Breaking the Cycle to Heal: How Campus Leadership Can Center Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Photo of a group of young Black people holding their hands together in the air.

For the past several monthswe have faced a racial pandemic in the U.S. that has gained international attention. The pandemic of social injustice and policing in the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain, and several other African Americans led to Black Lives Matter becoming the global clarion call for reform. At the same time, the world is also battling COVID-19, which has further exposed our systemic vulnerabilities in health, economics, and education, all of which disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). 

As diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) professionals unpack what this means for our campuses and for our students and colleagues, we recognize that this is just the latest iteration of ongoing social justice struggles. BIPOC have been navigating racial pandemics in various guises for centuries. They have done everything possible to resist their subjugation through marches, sit-ins, petitions, and sharing their lived experiences with systemic racism through every available avenue. When continued frustrations mount from being unseen and unheard, the reaction often escalates to outright revolt.

Meanwhile, college and university leadership provide statements condemning acts of racism, hatred, and bias, thus reaffirming institutional values.  They declare support for diversity, followed by detailed action plans for their campus communities.

Although well-meaning, many of these strategies contribute to an ongoing cycle of exposing the limitations of many institutional DEI efforts as short-term, superficial changes or misguided approaches to achieve compliance rather than institutional transformation.

Here, we offer six commonly observed miscues and provide suggestions for improving DEI practice in higher education.

Simplifying DEI Work Around the “3 Fs”

We must be intentional in not appropriating lived BIPOC experiences into the monthly “Three Fs” of food, festivals, and famous people. There is much to be gained by reimagining full BIPOC experiences and narratives before and since the founding of the U.S. When we default to such surface-level “3 F” understandings, we are guilty of promoting a repeated White supremacist pedagogy of diluting the importance of BIPOC cultures into service and entertainment.

Instead, shift the focus to the “Three Es” of education, engagement, and empowerment. Use education to infuse diversity curriculum with authentic BIPOC voices who honor and tell our stories about culture, identity, mores, motivations, perspectives, philosophies, and theories. Be intentional in using cross-cultural engagement to facilitate co-constructed learning opportunities among groups — not as an elective, but as a mainstream course design and program expectation for student leadership, staff, and faculty professional development. Next, provide the tools needed to empower individuals to engage in DEI work alongside others, for inclusive excellence reminds us that community well-being is everyone’s responsibility and is not just on the shoulders of the chief diversity officer (CDO).

Re-centering Whiteness

We have all struggled with consistently calling out Whiteness and its fragility during our careers. Much of it is due to our constant self-interrogation and mental simulations of strategically delivering the message without shutting down a potential White ally, accomplice, or disrupter. Like our colleagues, we find ourselves balancing the weight of engaging and losing the White audience we need at the table by adjusting our speech, tone, and explanations in response to the nonverbal feedback and emotional sighs and moans of our White colleagues.

Dear White colleagues, we understand the cognitive dissonance of not wanting to be connected to the images of racist figures, language, or histories. This is not a personalized attack on your character. It is just a difficult truth of oppression in this country.

That said, dear all colleagues, we have come to realize that “now” is always the time to hold ourselves and the entire community accountable for getting comfortable with calling “a thing” a thing. White supremacy and White privilege are not myths. Racism is salient in every institutional structure in this country — higher education is no exception. When we fail to stand in these truths, we run the risk of derailing conversations by permitting feelings to take precedence over needed social change within communities. Furthermore, by re-centering this level of White fragility in these spaces, we become complicit in tone-policing or muting lived BIPOC experiences and histories while mitigating the reality and weight of systemic oppression.

This is also an issue with campus surveys. We caution campus leaders not to make the mistake of allowing Whiteness in data to shape DEI decision-making so that it limits programs, initiatives, gains, and allocation of resources. In worst-case scenarios, such reliances on poorly contextualized and summarized aggregated data has been used to justify overhauling entire DEI offices to reflect the overrepresentation of White survey respondents. Therefore, be intentional in highlighting and centering BIPOC data and counternarratives into mainstream consciousness and institutional action.

Continuing the Shame and Vulnerability of Difficult Conversations

We cannot discuss Whiteness and feelings without raising self-awareness and interrogating our own. We are lifelong learners. There are no mistakes, only teachable moments. Dr. Brené Brown posits that vulnerability is our uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Shame is the fear that keeps us from showing our vulnerability.

We get it. Leadership is scary, but we must not forget that leadership is also being human and relatable. As we are institutional leaders, the community trusts us to make tough decisions and be authentic. Unfortunately, shame can hinder transparency in response to racial incidents. Consequently, leaders either send “out-of-touch messages” or remain silent,  which suggests compliance. If we are to engage in inclusive excellence, we must create a culture of embracing vulnerability. It is OK to lean into and sit with the discomfort of sharing personal feelings of observed or lived experiences as well as the uncertainty of not knowing. Such sharing does not compromise one’s ability to lead. Instead, it empowers the opportunity for community input and collaboration. This is how we show up for each other and the communities that need us.

Expecting DEI Professionals To Be “Diversity Genies”

It is an open secret that some DEI offices across the country are routinely understaffed and under-resourced. They are tasked with campus expectations that often exceed the reach and capacity of their much larger student or academic affairs unit counterparts.

Despite these limitations, CDOs work within these parameters to meet and even exceed institutional goals, metrics, and benchmarks. However, this is not a sustainable approach for the DEI field. Without the proper resources and positional empowerment, CDOs either are set up to fail or experience a short-term tenure. If DEI is going to be a core value at your institution, it must be prioritized and centralized with the same intensity as other academic and administrative offices. DEI roles must be fully supported and sustained through resources with an intentional institutional focus and shift from checking boxes to creating and sustaining a culture in which inclusive excellence is an everyday practice, rather than a crisis management response.

Implementing Knee-jerk Reactions in Hopes for Sustained Outcomes

Deeply rooted systemic oppression can be hidden in curricula, policies, messaging, protocols, and traditions. It is designed to normalize itself and to remain invisible in order to continue its work of victimizing and exploiting vulnerable groups.

The societal manifestations of oppression that we see are often signs of deeper-rooted issues. A deeper dive into this context often reveals why a calculated and strategic approach to overcome this oppression (or “overcome systemic racism”) is needed. We must unpack ourselves and institutions by dissecting the layers of how we arrived at this historic moment. Until we get to the root nature of our social systems, we are merely responding to the surface symptoms and reactions.

Although helpful in the moment, poorly conceived strategies, piecemeal policy, the creation of a new DEI position (often with limited support), or a one-time monetary investment toward a DEI initiative do not provide the sustained support that is needed to uproot and disarm a system of oppression that has been perfected over centuries.

Embracing Virtue Signaling and Co-opting DEI Language as “Enough”

As the demographics and cultures of the U.S. continue to diversify, so does the DEI field and its trends. Subsequently, cultural vocabulary becomes mainstream. Knowing the language for dialogue is essential, but it is not all that is required.

We need advocates, allies, and accomplices willing to amplify silenced voices, echo messages, provide sponsored mobility, and contribute their time, resources, talent, bodies, and reputations to ensure institutional transformation.

We are beyond tolerance, showing interest, and signaling support. We need actual sweat equity and investment that is inclusive, co-constructional, and reflective of the prioritized needs dictated by the targeted community receiving the support. Solutions created in an echo chamber of privilege and delivered in a patriarchal and paternalistic manner are often proven to be short-sighted and culturally offensive. Community engagement solves community problems.

We hope that you will take these advisements into consideration. Current local, national, and global events continue to remind us of how pivotal this moment is for higher education. Let us not waste it through intellectual and culturally dishonest shortcuts.

Assume that we can successfully navigate these racialized pandemics. To do so, we must invest resources in a sustainable DEI infrastructure that embraces action, assessment, accountability, and improvement to make excellence inclusive. The disparities that have been created in our society will not be undone in a calendar year; however, we can break the cycle that leads to the marginalization of DEI efforts today.

Brandon Wolfe, PhD, is the assistant vice president for Campus and Community Engagement at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Paulette Patterson Dilworth, PhD, is the vice president for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at UAB. UAB is a 2016 and 2018-2020 INSIGHT Into Diversity Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award recipient and a 2018-2020 Diversity Champion.