills related to racial justice and inclusive leadership,” according to the program’s website.

The first day of ARJ, Mickey says, is typically spent discussing racism and how it affects people. He explains that white students often don’t fully understand the extent of the impact race and racism have on their peers of color. “That is what I think is so powerful about our intensives — sitting students down with [others] who don’t look like them and hearing their stories,” he says. “It’s really hard to tell someone you don’t believe in racism when you have a person of color sitting right in front of you telling you how it has affected their entire life.”

Using a product called StarPower, students in both intensives engage in simulations — many participants call it a game, says Mickey — focused on the use and abuse of power, leadership, and diversity. Moving through the experiential learning cycle, they discuss what happened, how it affects them, and what they plan to change in their own life based on what they took away from the experience. Mickey says the activity provides an important demonstration of how people can process situations in completely different ways.

“We all [do] the same exercise, and yet we all [have] completely different takeaways from that same experience,” he says. “I think that’s so important for everyone in everyday life. You might go to the same rally, you might take the same class, but you get completely different outcomes from each person depending on who they are.”

Although both intensives are open to all students with at least a 2.0 GPA on a first-come, first-serve basis, Mickey says the cohorts are typically very diverse and include individuals of all races, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, and religions. Additionally, RAPP has an alumni program called RAPPORT, which allows students to continue conversations about identity and social justice once they’ve completed the program, and workshops and trainings that are open to all members of the campus community. Mickey says thousands of people have participated in RAPP’s initiatives since it began 31 years ago.

While he hopes that participants leave the program with a slew of new friends and a passion and ability to enact change in the world, perhaps the most important objective of RAPP is to prepare students to interact and communicate with people of different identities.

“These are skills that are transferrable, that you need regardless of the profession you are in,” says Mickey. “You are going to work with people who are different from you, who have different political ideologies, sexual orientations, races, and gender identities and expressions, and you need to be able to talk to them. You should be able to do it respectfully, and you should be used to having your ideas challenged and challenging the ideas of others.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. The University of Cincinnati is a 2012-2016 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.