4 Unique Challenges Confronting University DEI Leaders This Fall - Senior Executive

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DEI Initiatives 4 min

4 Unique Challenges Confronting University DEI Leaders This Fall

Leading DEI efforts at the university level range from unique stakeholders to supporting student freedoms.

by Molly Cohen on September 30, 2022

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  • Today’s students expect their campus to model their own commitment to inclusion through equitable hiring practices and ongoing professional development of faculty

  • 43% of higher ed institutions are reportedly in the early stages of adopting DEI analytics

  • 21.5% of academic institutions include DEI criteria as part of tenure standards

With fall comes the return to campus, and a chance for university diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leaders to engage a new crop of students on DEI initiatives throughout the school year ahead. University DEI leaders have their own key challenges, which differ from those of DEI leaders at publicly traded companies, private firms, government agencies, and other organizations.

Campuses are adding transparency in their DEI commitments through the metrics they disclose, with 43% of higher ed institutions reportedly in the early stages of adopting DEI analytics.

Senior Executive | DEI is speaking with DEI leaders at public universities to learn more about key issues they are facing. As you tackle DEI at your institution, it’s important to consider:

1. Collaborating with a unique mix of stakeholders

Support from stakeholders is critical in launching new DEI initiatives for any organization, but for universities this holds a unique set of challenges. Campus stakeholders include the academic senate, tenured faculty, and students. Just 21.5% of academic institutions include DEI criteria as part of tenure standards.

“A goal that will always be here in my years at Berkeley is: how do our values align with the way that the division is structured and resourced? Really aligning our mission values of DEIBJ [Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging, and Justice] to the way it shows up in my division, be it with more staffing, more financial resources, all of those things,” says Dania Matos, JD, vice chancellor for equity and inclusion in the division of equity and inclusion at UC Berkeley.

2. Modeling a commitment to DEI that matches student expectations

Today’s students expect their campus to model their own commitment to inclusion through equitable hiring practices and ongoing professional development of faculty.

“Students want to know that we, too, have to grapple with difficult topics and engage in respectful dialogue — just as we expect them to do,” says Mary Grace Almandrez, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Syracuse University.

Syracuse will be launching a new administrative fellows program to provide mid-level employees with professional development funds, mentorship and programming money to advance strategic DEIA goals while helping rising stars gain additional skills to become campus leaders.

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3. Supporting freedoms of students

The state of the world has a significant impact on DEI work. Right now, a key area of focus for campus DEI leaders is helping female students understand local laws and resources related to pregnancy. They’re also trying to champion an inclusive curriculum in the face of a growing volume of book challenges being posed by parents and community members.

“The overturning of Roe is having a profound impact socially and culturally, in that our office is the space that’s really responsible for facilitating and navigating those concerns,” says Adrienne Lyles, PhD, JD, executive director of gender equity and inclusion and Title IX coordinator of University of Cincinnati.

At UC Berkeley, part of supporting student freedoms includes the development of an anti-racist campus steering committee and a framework on anti-racism.

“Really bringing all the different components together is one of the things we’re wrestling with and engaging the entire campus community in so it’s not just the job of the Division of Equity and Inclusion but everyone,” says Matos.

4. Maintaining visibility for a growing number of communities on campus

Because campuses (like offices) have limited space, another challenge is determining how to create visibility for the ever-increasing number of campus organizations.

“Being an urban campus, no space is forever for everyone, so you have space for three years and then you have to move. That puzzle of where do we expand as we bring more communities, and the position of space for visibility for communities, is really important, too,” adds Matos.


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