Spark a renewed passion for equity, diversity and inclusion

Work on equality, diversity and inclusion in universities has become urgent in light of important social movements such as Black Lives Matter. However, this work is often fraught with pitfalls, laced with skepticism and distrust, or dismissed as a boring box-ticking exercise. How do those with leadership responsibilities reignite the spark and infuse the work with a renewed sense of passion? Here are five suggestions based on my experience of research, teaching and leadership in two countries:

1. Create links with the base

Celebrate the unrecognized work of staff and students as an important foundation for bringing about further change. Revitalize field networks so that they bring out areas of discontent and co-construct solutions. Recognize this work through workload distribution and formal recognition such as consideration in promotion. Develop two-way communication structures between those working in all parts and at all levels of the university and the management team. Develop trusting relationships. Listen and be honest about what you can and can’t do, and explain why, rather than hiding behind obtuse language.

2.Bridge fractured communities

Silos often develop between different groups fighting for gender, race, sexuality and disability equality. In the worst case, groups feel like they are competing for scarce resources. Develop incentives such as shared funding to build bridges of communication and push groups towards collaboration. Develop ways to open difficult conversations when group rights and priorities conflict. Try to put in place actions that simultaneously improve equity for a range of groups. Avoid paying the most attention to those with power and make room for less powerful voices. Ensure that strategies recognize the complex diversity and intersectionality of academic communities, while remaining mindful of the specific challenges faced by particular groups.

3. Make it real

Having fair processes in place is essential; but too much focus on process can leave people bored and frustrated navigating bureaucratic hoops and finding little impact. Embed change by identifying specific equality challenges in your institution, then guide people on what they can do differently in their core business and help them understand the positive impact this will have.

Don’t undertake activities that just seem good or that can be easily counted, but which you know are not sustainable in the long term. Don’t rely solely on standard equality training. People are often unable to connect with standardized content, which can be dry and too removed from their own context and lived experiences. Create a bespoke training that draws on stories from your own institutional community, or involves creative or playful elements to create a more energizing platform for discussion and change.

4. Create an open culture

Rather than just educating people about what they cannot do, allow them or even encourage them within the limits of respect and dignity to discuss, question or criticize issues related to equality, diversity and inclusion. Allow everyone to engage without fear of being criticized for making a mistake. Allow people to experiment, give them space to fail, and derive learning opportunities. This does not mean ignoring breaches of respect or dignity or avoiding investigation procedures when violations or harassment are reported. It’s not one or the other. Institutions must act when violations occur, while encouraging respectful and critical dialogue.

5. Inclusive Leadership

Many universities have created positions focused on equity, diversity and inclusion within the leadership team, which is a significant step forward. However, there is a danger that responsibility for this work will be seen as the responsibility of a single institutional leader. It is important that all senior managers participate in diversity training, reflect on their own stories and perspectives, and understand how these play out in the institution. Everyone must be actively committed to incorporating positive actions into the work they do.

Rajani Naidoo is Vice President (Community and Inclusion), Unesco Chair in Higher Education Management and Co-Director of the International Center for Higher Education Management at the University of Bath.

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