Colleges and Universities are heading Back to School and MUST Go Forward on Building Equitable and Inclusive Communities – what’s one thing they NEED TO know?

Colleges and Universities are heading Back to School and MUST Go Forward on Building Equitable and Inclusive Communities – what’s one thing they NEED TO know?


As everyone heads back to campus, our colleges and universities must go forward with the work of building diverse, equitable and inclusive communities. All the easy pieces have been picked up already. The hard work remains. Structural change. Long-term and sustainable partnerships. New systems, metrics and definitions of success. At the moment we risk burning out the brave professionals who have stepped up to try and save our institutions. It is easy to see how California State-Sacramento’s Associate Dean Mariappan Jawaharlal can get traction with a headline like Why DEI Initiatives Are Likely to Fail, and the unfortunate conclusion that this work on campus is full of “feel-good activities that, sadly, will not lead to tangible results.”

To spark conversation on what it will take to do better, I asked an eclectic handful of colleagues, “What is ONE THING U.S. college and university campuses need to do better to build diverse, equitable, inclusive and just communities?

Jeff Bussgang is Senior Lecturer of Business Administration at Harvard Business School in addition to being General Partner and Co-Founder of Flybridge Capital. His response: “It starts at the top. More leaders of color on the board of trustees. More leaders of color as deans. More leaders of color who are academic department heads, run faculty recruiting, and run admissions. Entrenched leaders need to step aside and create space for new, diverse leaders and then everything else will follow.”

Aisha Francis, PhD is President and CEO of the Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology. Her response: “Colleges should set clearer goals around their DEI priorities. No institution can focus on every front at once. It’s hard to see movement without measurement. If a campus has reached its goals recently, then it’s time to set new ones. We have to push ourselves to make more progress through shared accountability.”

Photo: Roel Dierckens via Upsplash

Mary Churchill, PhD is Director of the Higher Education Administration Program at Boston University where she is also a Professor of Practice (Education) and Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives and Community Engagement for BU Wheelock. Her response: “Collect data in a way that allows you to disaggregate your data and set bold goals to close equity gaps between groups based on their race/ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status.”

Bridget Pool is Professor of English at the Loudoun campus of Northern Virginia Community College. Her response: “In order to build strong communities on campus, it is vital to encourage and prepare educators to focus on incorporating a range of voices and experiences into the curriculum.  Faculty can have tremendous influence on school culture by making sure students see themselves in what they are studying.”

Tracy Heather Strain is the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University and Co-Director of the Wesleyan Documentary Project. Her response: “Stop thinking that having faculty and staff attend a few workshops is enough to solve anything.”

Aaron Kelton is Head Football Coach at Savannah State University. His response: “Universities and colleges can build diverse, equitable, inclusive and just communities by first not making campuses feel like only the elite can attend! Second by building communities where open dialogue and regular dialogue happens weekly; third by making students do service in different environments and communities for both credit and service credit; and fourth: creating programs in and around campus that address these issues! My motto with my team is Seek The Story In The Stranger! Meet a new person every day!”

Nancy Robles serves on the Board of Directors of the Berkeley College Foundation and is Chief Operating Officer of Eastern Funding LLC. Her response: “At the college and university level, understanding the cultural nuance of minority students includes the fact that many of us are first time college students; and understanding that the fact we are first time students does not make us less likely to be successful. It means that although our family supports us, they can’t give us the same support students get from families that have generations of experience.”

Ahmmad Brown, PhD is Assistant Professor of Instruction at Northwestern University in the School of Education and Social Policy and is President and Co-Founder of Equity Based Dialogue for Inclusion (EBDI). His response: “Colleges and universities must both acknowledge common and shared experiences among the BIPOC students that they recruit, matriculate and support; and simultaneously acknowledge that there is great heterogeneity in experiences and intersecting identities among people who hold specific BIPOC identities.” 

Georgianna Melendez, PhD is Assistant Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston and an Adjunct Lecturer in the Bertolon School of Business at Salem State University. Her response: “In general, Colleges and universities need to make sure that leadership and action on anti-racism comes from the top and is a declared strategic priority.  That which is measured is paid attention to on campus. When the president or chancellor is the lead voice on inclusion and belonging, there is no mistake what the tone and culture of the campus is expected to be.”

These diverse higher ed perspectives tell one story clearly: the work is complex and never finished. If they can be distilled into a focal point for the rest of us, three keys to success come through:

  1. Clear goals: Is it front and center why you are doing this work and what you have agreed on as a definition of success?
  2. Clear data: Have you moved beyond events and feelings and into the world of rigorous analysis?
  3. Clear Competency: Do you have the capacity in your team to identify best practices, develop original ideas, garner (and “husband”) resources and build key relationships?

Working with all of these professionals and so many other leaders in complex environments has taught me to rely on the wisdom in the room. Our first task is to harness that talent and skill. That being said, what’s my ONE THING?

The DEI plans schools make have to serve layers of institutional priorities but fundamentally must be built around creating change that is meaningful to the people who are excluded and diminished in higher education over and over again. Did your institution name representation as a major deficit? Distribution of resources on campus? Social and economic mobility for people of color in your community? Gaps in your course catalogue or research programs? Whatever your focus is, make sure you are following through with rigor that you recognize as worthy of the reputation of your school. Measuring progress in terms of activity rather than impact is cynical and counter-productive. It undermines your credibility as an institution associated with learning, knowledge and progress.

As the fall semester arrives, there is a great next chance to move things with urgency in the right direction, whatever that is for your school. As people come back, let’s make sure we are ready to move forward.

So – What’s your ONE THING?

Andy Tarsy leads the Emblem Network. and is a Lecturer at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business and a Trustee at Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology. He is also a partner in Conscious Customers which specializes in supplier diversity innovation.

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