Year One EID Check-In: An Interview with Dean Weil

Tyra Westbrook interviews Dean Weil in his office

Dean Weil joined the Heller School in August 2017, and in his first year he prioritized efforts to improve, equity, inclusion and diversity (EID). One of his first hires was Maria Madison, Heller’s first associate dean for EID, who implemented school-wide metrics to evaluate and track Heller’s progress on these goals. This benchmarking system is based on the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award and provides a comprehensive set of goals for achievement and improvement.

After a full academic year as dean and with benchmarking well underway, EID Intern Tyra Westbrook sat down with Dean Weil to discuss the HEED metrics that are focused on leadership. The following is an edited excerpt from their conversation.

Tyra Westbrook (TW): Do you believe the Heller mission adequately highlights diversity, equity, and inclusion as a core value? And if yes, how?

Dean Weil (DW): Yes, the Heller mission statement adequately highlights diversity, equity, and inclusion as a core value. However, as with any mission statement, there is a gap between our reality and where we want to be. Instead of merely dealing with the school’s responsibilities as an educational institution, I aim to embrace EID efforts as central to our work at the Heller School. Inclusion is foundational to Brandeis University, which was established in response to the exclusion of Jewish students from higher education. I believe that diversity, equity, and inclusion is central to attaining Heller’s larger mission.

TW: Do you think that Heller creates a culture of accountability?

DW: Heller has more accountability than in years past, though we still have work to do. When I first came to Heller, I made a point of hiring the people I did, the way that I did, because I wanted a team that would help hold people accountable and build greater capacity to make EID central to the way we operate. I hope to develop a culture where EID isn't seen a separate goal but rather as central to everything that we do at Heller. If it is seen as a separate, siloed initiative, that sends a signal that it is not truly a priority.

Despite the progress we’ve made, I believe there is still a long way to go and that in fact, there may never be an end point. This work is always changing and evolving, and because of that I believe we have to constantly push ourselves to learn how to respond, acknowledge and address these issues. That work takes time, and we should never stop doing it.

TW: What resources do you believe are provided to encourage diversity initiatives?

DW: There is now an office dedicated to EID at Heller. Our office, as well as Brandeis University’s office of DEI, offers trainings, events and programs, and interventions. In the future I hope to grow the funding available to support our EID office to allow innovations and maintain our momentum.

TW: In what way do you show your commitment to diversity?

DW: I try to ensure that diversity is baked into all central decision I make and the things that Heller does. In other words, I show my commitment by not making diversity seem like a task, but as a way of how we do things in the Heller community. Using this way of thinking I hope to attract and retain a more diverse community that will embrace a culture of inclusion and diversity and recognize that as a core strength.

TW: Is there an EID plan in each program within Heller? Do you mind describing some of these plans and what programs they correspond with?

DW: For the most part each academic program generates its own plan and approach on how to improve its approach to inclusion, equity, and diversity. But we also are putting in place, along with the university as a whole, reporting mechanisms and procedures to ensure accountability. This begins with instituting common methods of reporting issues and providing clear procedures for responding to them. That is still a work in progress, but I feel good about how far we have already come, importantly given the leadership of Associate Dean Maria Madison.

TW: Does Heller maintain a strong task force?

DW: The Heller task force, or committee, has evolved a lot as we have expanded our efforts in this area. One unique skill that we are trying to embed not only in the committee, but in our approach throughout the school is a common foundation in evidence-based social science. Since so many of our community members are trained researchers, we try to ground our EID work in evidence-based practices. For example, in the first year we worked to benchmark where we stand by undertaking a climate survey of students, staff, researchers and faculty. Our efforts seek to tackle areas in need of improvement identified by those surveys (and other ways we collect information). We can then track progress and effectiveness of interventions and approaches over time.

TW: Do you provide leadership in the school-wide implementation process? If so, in what ways?

DW: I certainly hope I do! For one I try to make sure my actions reinforce a culture that celebrates and draws from the diversity of our community. I also try to model, as do others in leadership positions, the importance and ways to have difficult but productive conversations in a community like ours that keep people engaged and included. And I try to show that I, like everyone, have a lot to learn in doing so. I also recognize that I need to be held accountable for holding people accountable. With any opportunity I get, I try to lead EID conversations myself because I know that it's on me to set an example and execute these initiatives