Last month, I hosted the National Inclusive Excellence Webinar Summit, part of the Inclusive Excellence Tour, empowering and encouraging higher education leaders and colleges to use more evidence-based diversity, equity, and inclusion practices to achieve meaningful change.
In preparation for the summit, I spoke with 100 leaders in the field about the state of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Below is an overview of their most pressing challenges and the steps that I recommended campus leaders take to manage the complexity of today’s landscape.
What Are Higher Education Leaders Saying?
The Trump Lash Against Diversity
Seasoned administrators and scholars are concerned with the “diversity attacks” coming out of Washington, D.C. They said the president’s actions have created a “24/7 storm” targeting diverse groups like never before.
Leaders mentioned the president’s new policy missives directed at the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Title IX, and race-conscious admissions, stating that these represent a “category-five threat” to policy infrastructures meant to protect and advance diversity and inclusion on campuses nationwide.
Campus Climate Disruptions
Microaggressions and overtly hostile interactions between diverse groups are reported to be increasing; these include racial incidents in dorms, ideological conflicts, and professors of color being afraid to teach. Diverse student groups have been vocalizing their experiences of exclusion and pain via social media. And leaders spoke of the tragedy that took place outside of the University of Virginia’s campus in Charlottesville, fearing the wrong amalgam of emotions, ideologies, and hate on their own campuses.
Conservative student groups and faculty have been emboldened to invite some extreme speakers to champion alt-right viewpoints on campus, bringing together a combination of dynamics that some feel is a powder keg waiting to explode.
Balancing Crisis Response with Long-Term Strategies
Finally, leaders mentioned a need to balance long-range strategies with current diversity crises. One chief diversity officer noted how “the last four weeks … have been consumed preparing for Milo Yiannopoulos.” He went on, saying “It has been all hands on deck. If we allowed it to, it would totally derail everything we are trying to do from a big-picture diversity and inclusion perspective — but what can you do?”
So, What Can We Do?
We need to be proactive in diversity crisis readiness. Thus, all colleges should add diversity crisis preparedness to their crisis management plan. Just as every institution should have an active-shooter plan, they should have one to manage incidents related to diversity and inclusion. In the words of one leader, “When you’re dealing with emotions, conflicting ideologies, campus visitors, and as we saw in Virginia, the presence of weapons, that is something that is … more complex than even an active-shooter scenario.”
University leaders should identify a diversity crisis response team; a framework for the days leading up to the event, including a point person, security, demonstrators, and potential participants; and a strategy for social media on the day of the event and for communicating with the campus community.
Every college campus should develop a statement to guide institutional policy and decision-making. Bring together a diverse group of faculty, staff, and students to create an institutional manifesto. The presence of a well-crafted, strongly vetted statement establishes a shared covenant.
I recommend making this statement part of new faculty and new student orientations, as well as the theme for a distinguished lecture series and the focus of a senior leadership meeting across departments. In addition, host an executive retreat and town hall meetings to talk about the state of affairs and the statement, implement an online campaign using the statement, develop student ambassadors, use small grants to encourage activation of the statement, require all cabinet members and deans to develop their own statement as part of their annual performance review, and commission a student to create a spoken-word rendition of the piece and activate it on social media.
It’s critical to involve centennial generation students, making sure to champion their leadership. Centennial generation students — those born after 1997 — and young millennials have characteristics that institutions must engage. They spend as much as nine hours a day consuming digital media, and they want to be addressed authentically. Their peers matter most to them.
You should also identify diverse student influencers, involve them as leaders in your office, and hire them as social media interns; have real conversations with conservative and diverse voices, bringing them together regularly — perhaps in a new leadership initiative; and establish a digital communication strategy for students that skews toward their mobile-first, digital lives.
I recommend establishing campus climate and inclusion research projects. Too often, campus climate projects are viewed as an end, not as a means for powerful change.
If engaging consultants, ask about response rates, methodologies, and translation efforts and push them to address how the project will help you to embolden change. In addition, build a curriculum to help the entire campus develop diversity leadership skills, and create engaging spaces for diverse communities to establish a sense of belonging and receive professional support, like culturally relevant counseling.
Focus on the wildly important, find leverage, and add horsepower. Execution starts with focus. Hone your big-picture diversity efforts down to the two or three objectives that will have the greatest impact.
Find leverage. Halloween, Black History Month, and other holidays and celebrations are more likely to lead to students wearing “black face” or to “pin the tail on the immigrant” parties and other forms of mockery, racism, and xenophobia. Often, these events are anchored in Greek life or other student spaces on campus. In the current climate, some noted that these incidents are more likely to occur. Call upon student leaders and work together to prevent crises.
Last, add horsepower. Now is the time to strengthen current diversity and inclusion infrastructures. We need more staff, more resources, and more collaboration — and everyone needs to be involved. Effectively addressing crises means responding to a changing landscape by investing in strategic diversity leadership infrastructure, focusing on the wildly important, and finding leverage.●
Damon A. Williams, PhD, is chief catalyst of the Center for Strategic Diversity Leadership and Social Innovation and a senior scholar in Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board.