Diversity, Equity, Inclusion: Keys to Healing Unconscious Bias in Higher Ed:

with Dr. Mary Wardell Ghirarduzzi | Changing Higher Ed Podcast 019

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Diversity, Equity, Inclusion: Keys to Healing Unconscious Bias in Higher Ed with Dr. Mary Wardell Ghirarduzzi | Changing Higher Ed 019

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion: Keys to Healing Unconscious Bias with Dr. Mary Wardell Ghirarduzzi and Dr. Drumm McNaughton on the Changing Higher Ed Podcast.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion continue to be critical issues for higher education. Many of these issues are fanned by repercussions of historical events as well as unconscious biases based on unknown U.S. history and individuals tending to remain in monolithic groups.

Institutions of higher education have a duty to make their campuses a model of inclusivity where every student, faculty member, and staff member is wholeheartedly appreciated. To achieve this, higher education leaders need to find ways to surface their own unconscious biases, diversify campus leadership, create programs and structures to encourage diversity, identify ways to have accountability for these programs, and create financial avenues to fund these efforts.

Taking this inclusive approach can revitalize organizations by creating a common understanding, developing a community that embraces differences, and establishing new and meaningful outcomes. This can include rethinking faculty diversity in relation to faculty recruitment, retention, tenure, and promotion; revising ideas of the quality of scholarship, including the paradigm of publishing or perishing; and creating a community-engaged scholarship.

Diversifying Higher Education Leaders

Many higher education institutions have become very comfortable (and even robotic) concerning the diversity narrative. This often is determined by the culture of the institution and its cultural artifacts.

However, the biggest driver of this narrative is the institution’s president and how this individual embodies the ideas and promise of inclusivity.

This idea extends past the individual’s DNA to include how they actually show up in their role. Students – especially undergraduates – can tell if a president is authentic and being honest in relation to diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is one of the greatest threats to higher education leaders right now; presidents and chancellors are realizing that they need to have the personal capacity to handle the struggles and opportunities that come with diversity. Therefore, it’s important to get more diversity in higher education leadership positions, as these individuals bring a very specific level of consciousness based on their lived experiences.

Diversity is Gaining Momentum

When faced with successive leadership moments around an issue, a president can decide what he or she is going to stand for. Then, the president can work with vice presidents and deans to set a priority for these things to take place, thus putting together an institutional effort across the various areas.  The president can create a structure and the associated environment where direct reports know that this is something that matters. Additionally, the president, as chief executive officer of the institution, can communicate the importance of these efforts.

The board also needs to be involved. Board members need to be diverse and have experience with diversity in their professional lives. These trustees need to be committed to the common good for both the institution and society. Without these types of board members, the president will have difficulty moving these issues forward.

Working with the board chair, the president can make the effort an institutional priority, including having initiative progress measured as part of the president’s performance review. This will help create accountability, which then can extend to the president’s direct reports, including the vice president of business and finance, the chief operating officer, the provost’s office, and student services.

Dealing with Unconscious Bias in Higher Education

Much of the United States’ public education system has done a poor job of teaching history that includes all cultures and identities for the last 30-40 years. Americans have a very narrow story of history, which is reinforced by a tendency for individuals to remain in a monolithic community. While many higher education professionals – including senior leaders — are doing good work, they don’t know what they don’t know in areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion and can get defensive because they aren’t aware of their unconscious biases.

Dealing Effectively with Discomfort

Higher education institutions haven’t developed their truth-telling capacity because of the lack of knowledge of history or because the campus environment is created and maintained by leaders who are part of the dominant culture and maintain the same degree of comfort and engagement.

Without diversity among institutional leaders, an environment emerges in which conversations are limited by individuals’ lived experiences. When those in academic settings don’t have knowledge of something, they stumble or withdraw and move to the next thing. This can lead to defensiveness and debate. If the leader hasn’t built up the mental and emotional muscles to identify, carry, and push through the discomfort of a challenging or difficult topic, opportunities will be continually missed.

Wholehearted Leadership

Valuing people wholeheartedly is a critical part of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Higher education leaders are also called to be appreciative and reflective to determine patterns of how they have left people behind historically.

Diversity is all about representation so that everyone feels good and is welcome on campus. Inclusion means that everyone has a part in it. Equity requires leaders to reconcile the ways in which departments, programs, and organizations operate. This includes identifying when the institution has not fulfilled its mission and identifying the gap between marketing and the actual lived experience.

Faculty, staff, and students know when they have a leader who is really in their corner and really is committed to these ideals.  Equity asks these top leaders to address an identified priority by reconciling the institution and its mission as well as the ways it has not been fulfilled. This type of leadership makes a mark in the area of diversity and inclusion and also leaves a legacy.

Reconciling the Past

Colleges and universities – including leaders and faculty – need to do a better job telling the truth and reconciling their past in relation to diversity. For example, Georgetown University had to come to terms with its history, where Jesuit priests sold 272 slaves to slave traders to secure the future of the university. In 2017, institutional leaders held a public ceremony in which they publicly apologized to the descendants of those slaves, some of whom were campus leaders or people who had been educated at Georgetown. This type of truth-telling leads to more respect, particularly from communities that previously have been marginalized.

By telling the truth, leaders can help the higher education community reconcile the past to make the community whole and then imagine a better future. The residual of not telling the truth is significant. Therefore, it’s important for anchor institutions like universities and colleges to continue to maintain our place and step even more boldly into the role of taking a moral positionality. 

Public institutions, as well as faith-based schools, can do this. The United States needs institutions such as colleges and universities to join with anchor institutions such as public libraries and other community-based institutions to provide leadership that is morally and principally based.

A New Framework for Expanding Leadership Pipeline

Utilizing a new frame for identifying aspiring leaders can break patterns that have led to the same types of leaders being placed repeatedly and historically in higher education’s leadership pipeline. Instead, institutions need to look at aspiring leaders’ cultural assets, cultural wealth, and lived experiences to expand the leadership spectrum.

Three Tips for Higher Education Leaders

Higher education leaders should consider the following:

  • Being willing and open to engaging with someone who will challenge their ideas around what diversity, equity, and inclusion mean. Leaders also need to seek out a confidential relationship devoted to helping them develop competencies based on performance indicators.
  • Having someone in their inner circle who will assist them campus-wide in doing this type of work.
  • Identifying sustained financial support for diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. One option is to seek funds through the institution’s capital campaign.

Bullet Points

  • In today’s increasingly diverse world, it’s critical for higher education leaders to have the personal capacity to handle the struggles and opportunities that come with diversity. One way is through creating a more diverse group of leaders because these individuals will bring a specific level of consciousness based on their lived experiences to their positions.
  • Leaders can develop institutional efforts by engaging their leadership team, creating a structure and associated environment, and then communicating the message to the broader community.
  • Board members need to come from diverse backgrounds so they can bring their own lived experiences to the table. They need to work in partnership with institutional leaders to support institutional efforts. In addition, they need to demand accountability by making it part of the president or chancellor’s performance review. This, in turn, allows the president or chancellor to put accountability measures in place for the institution’s senior leaders.
  • S. public schools do not do a good job of teaching history. Thus, many well-intended individuals are not well-informed about issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. They can become defensive because they are not aware of their unconscious biases.
  • Higher education leaders need to build up the mental and emotional muscles to carry and push through the discomfort of a challenging or difficult topic. Otherwise, opportunities continually will be missed because individuals will default into defensiveness and debate.
  • Higher education leaders need to value people wholeheartedly as part of the institution’s diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Higher education leaders are also called to be appreciative and reflective to determine patterns of how they (or their institution) may have left people behind historically. It’s important for leaders to tell the truth based on today’s morals and values instead of using a historical lens.
  • Institutions need to find ways to identify, groom, and hire diverse leaders. This can happen through valuing aspiring leaders’ cultural assets, cultural wealth, and lived experience.

Links to Articles, Apps, or websites mentioned during the interview:

  • Twice as Good, Leadership and Power for Women of Color

Guests Social Media Links:


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