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4 critical learnings for creating an effective DEIB strategy

Jeremy Spake

Senior Principal, Cornerstone

Whitney Meyer is relatively new to her role as Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at the University of North Florida (UNF) — and she’s far from alone.

“I’m sure if I asked, ‘Raise your hand if you stepped into this role less than a year ago,’” she said to attendees at the 2021 College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR) Virtual Spring Conference, “Many of you would raise your hands; or maybe you appointed a new chief diversity officer; or maybe you’re seeking one right now.”

Diversity and inclusion experts have been in high demand since early 2020 — particularly at the leadership level. According to one analysis of over 100,000 C-suite hires in the U.S. from January to October 2020, the appointments of chief diversity officers grew 51%, and the position is expanding faster than any other C-Suite role.

The reason for this demand is simple: After last year’s social justice movements and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted racial inequities and imbalances to leadership teams, organizations are looking to drive change.

In higher education in particular, while many institutions recognize the importance of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB), racial disparities persist not only in terms of student enrollment and degree attainment but also in the workforce, with underrepresentation of BIPOC in both faculty and administration.

As a moderator during CUPA-HR, I joined in the discussion about how to drive real change in higher ed. One feature of this new conversation is the addition of “belonging” to the standard DEI acronym. But while the addition of this word might be new to some in this space, the sentiment is not.

Regardless of which acronym an institution uses, we’re all driving to the same outcome of increasing the sense of belonging across all institutional stakeholders. Adding it to the conversation helps give us something to track and measure to make sure everyone in an institution — current and prospective students, faculty and staff — all feel like they can bring their full selves to your institution, and thrive in doing so.

Meyer’s fellow presenter at the conference, Catherine Spear, is also new to her role: She started her position at the University of Southern California (USC) as Vice President for Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Title IX in August 2020.

In our session titled “The New Conversation Around DEIB,” Meyer and Spear shared their strategies to improve DEIB in higher ed.

1) Promote unity around DEIB efforts

One of Meyer’s first decisions to improve the effectiveness of UNF’s DEIB initiatives focused on bringing together all of its disparate, on-campus efforts.

“We had all these departments reporting to different areas,” she recalls, from the Commission on Diversity and Inclusion to the Department of Diversity Initiatives, to the LGBTQ Center and more.

Meyer and her team created the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to encompass and organize these different departments. The Statement of Unity helped to articulate UNF’s DEIB policy and goals and to connect every department to one, central mission.

“It was important that everyone knew we worked together,” said Meyer. “We used to be siloed and fighting over the same resources and board memberships, but now we’re functioning as one cohesive unit. Each organization deals with its unique issues, but there’s a common good we’re all working towards.”

2) Drive real outcomes beyond rhetoric

USC’s DEIB strategy began with a similar unifying framework. In 2019, the newly appointed university president gathered feedback from over 24,000 individuals across faculty, staff, students and alumni through surveys and 130+ town halls.

From this process, USC defined six “unifying values” that represent its renewed commitment to DEI&B: integrity, excellence, wellbeing, open communication and accountability. The university also made it clear that this “Culture Journey” would be something the entire university community would go on together.

USC developed a list of changes based on those unifying values, such as renaming a building that had been named for a eugenicist. (See for more information on USC’s ongoing Culture Journey and shared commitment to DEIB.)

“The work in this area has to be ongoing, it’s not a one-and-done,” she said. “You have to fund these efforts and keep them front of mind,” added Spear.

3) Offer continuous learning to inform DEIB initiatives

In developing their respective approaches to DEI&B, both UNF and USC made sure to offer ongoing education opportunities to their campus communities. From online learning materials around the institution’s history to regular speaker series, these resources provide context for DEIB at each school.

“You can’t say, ‘oh don’t talk about the past, let’s only look at now,’” said Meyer. “People need to understand where we come from in order to avoid making the same mistakes.” Online learning resources are available that cover the university’s history and show how it connects to the school’s policies across hiring, recruitment, housing and classroom experiences.

“We don’t exist in a vacuum,” Spear added. “How are we being affected regionally, by the state, nationally, globally?”

USC regularly invites outside voices to campus to answer these questions. The school’s AMPLIFIED speaker series, for example, is aimed at highlighting diverse perspectives on pressing societal issues. Its annual DEI Week is also focused on facilitating timely discussions; this year’s event featured powerful learning sessions led by Professor Ibram X. Kendi and Dr. Benjamin Reese about broader issues across the higher ed landscape.

4) Transparent, regular data helps keep DEIB efforts on track

Moving forward, Meyer and Spear are committed to continuing to evolve their programs to meet the needs of students, faculty and staff — and they use data to help hold themselves accountable. Regular campus climate surveys that help assess the impact of existing initiatives while also detecting new, unmet needs. They also tap into USC data, like hiring and retention metrics for faculty and staff, as well as student acceptance and success rates, to measure progress.

“It all ties back to strategic planning and having measurable goals,” said Spear. “Many of us are familiar with SMART goals for individual performance evaluations, and I think it’s about taking similar steps for DEIB initiatives.”

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