University of Kentucky Creates a Community of Belonging By and for All

Guest speakers and students during student group Poetic Justice’s Accountability Cypher event, a project funded by a UK Inclusive Excellence Program Grant
Guest speakers and students during student group Poetic Justice’s Accountability Cypher event, a project funded by a UK Inclusive Excellence Program Grant

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As the largest university in Kentucky — with 30,000-plus students, several thousand faculty and staff, and 20 colleges and schools — the University of Kentucky (UK) in Lexington recognizes the importance of involving all of its members in creating what Vice President for Institutional Diversity Sonja Feist-Price calls a “community of belonging.”

Sonja Feist-Price
Sonja Feist-Price

“It is very hard for any one individual or any one office to do the work that must be done, so what’s important is creating a synergistic partnership across our campus so that we can effect change not only within the university, but throughout [the surrounding] community,” says Feist-Price.

One way UK facilitates this synergy is by having a chief diversity officer in every college or school. These individuals meet regularly with Feist-Price to share best practices and discuss areas and strategies for improvement. “I often refer to [UK] as a university without walls because we really strive to work across the aisle with diversity in all sorts of ways so that … we can become the university we want to [be],” explains Feist-Price.

Students on UK’s campus in Lexington, Ky.
Students on UK’s campus in Lexington, Ky.

Already with a diverse mix of faculty, staff, and students, UK concentrates its efforts on ensuring that each person feels valued and comfortable being his or her true self on campus. “The pinnacle of what we aspire to have at our institution is a community of belonging such that all of our faculty, staff, and students feel that they belong to the university and that the university belongs to them,” she says. “The richness of our diversity is very important, but … it’s only when people feel that they are a valued member that they bring themselves in totality to our campus.”

UK strives to build this community through a variety of approaches, including working to continuously improve the campus climate by overcoming biases, offering everyone a seat at the table, and creating opportunities to examine important diversity-related issues and topics.

Inclusive Excellence Program Grants
With a dual purpose to increase students’ sense of belonging on campus and provide diversity programming, the Office for Institutional Diversity (OID) offers Inclusive Excellence Program Grants. Made possible by a $6 fee that students pay at the beginning of each semester — which Feist-Price says generates about $150,000 each semester — the grants allow students, faculty, and staff to develop and execute diversity programming and events.

Every spring and fall, OID has a call for proposals, and individuals submit an application to be considered for an award, the largest of which is $25,000. A committee of faculty, staff, and students reviews all proposals to ensure that a project meets all qualifications. Not only must plans concentrate in some way on diversity, but they must also be inclusive of different student populations; demonstrate collaborative partnerships between a variety of groups, offices, and student organizations; serve as models for replication across the campus; and expand the success of existing programs at UK, according to the program’s website.

While faculty and staff can also apply for the grant, Feist-Price says the funds must be used to benefit students. Since launching last fall, the program has featured a number of diversity- and inclusion-related events focused on a variety of topics and identities — from LGBTQ-inclusive healthcare, to stereotypes and prejudice, to African culture. “It really takes on different shapes and forms, so it might be diversity through music or diversity through food,” explains Feist-Price. “[It could be] cultural [or] educational.”

In April, student group Poetic Justice — which uses creativity to address societal issues — was awarded a $10,000 Inclusive Excellence Grant to host what the organization called an Accountability Cypher. The event brought together artists, academics, and community leaders who used their work to encourage conversation around issues affecting marginalized identities.

[Photo above: Guest speakers and students during student group Poetic Justice’s Accountability Cypher event, a project funded by a UK Inclusive Excellence Program Grant]

Artists and community leaders discuss issues affecting marginalized identities at the Poetic Justice event.
Artists and community leaders discuss issues affecting marginalized identities at the Poetic Justice event.

“Our intent with this event was multifaceted,” says Gabe Tomlin, a member of Poetic Justice. “We wanted to change the format of the usual dry panel discussion to something a little more engaging, show the role of art within activism, and give artists and educators of color the space to be seen, heard, and considered critically while engaging in discussion around important topics.”

At the end of these experiences, organizers must submit a report on what they accomplished. Feist-Price believes this and other aspects of the program help students grow. “It really gives students an opportunity to bring to fruition the things that are most meaningful and most valuable to them,” she explains. “This gives [them] a voice.”

For Tomlin, having opportunities such as that provided by the Inclusive Excellence Program Grant is important and reveals UK’s commitment to its students. “A good way of seeing where an institution’s concerns and priorities are is to look at who and what it invests in, and how it invests in them,” Tomlin says. “Giving the opportunity to students to be active leaders and curators of their own experiences is infinitely important. While planning the event, we felt powerful. We felt like we had the ability to do something, and that’s [critical], too.”

Unconscious Bias Initiative
With a focus on the broader campus community, UK’s Unconscious Bias Initiative (UBI) targets every person at every level, including the board of trustees, senior leadership, faculty, staff, students, and those who serve on faculty search committees.

Marietta Watts
Marietta Watts

After UK President Eli Capilouto expressed concerns that some individuals felt they had no voice in the university’s operations, he initiated the development of UBI, which is led by Marietta Watts, executive diversity liaison for OID. Through a partnership with consulting firm Cook Ross and direction from faculty, staff, student, and healthcare subcommittees, Watts and her team developed an interactive curriculum for the training aimed at addressing the needs and challenges of each group on campus.

“We started at the top,” explains Watts. “The president and all of his direct reports, deans and directors of centers, and then our board of trustees all attended at least a one-day training program, and then we began rolling it out to various colleges [and] departments.”

Designed to equip individuals to identify and mitigate their biases, the training is structured as a two-hour session that introduces participants to the concept of unconscious bias, including the ways in which the mind works and the way biases show up in our everyday lives and interactions. Following relevant video clips, participants engage in discussion and exercises.

“We invite them to talk to one another, to think about times when maybe they were perpetrators of unconscious bias or that bias was directed toward them … to show how our biases work — to normalize it, not to excuse it; to explain that every single person alive has biases,” says Watts. “Some of them are conscious, but [with] others, … we act but don’t know what is driving [our] behavior.”

Though not required, the training is “strongly recommended,” Watts says. However, the deans of some colleges have made it mandatory for all of their faculty and staff. “For those areas, we anticipate that we’re going to get at least 95 to 98 percent participation,” she says.

As of mid-September, approximately 25 percent of all UK faculty and staff had completed UBI, which began in fall 2016. Training for students kicks off in October as part of the UK 101 class, which is required of all incoming freshmen. Additionally, Watts says that she has received requests from Greek and other student organizations that want to participate.

Although she has no hard data yet on its effectiveness, Watts says anecdotal feedback on UBI has been very positive. Before rolling out the next round of training, she and her team plan to track and assess the first iteration’s impact, looking for changes in behavior and a reduction in bias incidents as well as improvements in retention rates. Watts says she may also use that information to inform future trainings.

“I anticipate that there will be an uptick in the number of complaints at first simply because people understand [bias]. Then [we’ll see] how long before that begins to level out and people feel empowered enough to have those kinds of conversations on their own,” she says. “We’ll be looking at all of the pieces that need to be in place so that we can determine whether the behaviors are moving in the direction that we want them to be moving in.”

While other institutions have taken steps to address unconscious bias, Watts says that UK is the first university in the country to implement training of this nature organization-wide. “I’m excited because I think that it’s a wonderful opportunity for other universities to see how this can be done,” she says.

The Center for Equality and Social Justice
In reaction to the unrest occurring on college campuses across the country that began more than two years ago, UK created the Center for Equality and Social Justice to bring together faculty and students researching and engaging in these issues. Its mission is “to promote equality and social justice through collaborative scholarship and education and to help advocate for social justice within our communities, public policies, and laws,” according to the center’s website.

According to Christia Spears Brown, PhD, director of the center, its efforts focus on three specific areas: scholarship and research, public policy and law, and advocacy and community engagement. “I think of us as the academic arm of all of the other diversity initiatives going on at UK,” she says. With faculty affiliates from all 20 colleges and schools represented, Spears Brown hopes that collectively, they will be able to have broader impact.

“We do research, and we do it in our own domains, but really, when you do work on equality and social justice, you want to improve equality and social justice; our topics don’t exist in social vacuums. So the center is designed to help faculty and students have a sense of connection with others who do this work and to train [them]… how [to] use their scholarship to impact change in ways that promote equality and social justice,” she explains. “That means, how do we take work out of the university and affect communities in positive ways and how can we shape public policy and laws to be more equitable.”

The research and scholarship being conducted by faculty and students through the center varies in terms of discipline and approach as well as the group or issue being examined. “We define equality on the basis of race and ethnicity, immigration status, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, disability level, [and so forth]. [It’s] been really remarkable to see how many people in their own ways are working toward equality and social justice. We have people in fine arts. We have people in journalism. We have an economist.”

By providing funding, a support network, and avenues for publishing and disseminating research, the Center for Equality and Social Justice serves as a “megaphone for the work that people are doing,” Spears Brown says. In addition to opportunities for faculty to publish policy briefs and position papers, fellowships are available for students to do research alongside a faculty mentor. Currently, the center has two such fellows, one of whom is researching how to improve the retention of underrepresented students.

The center also plays the role of connecting other campus units with individuals who have expertise in areas related to equality and social justice — when a speaker is needed for an event, for example. Perhaps most important, though, are the connections it makes with lawmakers. “We’re often in contact with state politicians and our federal legislators to make sure they’re aware of the research coming out that’s relevant for laws that are currently being discussed and to translate it in ways that can be useful,” says Spears Brown. “All we can really do is plant that seed.”

On UK’s campus, the center’s work has also taken the form of events and speakers — last year, it hosted a one-day symposium called Black and Blue: Critical Issues in Race and Policing, featuring scholars from across the U.S. — as well as consulting the university on issues regarding diversity and equality. Additionally, Spears Brown says she and her colleagues try to promote the work of other on-campus multicultural programs and centers, such as the Martin Luther King Center.

Because the Center for Equality and Social Justice is still in its infancy, Spears Brown says it is in the process of building its infrastructure, but in the future, she hopes to grow its reputation as a resource for the UK community and beyond. “What I hope is that policymakers, particularly at the state level, will come to us when they have to make decisions,” she says.

In addition to sending a powerful message to individuals of underrepresented and marginalized groups on campus, the center demonstrates UK’s commitment to creating a community of belonging where the concerns of any one group are shared and addressed by all.

“I think [the center] conveys a powerful message that this university cares about equality and social justice,” says Spears Brown. “There’s a lot to be said for that when it comes to fostering a sense of belonging — that this university not only says it but is funding that kind of work.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. The University of Kentucky is a 2017 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.