Seminar highlights ‘Diversity’s Promise for Excellence’
UND-hosted panel highlights pivotal role of diversity, equity and inclusion in higher ed
Here’s a suggestion, said the featured speaker at a UND seminar last week on diversity’s promise in higher education: Think hard about the University’s land acknowledgment statement.
Published in 2020, the statement – which was read by Jenny Reichart, faculty development specialist at the UND Teaching Transformation and Development Academy, to lead off Wednesday’s panel – recognizes the Indigenous people who lived on UND’s present-day land for thousands of years before the University’s establishment in 1883. It also presents a commitment to build relations with the First Nations of what is now North Dakota.
And that combination of recognition and action is exactly what’s needed, said Daryl Smith, a senior research fellow and professor emerita of education and psychology at Claremont Graduate University, and the author of UND’s fall book read selection, Diversity’s Promise for Higher Education: Making It Work.
Smith implored the University community to reflect on those stated commitments – as well as related goals in the University’s strategic plan – as UND continues its work in matters of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Also, as crucial as leadership is in maintaining those commitments to Indigenous and other marginalized communities, all levels of the institution have a role to play, from student activism to curriculum content developed by faculty, she said.
Hosted by TTaDA for a 90-minute panel discussion, titled Diversity’s Promise for Excellence, Smith was joined by Dave St. Peter, president and CEO of the Minnesota Twins; Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales, associate professor of leadership studies and affiliate faculty in the migration studies program at the University of San Francisco and Chris Zygarlicke, director of employee development and engagement at UND’s Energy & Environmental Research Center.
Rachel Navarro, professor of counseling psychology and associate dean for research and faculty development in the College of Education & Human Development, moderated the conversation – relaying questions from Zoom attendees throughout the discussion.
Not just good, but essential
Smith first introduced herself by thanking UND and TTaDA for considering her 2009 book as a centerpiece to the ongoing campus conversation around diversity, equity and inclusion.
In addition to the fall book read, TTaDA has facilitated a number of panels and workshops on the topic in 2021, many of which are available on the Academy’s website.
Diversity’s Promise for Higher Education: Making It Work is a cumulative work of decades trying to position the work of diversity, equity and inclusion as central to institutional excellence, Smith said. Though higher education takes precedence in the book, the implications are national and global as societies and governments grapple with issues surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion, she added.
“Part of the issue is understanding that this matter is about excellence in a society, and what it takes to build our capacity to deliver that excellence,” Smith said. “Higher education has a special role that is still unfulfilled, and my research has been about building institutional capacity for that.”
St. Peter, a 1989 UND graduate, spoke about making diversity an imperative in a different type of organization – a Major League Baseball team. He offered his perspective in response to a question about bolstering diversity among workforces produced by institutions such as UND.
“It starts with your leadership,” St. Peter remarked. “For me, that’s our ownership of the Twins. If you don’t have a full commitment from your leadership, frankly, you have a very hollow commitment. … I give our ownership a lot of credit in the sense we recognize that we don’t have all the answers.”
In recent years, and especially since the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, the Twins organization has been doing a lot of listening and learning, St. Peter said. And through that self-reflection, he and his peers feel better-equipped to lead with an understanding that “the game isn’t always played on an equal level, depending on how you look, where you come from, or who you love.”
That effort has been well-received by employees, St. Peter continued, particularly by young employees who have a lot of choices in where they want to work. Those people are demanding a more inclusive workforce, and the Twins are cognizant of those values.
“Having a more inclusive workforce, one in which we see more women and people of color, isn’t just good business,” St. Peter said. “It will be essential for businesses going forward, to have that mindset and to work actively to ensure you’re doing everything possible to move the needle in that space.”
To understand complexities and barriers
With college-educated people and organizational leaders often saying, “I didn’t know,” or, “I didn’t understand,” in recent times, regarding social inequities, Smith has asked herself what that says about higher education’s role in preparing students for life as informed citizens.
“How is it that our universities have not prepared more people to understand some of these core issues that are important for all of us to understand in terms of the complexity of identities, the structural inequities built into our society, the historic issues in our society, so that we wouldn’t have quite so much of the, ‘I didn’t understand.’?” Smith said.
“What Dave said about leadership is key, and it’s true for every industry in our country right now,” Smith continued. “This isn’t about being nice. It’s about an urgent imperative that we have this moment to face.”
When asked what recommendations she would have for educators, employers and employees alike to develop skills in order to serve a more diverse community and consumer base, Smith said it’s essential to understand the history and complexity behind identities, especially the ones we find salient in discussions of diversity, equity and inclusion. Also, recognizing the embedded structures that are invisible to the “norm” will create better environments for all people.
As she put it, when you’re part of the “norm,” you don’t notice the rules or infrastructure that cause inequities. When you’re part of a marginalized group, such as people with disabilities, those things factor into everyday life.
Smith cited policies such as Americans with Disabilities Act and Title IX as direct actions that first identified and then disrupted embedded inequities in accessibility and women’s athletics, respectively.
Power of collective voice
Negrón-Gonzales, an interdisciplinary scholar of immigration and education, has been working with undocumented students for the past 17 years as a researcher and advocate.
While higher education is good at talking about diversity, equity and inclusion in a way that feels like everybody wins, she said, the more impactful approach is to use those topics to open conversations about institutional and systemic oppression.
“We need to put diversity on the table in a way that allows us to take action,” Negrón-Gonzales said. “Not just by saying, ‘Ok, well, we’re going to add a woman onto that board or more people of color on these committees.’ But, what does it mean to think about diversity in a way that allows us to grapple with these deeper inequalities?”
As it turns out, higher education is somewhat paradoxical, she continued. It continues to be representative of opportunity and access, “Yet we also know that higher education is a central institution in the ongoing replication of inequality in society. “
That means there aren’t going to be any quick and easy answers for structural solutions.
Answering questions from the audience, both Smith and Negrón-Gonzales talked about the ways collective actions can create tangible change.
“We’re in a time of great activism, and I think institutions will really be pushed to move that way,” Smith said. “The best way to do that is to have a collective voice. … As a faculty member, you have a role to play in terms of your curriculum content, the professional programs you lead and your faculty Senate and other forms of governance.”
Negrón-Gonzales said history shows how grassroots leadership – such as student movements or collective action from faculty and staff – can change policy and history for an institution.
“I would encourage everyone to think in an ongoing way about what collective power we have, regardless of our positions, and how we harness it for the better good,” she said.
Buy-in required for progress
The discussion also covered topics such as the impact of tenure and promotion in addressing diversity, equity and inclusion; establishing stronger relationships with stakeholder communities; and how the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the way we think about previously inflexible standards and practices.
Speaking from his position of hiring world-class researchers at UND’s EERC, Zygarlicke praised President Andy Armacost, as well as past president Mark Kennedy, for making diversity, equity and inclusion central to UND as part of the University’s strategic plan.
“With the goals that we’re shooting for under that plan, including fostering a welcoming, safe and inclusive campus climate, we’re in a good place to move forward,” Zygarlicke said.
St. Peter followed by echoing Zygarlicke’s praise, saying that Armacost’s leadership will maintain UND’s upward trajectory.
At the end of the session, Assistant Professor Tamba-Kuii Bailey, special assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion, encouraged everyone on campus to listen to the full, 90-minute conversation, which is available on TTaDA’s website.
“I appreciate all of you giving such wonderful words, sharing what it means to have a connection between the educational process and how it impacts the workforce,” Bailey said. “And all of you have said this, but this can’t be a one-time experience. We have to continue to have this level of exploration.
“What I’ve heard you say is that this has to be a continual, institutionalized process that everybody has to buy in, and that we have to work collectively and cooperatively with our community and not directive, or in some form of charity.”