Fostering a Climate of Inclusion: What Works

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azzizFrom mid-2010 — when I took the helm of the Medical College of Georgia — through five years that saw the creation of an aligned and integrated healthcare system and the consolidation of two co-located universities to create what is now Georgia Regents University (GRU) and Health System, we at GRU have made building a diverse, tolerant, and inclusive campus a priority. In fact, “inclusivity” is one of our six institutional values, and “sustained commitment to diversity and inclusion” is one of our six strategic priorities.

Over that time, we have worked with intention and focus to foster a culture of inclusion at GRU — and we have seen impressive and measurable results. From 2010 to 2014, our health sciences student and faculty diversity increased 19 percent and 9 percent, respectively. (We have had less opportunity to assess improvements in non-health sciences.) And while our deliberate effort to increase awareness resulted in a 66 percent increase in hotline calls over the same time period, complaints and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charges dropped 44 percent.

How we achieved success — although it is inarguably a work in progress — might interest institutions looking to build a more tolerant and diverse campus climate.

First, we set the ground rules for an effective framework:

● The highest leaders in the organization had to be fully committed to and vested in diversity values and goals. Transformative initiatives must be genuinely embraced and passionately driven by top leadership. So, we added inclusivity as an area of assessment in university leaders’ annual performance reviews, and we made it abundantly clear that promoting a climate of tolerance and inclusivity is everyone’s job.

● In addition to making the ethics case, we made the business case for diversity. All of us want to do the “right thing,” and we can encourage that impulse by demonstrating it’s also the right thing economically. We developed visual and educational tools to show that increasing diversity lowers costs through improved retention; decreases complaints and potentially costly litigation; and increases revenue through improved recruitment, greater alumni loyalty, a more welcoming environment for student recruitment, and in our case, greater patient satisfaction.

● Rather than focusing on improving outcomes for specific groups, we focused on making valuing diversity part of the broader campus culture. Viewing diversity efforts as specific to gender or race allows individuals who are less enthusiastic or educated about the importance of these initiatives to remain unconcerned and puts the pressure of implementation on the affected groups. Since all of us are affected, either directly or indirectly, we worked to build a broader culture of tolerance and support.

● We wove diversity values and concepts into the fabric of our organization rather than leaving them stranded in policy manuals. Diversity and inclusion efforts often live alone in the organizational structure. To counter that tendency, we built them into institutional processes. For example, we changed the search committee training process to include several strategies for building diverse candidate pools and changed the wording of position announcements to prioritize diversity.

● We articulated clear and transparent metrics and goals, then collected the data and shared it. Metrics must be tracked to ensure diversity efforts generate more than feel-good outcomes. Examples include the number of diverse faculty, students, and staff; the number of EEOC complaints; and the retention of diverse faculty. In addition, we included a climate assessment as part of our yearly employee engagement survey, and we built a diversity enrollment dashboard on the GRU data portal to allow leaders to monitor their units’ progress and adjust objectives as needed.

● And we committed to providing appropriate funding, staffing, authority, and structural organization to get the job done. A successful diversity and inclusion program requires more than naming an interested faculty member as a part-time “diversity czar.” We recruited a full-time diversity and inclusion vice president, who has authority over the university and health system, with appropriate facilities and staffing; the department has a full-time equivalent of 13.5 employees.

Then we took action, implementing a series of innovative initiatives to begin affecting campus culture. Some of these activities include:

● Cultural competency training — We developed an online, high-tech, cultural competency curriculum that is mandatory for all students in the healthcare disciplines. Called Healthy Perspectives, the training fosters better healthcare through greater understanding of our culturally diverse patients — and our data show it’s working. So far, more than 11,000 physicians, staff, and students have participated in the training, and before-and-after tests show that organization-wide understanding across all groups has improved from 70 to 87 percent. In addition, 86 percent of students agree that the training contributed to their development as a future practitioner, while 82 percent agree that “the course was worthwhile.”

● The GRU Healthy Respect initiative — Top institutional leaders signed the Healthy Respect charter committing GRU to a culture of civility across our campuses. We also launched the Healthy Respect website with tips, webinars, an events calendar, and other resources to help individuals get involved and to encourage everyone on campus to cement their own commitment by publicly taking the Healthy Respect Pledge.

● The GRU Diversity and Inclusion Summit — This annual event brings together community and business leaders to partner with us in developing and promoting inclusion efforts both on and off our campuses.

● Safe Zone and Equality Clinic — We launched our own Safe Zone program as part of a larger national initiative to help create safe and inclusive environments for individuals of all sexual and gender identities. And last fall, our medical students, with faculty support, launched a free bimonthly clinic to provide primary care services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender patients. This award-winning clinic is the first of its kind in the Augusta area and is serving a critical need.

● Religious diversity — To foster religious tolerance, our Pastoral Care Department co-sponsors conferences for area faith leaders and offers a variety of educational events with the Student Interfaith Group and the Islamic Education Center.

Our work is not finished, but these programs are working. Diversity and inclusion are now cemented as foundational pillars of our institutional value system, and tolerance and inclusivity are a growing part of our campus culture.●

Ricardo Azziz, MD, MPH, MBA, is the former president of Georgia Regents University and CEO of the Georgia Regents Health System, which is composed of more than 1,500 faculty, 9,000 students, and 10,000 employees. Under his leadership, the institution received the 2013 and 2014 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award, as well as the 2014 Award for Diversity and Inclusion from the NCAA/MOAA.