When asked about the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) initiative, the responses hovered between timid optimism and skepticism DE&I efforts in general. This dichotomy underscores some of the concerns expressed by the interviewees; they want to believe this initiative, unlike others before it, would succeed. But being mindful of failures of past attempts, they expressed doubts that this initiative would forge a different outcome. The interviewees expressed a number of concerns that they believe could compromise the success of the DE&I initiative, including: skepticism amongst university staff, ineffective communication by leadership, lack of cohesion amongst the different units, a toxic culture of elitism that parlays into a class structure, and a history of lip service that often doesn’t translate into real action.
Hence, we outlined the following recommendations to adequately address and mitigate the aforementioned concerns:
- Develop and implement a clear DE&I mission statement and strategic plan.
- Foster a culture of inclusion that permeates through the entire university.
- Require all members of leadership, faculty and staff to participate in diversity training.
- Secure buy-in amongst all members of leadership, faculty and staff for the DE&I initiative.
Note: Recommendations 1-3 address the DE&I initiative as part and parcel of broader DE&I efforts whereas recommendation 4 deals exclusively with the DE&I initiative.
Recommendation 1: Develop and Implement a Clear DE&I Mission Statement and Strategic Plan
At a rudimentary level, creating a solid foundation for which upon DE&I serve as pillars, begins with adopting a clear DE&I mission statement and a strategic plan. The DE&I mission statement should communicate the university’s commitment to DE&I and serve as the core tenet that all subsequent decisions pertaining to DE&I must adhere to. Once a DE&I mission statement is adopted, a comprehensive strategic plan follows that extrapolates on the mission statement and outlines the necessary steps to ensure efforts come to fruition. The success of a strategic plan lies primarily on building coalitions of relevant stakeholders, to champion and drive the strategic plan. Of equal importance, success also depends on formidable monitoring mechanisms and evaluation tools to make certain the strategic plan is executed properly. It is imperative that all phases of this strategic plan, particularly the planning phase, reflects DE&I, to grant legitimacy to the university’s expressed commitment to it. Otherwise, absent concerted efforts to match rhetoric with action, the university leaves itself susceptible to further alienating its faculty and staff.
To ensure DE&I efforts succeed, the following steps should be taken:
- HRM should form coalitions, comprised of faculty, staff and students, to represent each respective group throughout each phase of the strategic plan.
- Draft a DE&I mission statement: This process should include input from all relevant stakeholders, including but not limited to: leadership, faculty, staff and students.
- Establish consensus on the strategic planning process.
- Carry out an environmental scan: A good place to start is conducting a SWOT analysis. A SWOT analysis will reveal internal and external factors that could impact DE&I efforts.
- Identify the key elements that are to be addressed as part of the strategic planning effort. Outline and specify those strategic issues and then categorize them based on priority.
- Develop a shared vision for the organization. Outline a two-year, 5-year, and 10-year plan to assess where the initiative hopes to be in those years, and then identify strategies to help it get there.
- Set reasonable goals with metrics to track the initiative’s progress.
- Form a consensus on the key strategies to achieve the expressed goals and address key issues that were discussed during the environmental scan.
- Develop an action plan that addresses goals and specific objectives on an annual basis.
- Finalize a written strategic plan that articulates the results and decisions of the strategic planning process
- Create monitoring and evaluation procedures, and contingency strategies to modify the strategic plan when necessary.
Recommendation 2: Foster a Culture of Inclusion that Permeates Through the Entire Institution
It is evident that the culture at the university needs amending to reflect the proposed ideals the DE&I initiative aims to achieve. Fostering a culture that reflects DE&I extends beyond just the participation of leadership, faculty and staff, but to the entire institution as well, particularly the students. “Part of the process involved with identifying and making sense of the factors that contribute to creating a positive climate for diversity on campus involved soliciting information from all members of the campus community (Mayhew, Grunwald, & Dey, 2006, p. 64).” This entails an upheaval of the present culture, to cogently cultivate a more encompassing environment that is consummate with DE&I. This is much easier said than done. Interviewee 1 concedes that that is a problem that is hindering the DE&I initiative, asserting, “the words ‘diversity’, ‘equity’ and ‘inclusion’ are very powerful but beyond being said over and over again, I don’t think it’s been communicated clearly what the leadership even means by each of these words.” His sentiments underscore the chasm between leadership paying lip service to these ideals and actually following through with action to accompany the rhetoric. Hence, to proactively address this problem, we recommend a comprehensive plan that will help nurture a culture ripe with DE&I.
To fundamentally reform the university’s culture to reflect greater DE&I, the following actions need be taken:
- HRM should hire outside firm(s), with expertise on DE&I, to review UM’s current policies, procedures and practices that prohibit discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or disabilities. The firm(s) is to conduct focus groups that will include diverse members of faculty, staff and students to discuss the current policies, and garner their feedback on how to improve them. The firm(s) is to then draft proposals that will strengthen current policies, utilizing the feedback from the focus groups. Finally, the firm(s) is to submit the proposals back to HRM, which is then tasked with enacting the new policies.
- HRM should reach out to minority-serving institutions (ex. historically black colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions etc.), tribal colleges and community and advocacy groups that serve underrepresented populations and find means to collaborate with them (“Promoting Racial and Ethnic Diversity” p. 22).” The aim is to build strategic partnerships with these institutions and allow the free-flow exchange of information to enhance the knowledge of all members of leadership, faculty and staff on the importance of diversity and inclusion. The university will stand to benefit enormously if they can bring these institution on board to assist in the drafting and implementation of the DE&I initiative. Building and maintaining relationships with minority-serving institutions would certainly be an effective approach to ameliorating DE&I standards.
- HRM should hire a PR firm to put together a robust ad campaign to promote the initiative to faculty and students. The ad campaign should highlight the initiative’s mission and major elements and stress the intended goals it aims to achieve. The ad campaign should reinforce the university’s commitment to DE&I and also encourage students to express their concerns pertaining to those ideals. The objective of the campaign is to rally support for the DE&I initiative by creating hype amongst students, which will certainly trickle to faculty and staff as well.
Recommendation 3: Require leadership, faculty, and staff to participate in diversity-training
Interviewee’s 2 and 3 both implied that there exist rifts between leadership, faculty and staff in the university. Interviewee 2 attributed these divides to an “exclusive and elitist” culture that essentially amounted to a class system. If this schism remains unresolved, it could undermine the DE&I initiative, effectively relegating it to another failed attempt on part of the university. To address this problem, faculty, staff and leadership need to be trained to be more mindful of their unconscious biases, attitudes and influences that shape their behaviors. “Research studies show that people who have strong egalitarian values and believe that they are not biased may unconsciously behave in discriminatory ways (Fine, Eve, and Jo Handlesman, 2010, p. 5).” Although we like to believe we are impartial individuals who limit our judgment of others to their merits, achievements, and quality of work, extensive research indicates that is not the case. Research shows that, “…a lifetime of experience and cultural history shapes every one of us and our judgments of others (Fine, Eve, and Jo Handlesman, 2010, p. 5).” These studies conclude that inherently, we apply broad generalizations about groups, which are often untrue. The highbrow culture at UM that permeates from top to bottom serves as microcosm of human nature’s’ tendency to treat people based on their positions in the pecking order. This toxic culture carries grave repercussions that could compromise the DE&I initiative. Hence, mitigating this problem requires a two-pronged approach: first, aim to reconcile the internal strife amongst the different members of leadership, faculty and staff to decimate the present class system; and secondly, employ methods to better prepare every members of the university’s workforce to deal with DE&I. The former must be addressed first before moving to address the latter.
To procure a workforce that is better equipped to deal with diversity, equity and inclusion, the following steps need to be taken:
- HRM should organize town-hall meetings, under the oversight of independent mediators, to candidly discuss the prevailing issues that have driven a wedge between members of leadership, faculty and staff. Although this does not necessarily deal directly with DE&I, there needs to be internal cohesion to ensure the initiative is implemented effectively. Independent mediators should evaluate what was discussed in the town-hall meetings and draft proposals with solutions to rectify the problems. After drafting proposals, subsequent town-hall meetings should be held to discuss the findings and have all parties engage in dialogue to remedy the problems.
- HRM should create an independent task force to examine the barriers to DE&I, including but not limited to: barriers in educational pathways, barriers in the faculty hiring process, and barriers to retention. The findings should be compiled into a report to be presented to all members of leadership, faculty and staff.
- HRM should require all members of leadership, faculty and staff to participate in diversity training that focuses primarily on mitigating the influences of unconscious assumptions and biases. Training must include all members of leadership, faculty and staff working together, as opposed to having each unit work within their own group confines.
- HRM should establish exchange programs with minority-serving universities and institutions to acquaint faculty with more diverse climates and open lines of communication (“Promoting Racial and Ethnic Diversity” p. 22).
Recommendation 4: Secure buy-in amongst all members of leadership, faculty and staff
One of the primary concerns, duly noted by interviewees 1 and 3, is there exists a prevalence of skepticism towards the DE&I initiative. Interviewee 1 noted that leadership has not given enough credence to effectively communicating the plan to faculty and staff members. Moreover, he noted that he does not believe the plan has been ‘thought through’ enough, which has left some staff members outside the fray. Though he concedes that there has been an attempt to include staff this time around, unlike in previous attempts where staff was generally overlooked, it appears it is just that, an attempt. To effectively push through an initiative of this magnitude, it is incumbent on leadership to not only communicate the plan to all members of faculty and staff, but also identify means to secure their buy-in. We suspect that there was a breakdown of communication from the top to the bottom, and that is something that must be rectified to ensure the initiative is executed properly.
To secure the buy-in of faculty and staff, the following actions need be taken:
- HRM should organize faculty and staff meetings to afford leadership the opportunity to clearly communicate all relevant elements of the DE&I initiative and leave ample time to take questions from attendees. Leadership must also clearly articulate the mission of the initiative and communicate the goals the initiative seeks to achieve. To earn attendees’ buy-in, leadership need to frame their pitch in terms of the benefits attendees stand to gain.
- HRM should draft a comprehensive report that outlines all previous failed attempts at similar initiatives. The report should candidly highlight the reasons behind their failures and must be made available to all members of faculty and staff. Moreover, leadership should explicitly encourage all faculty and staff members to read it and provide their feedback.
- HRM should conduct an inventory of all members of faculty and staff to assess their individual commitments to the DE&I initiative. Leadership should then solicit their feedback and reassure them that their input is key and will inform the ongoing design, implementation and evaluation of the initiative. Once a tentative plan is finalized, leadership should report back to everyone who provided their input and inform them of how their opinions were considered, what revisions were ultimately adopted, and why.