Inaugural DEI conference draws multitudes to Memorial Union
Speakers from across nation and more than 20 presentations round out the conference
UND’s inaugural conference on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion drew about 400 attendees to the Memorial Union on Oct. 5-6.
Formally called “The Future is Now: Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in Higher Education and Beyond,” the conference featured four keynote speakers — scholars from universities and colleges from across the United States — along with dozens of different panel discussions and presentations. Faculty members from across the North Dakota University System visited the UND campus to present and participate in the event.
Tamba-Kuii Bailey, special assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion, said registration for the conference reached the maximum number of people the conference was designed to accommodate.
Bailey said that easily meeting attendance goals shows there is a strong interest in sharing ideas about DEI.
“That says to me, it says to all of us, that there’s this need, and people are hungry for this information,” he said.
The conference was in the making for about a year. UND President Andy Armacost was supportive of the idea to hold a DEI conference at UND, Bailey said; and with Armacost’s approval, Bailey helped form a committee to make the idea a reality.
People are doing good work in the area of DEI, including working with diverse and multicultural communities of students at UND, Bailey said. That work comes in the areas of research and teaching, as well as teaching pedagogy. Bringing scholars together at a conference gives those scholars the chance to share that information, and Bailey said his goal is that attendees walk away with new ideas they can put into practice.
“I think that that has to be the takeaway, that people are walking away with new knowledge, and maybe ways of refining some of their own work,” he said.
Alongside the keynote speakers, attendees made their way between more than 20 presentations and panel discussions that focused on supporting LGBTQ+ communities in education, DEI-focused research, higher education policy and several other key themes of the conference.
The conference began Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. with a welcoming speech by Armacost, who said he changed his prewritten speech because of the “vibe” of the Memorial Ballroom. That vibe? A sense of ambition and excitement at coming together.
Armacost noted different activities at UND that support DEI initiatives, such as a growing number of student affinity groups, and the hiring of Jeff Maliskey as director of the UND Pride Center. Maliskey also presented at the conference.
Armacost expressed his strong support for holding additional DEI conferences at UND, acknowledging the need to deepen the understanding of what it means to have an equitable learning environment.
“We must continue to work to institutionalize our policies, and the research that addresses barriers for individuals on our campus, and to help create a more equitable learning, working and living environment for our students, faculty and staff members,” Armacost said.
Suzanne Johnson, president of Green River College in Washington, gave the first of the conference’s four keynote addresses. She discussed the need for universities and colleges to move beyond words and put DEI initiatives into practice. The goal, she said, is education, because it has the ability to change people, “and people change the world.” That means reevaluating how diverse groups of people are treated, to find a common way for people to interact.
“How people want to live their lives in terms of their personal time is up to them, their politics up to them,” Johnson said. “But while we’re on campus, with each other, and with our students, then we have a certain set of expectations for how we’re going to engage.”
(UND Today’s further coverage is available if you’d like to learn more about Johnson’s talk as well as the other keynote speeches.)
Shortly after Johnson’s address, Kelly LaFramboise, director of diversity and inclusion at Valley City State University, held a discussion about growing DEI programs there from scratch. VCSU launched its Office of Diversity & Inclusion in August 2020. Joining LaFramboise were four students who actively participate in initiatives started by her office.
The first task at VCSU was drafting a statement about racial injustice, and efforts have grown from there to include work for a DEI certificate for all majors, LaFramboise said.
Attending that presentation was Lisa Johnson, vice chancellor for Academic & Student Affairs of the North Dakota University System. Speaking to UND Today after the conference had concluded, Johnson said NDUS recruitment and outreach efforts have attracted a diverse body of students, faculty and staff systemwide. That means striving to make NDUS campuses places of equity and fairness.
“What I observed at the inaugural DEI conference were some of the best examples of grass-roots efforts to support the needs of diverse and inclusive campuses, and to provide spaces of open and sometimes difficult discussions about race, social justice and respect for one another,” Johnson said.
UND sophomore Loretta Aggrey said she enjoyed the conference and appreciated the insight of the speakers. Aggrey said there is room for growth everywhere, including in her own life, but UND is “actively making progress.” The conference gave her a chance to deepen her own understanding of equity.
“This opportunity has given me a different perspective on DEI in general,” she said.
Bailey said he understands the need for regular conversations about DEI, and that further conferences would be a benefit. He even knows where they should be held:
“I think that UND is the space to do it,” he said. “I think we need to be leaders not only in action, but leaders in diversity, equity and inclusion.”