AAC&U Conference Focuses On ‘What Unites Us’

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Students, educators, administrators, and DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) professionals from across the country descended on Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in March for the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U) Conference on Diversity, Equity, and Student Success (DESS).

Tia Brown McNair, AAC&U vice president for diversity, equity, and student success and executive director for the Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Campus Centers, welcomed attendees, both virtually and in person, in the opening day plenary, saying, “All of us … are here because we believe that DEI is not what divides us, but what unites us,” a theme that resonated throughout the threeday program.

Debra Humphreys, vice president for strategic engagement for the Lumina Foundation, led a session titled “Communicating About Equity and Inclusion Effectively in Challenging Times.” In this workshop, Humphreys presented research that identified the dominant anti-DEI narratives in the media to help practitioners understand the implications of this discourse and strategize practical ways to approach their communications and missions. Humphrey’s research team studied more than 33,000 anti-DEI articles to determine the main messages being promoted by the anti-DEI movement, in order to educate others on how to best combat this propaganda.

A key takeaway was that, contrary to popular opinion, “fact versus fiction” framing is not as effective as authors think. According to the research, simply restating the negative “fictions” and rebutting with truthful information unfortunately reinforces the false narrative that the audience already believes to be true, and the “fact” is lost on them before they even read it because they feel vindicated seeing their thoughts clearly in print.

In the session “A Critical Conversation: Campus Climate for Transgender and Nonbinary Students in Higher Education,” Jamie Beth Schindler, program manager for Ansrsource, and Jon Humiston, director of noncredit and alternative enrollment initiatives at Central Michigan University, presented research that shows a persistent climate of clear discomfort exists for gender-nonconforming students in higher education, even within spaces touted as safe, like counseling centers.

Schindler and Humiston guided participants through their findings and offered strategies for adopting language that supports more students, including avoiding making assumptions about someone’s gender identity and expression; using genderinclusive language when referring to AAC&U Conference Focuses On ‘What Unites Us’ groups of people; and not reinforcing gender stereotypes.

Roundtable breakfast discussions offered attendees an opportunity to engage with a variety of presentations by prominent researchers in the field.

At one roundtable, Mary Dulatre, PhD, presented her content analysis “The Leadership Communication of Women of Color in U.S. College Presidencies.” Her research exhibited commonalities in leadership style and support systems that impacted their ability to successfully navigate their work environment and overcome race and gender barriers.

Another discussion, “White Savior Industrial Complex and How to Combat It,” presented by Matthew Johnston, director of student diversity and belonging at the University of Lynchburg, addressed the colonialist idea that Western models of knowledge are necessary to uplift or “save” marginalized or non-Western communities, fostering a discussion about identifying and combating this ideology.

Each facet of the AAC&U DESS conference was constructed around building a community of belonging and enabling students to succeed, as echoed in its theme: “What Unites Us is our shared responsibility and commitment to develop systems, structures, and policies that are centered in equality and justice for all.”