Excellence Rising: A Fresh Start on Equity, Inclusion and Diversity at Heller

May 23, 2018

The 2011 Heller Strategic Plan recommended developing “programs, policies and procedures that would embed equity, inclusion and diversity in the fabric of Heller’s academic and work environment.” In January 2012, Dean Lisa Lynch established a Diversity Steering Committee, first chaired by Professor Anita Hill and composed of students, faculty, staff and alumni, that was charged with developing programs that would bring diversity of all types—racial, gender, sexual orientation and identity, national origin, ethnic, socioeconomic and intellectual—to the faculty, research staff, administration and student body at Heller. In addition, the Committee was asked to play a lead role and coordinate initiatives that would foster an inclusive and welcoming environment for all members of the Heller community. My position as the first associate dean for equity, inclusion and diversity has its roots in these discussions.

The school launched diversity programs as far back as 2014 that included training sessions, curriculum assessment and research review. The Heller community had entered a new world, and was experiencing an intense desire to better realize its motto of “knowledge advancing social justice.” Both the Strategic Plan and Diversity Steering Committee came on the heels of another cyclical era of tense relationships between law enforcement and minorities in this country that included the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Rodney King and Rekia Boyd, among others.

Between 2014 and 2015, violence against people of color mounted, including the deaths of Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland and Tanisha Anderson, among others. That crisis was our crisis and helped to create a second Ford Hall movement at Brandeis in 2015. Rapid efforts and results were needed to express that the campus cared about all of its members, particularly at a time of a growing national schism. Members of the movement presented a list of demands, which are part of our current path toward building an atmosphere of trust and “excellence rising” at Heller.

Sample of Heller-Related Ford Hall 2015 Demands and Current Progress

1. Increasing the diversity of our faculty, staff and student body. Initial progress includes aiming for a 10-15 percent improvement on 2015 levels, with a goal of retention through a supportive community culture.

2. Implementing educational pedagogies and curricula that increase racial awareness and inclusion. Initial progress includes having established and sustained courses on critical race theory, world history and cultures, LGBTQIA, and disability and gender studies.

3. Mandating yearly diversity and inclusion workshops for all faculty and staff, with optional workshops offered consistently throughout the academic year.

4. Employing additional clinical staff of color within the Psychological Counseling Center to provide culturally relevant support to students of all backgrounds. Initial progress includes embedding a diversity counselor onsite at Heller.

5. Increasing funding for black and diverse student organizations and programs. Initial progress includes collaborative, cross-affinity working group discussions and educational programming for the entire community.

6. Appointing an associate dean for equity, inclusion and diversity. Progress: Begun! I am honored to take on this role and combine this list of demands with the recommended best practices from the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) criteria.

7. Appointing a University Office of Ombuds. Initial progress includes the naming of three ombuds officers, with one embedded in Heller.

As Heller’s associate dean for equity, inclusion and diversity, I have adopted these goals as guideposts. I am working with faculty, staff, students and alumni throughout the Heller community and taking an evidence-based approach to pursuing these areas. Our community is passionate about local and global social justice, and we have a strong academic purpose. Evidence-based research shows that the changes demanded in Ford Hall will improve outcomes for the entire community as well as individual outcomes and future success.

When there is strong multicultural community identity, research shows that people generally do get along with each other, share the same values and interests and have a greater potential to excel.

When there is cohesion, people congregate inside and/or beyond this community, relate and talk with “others” often during the week, attend a ceremony organized by “others” and learn each other’s culture.

When there is group orientation, people will bring news from outside of Heller back into the school, to connect each other to a better understanding of the world and our role within a global context.

The concept “excellence rising” is neither polemical nor noncontroversial. It is simply what happens when a community promotes equity, inclusion and diversity (EID). Evidence of this abounds, and as our tagline suggests, it is imperative that we utilize evidence and knowledge to advance social justice — especially within our own building.

Examples From the Literature That Share This Approach

Shared Values and Academic Performance

Researchers including Jason Okonofua have created brief interventions that stress the power of empathy. For example, a teacher who makes students (and their culture or experiences) feel heard, valued and respected shows them that school is fair and that they can grow and succeed there. The researchers gave teachers and students information about things they shared, such as a passion for music, a wry sense of humor or similar values. Half a semester later, the teachers felt closer ties with their students, especially those whom they might have initially perceived as being dissimilar. The researchers found that when teachers were convinced they are actually like their students, student performance improved significantly. Empathy has the potential to improve academic performance for all students.

EID Return on Investment: A Better Yield on the Bottom Line

According to Forbes Insights, diversity is a key driver of innovation and a critical component of success on a global scale. Senior executives are recognizing that a diverse set of experiences, perspectives and backgrounds are crucial to innovation and the development of new ideas. Many corporate leaders agree that diversity is crucial to encouraging different perspectives and ideas that foster innovation. This research also notes that to have real meaning, EID plans must demonstrate accountability and oversight, particularly among leadership.

Caveats of EID Workshops and Training

While mandatory workshops on diversity and inclusion are an excellent goal, they can backfire if not done thoughtfully. Research shows that talking about bias and stereotype prevalence, for instance, can lead to greater stereotyping. According to Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, reinforcing the idea that people want to conquer their biases and that there are benefits to doing so, sends a more effective message. One proven example is adding the phrase “a vast majority of people try to overcome their stereotypic preconceptions.” With this adjustment, discrimination can vanish. When we communicate that a vast majority of people hold some biases, we need to ensure that we’re not legitimizing prejudice.

EID Workshops Can Reduce Bias

Among other researchers, Patricia Devin and colleagues demonstrated in 2012 that long-term reduction in implicit race bias is possible. Examples of effective interventions included recognizing stereotypical responses, labeling them and replacing them with non-stereotypical responses. Counter-stereotypical replacement is another intervention, whereby individuals imagine examples of out-group members who counter popularly held stereotypes. Ultimately, there are data demonstrating that increasing meaningful contact and exposure to other group members has the potential to reduce bias.

EID Workshops Can Empower Those Impacted By Bias

Leading psychologists, including Howard Stevenson of the University of Pennsylvania, have demonstrated how “in the moment” responses to bias incidents are easier to implement than eradicating racism, especially with practice. The Racial Empowerment Collaborative, for example, promotes concepts conceived by sociologist France Winddance Twine, who describes racial literacy as “a form of racial socialization and antiracist training that ... parents of African-descent children practiced in their efforts to defend their children against racism.” It is the ability to read, recast and resolve racially stressful encounters. Stevenson further adopts the Racial Encounter Coping Appraisal and Socialization Theory, or RECAST, which proposes that racial socialization is most effective in that it buffers the negative influence between racial stress and racial coping by bolstering racial encounter self-efficacy or confidence.

Our Responsibility to One Another

Philosopher Maureen Linker, in her work on intellectual empathy, suggests that to combat social inequalities and their institutional and structural sources we need to develop five skills. These include: understanding privilege and intersectionality, using cooperative reasoning, applying conditional trust and recognizing mutual vulnerability. Through programs and processes focusing on these five areas, we can move from conversations to coalitions.

Ultimately, Linker suggests that through knowing ourselves, better understanding the situations and circumstances others face, and working toward removing obstacles, we can think more critically about social justice. To begin developing these skills, we must look at how our beliefs are formed in relation to social systems of power, identity, difference and inequality. The challenge starts with self-reflection, building a deep understanding of our spheres of influence and how we make sense of the world.

EID And You

Ultimately, to foster a community where excellence is rising, we must promote inclusion despite setbacks. In her aptly named book, “On Being Included,” social theorist Sara Ahmed shows how diversity workers generate knowledge of institutions, structures, psychology and behaviors in attempting to transform them. While my goal is to help generate this knowledge, we know that hiring an associate dean for equity, inclusion and diversity at Heller is only a small part of the school’s journey. The journey requires your participation and commitment.

Together with you, I look forward to continuing this long march toward excellence rising, using evidence-based approaches.