Common DEI Pitfalls - Higher Education


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Common DEI Pitfalls

by Kimberly A. Truong

Over recent months, I have had multiple conversations with colleagues about their distrust of diversity, equity, and inclusion offices. This distrust stems from previous interactions with these offices and observations of the status quo. Colleagues share these experiences and challenges with me to gain insights and support as they have knowledge of the work I perform in the JEDI space. Below are three composite examples of common DEI pitfalls colleagues have shared and my response to each situation.

Dr. Kimberly A. Truong

  • A DEI officer was appointed to recruit and retain faculty of color. They ended up requesting regular meetings of faculty of color. The faculty of color were unsure of what these meetings were about. During the course of these meetings, the DEI officer asked faculty to help with recruiting and retaining faculty of color.
  • A DEI office was called in to manage a crisis. The DEI office itself had little to no knowledge about the specific diversity issue at the heart of the crisis. The DEI office reached out to staff of color outside their office to help them.
  • A BIPOC student brings shortcomings in programming to the DEI office’s attention. The DEI office acknowledges the lack of attention paid to this topic and proceeds to ask the student to lead programming efforts on this topic.

In each of these cases, there is a misalignment between the roles and the work that need to be done. Essentially, there is a heavy reliance on others to do the work that the individual or office was hired to perform.

  • In the first example, someone whose role it is to support faculty of color should first learn about the challenges of color faculty face, be clear in setting goals for meetings given the limited time faculty of color have, provide and advocate for resources and other support that faculty of color need.
  • In the second example, the DEI office does not have expertise to manage the specific crisis. They should use resources to hire a consultant who has this area of expertise. They also should set a long-term goal to develop expertise in the office by providing professional development to current staff as well as hire staff who have this distinct area of knowledge.
  • In the third example, the DEI office relies on a student to help deliver programming that the office is tasked with executing.

There is no indication a partnership is taking place in any of these cases. There should be recognition of emotional and invisible labor of individuals engaged in this work. This approach is different from inclusive excellence where there is collective ownership at the institutional level for broad efforts. In these three particular cases, this work is isolated to individual functions and people of color are expected to shoulder the brunt of it, often times it happens after an incident has occurred or issue has come to light.

  • In the first case, faculty of color are meeting with the DEI officer to help them with their role. This additional work should be acknowledged in some way at the institutional level with extra service pay, in recognition for service activities, and by the DEI officer themselves through highlighting the work faculty of color are doing to support them.
  • In the second case, staff of color have distinct roles at the institution and their helping the DEI office most likely is not listed on their job descriptions. The DEI office can acknowledge the staff of color through extra service pay as well as on institutional communications to highlight their work.
  • In the third case, the DEI office should look into funding to pay the student to work within their office if they are asking the student to commit time and energy to programming efforts. If there are no student personnel funds available, the DEI office should lead the programming efforts as not to burden students with program planning given they are students. The DEI office should acknowledge student feedback for sharing their ideas and continue to update the student about programming efforts. The DEI office could also seek to partner with the student and student organizations by providing funding support for the programming, administrative support to streamline efforts, and highlight the student and student organizations’ instrumental roles in these programming efforts.

It is important to note that DEI offices and officers have formal roles to support faculty and staff of color. When the DEI officers are the ones gaining support from faculty, staff, and students of color, it is especially important to pause and think about how the positions got reversed and look at the underlying systemic issues within the organization. After that, the organization should make the structural changes necessary to make rectify the situation. This is a huge endeavor, but given how many years we have been engaged in this work, it should not have be the case.

It has been roughly 50 years since the introduction of administrative presence on college campuses to focus on diversity in higher education. Early on, the task was undertaken by those typically assuming the role of a “special assistant to the president,” with little or no budget, staff, authority or support. Since then, the titles have evolved, the roles have expanded and offices and efforts have been mildly resourced. Yet, little progress has been made if we consider these common pitfalls occurring as recent as May 2021. There really is no explanation for the lack of progress, other than a lack of institutional seriousness and commitment. The lack of substantive resources to support DEI efforts leads to these pitfalls. It is unreasonable to expect those from groups previously excluded to offer free labor and counsel for how to solve problems they themselves endure. Everyone in the campus community should take ownership of this work.

In June 2020, many institutional leaders espoused their commitment to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in campus statements supporting Black Lives Matter. Institutional leaders should use this opportunity to transform their institutional cultures to ones where these common pitfalls do not occur, so we will not be at the same place 50 years from now. These institutional leaders should consider a shift from DEI to JEDI, thereby also shifting budgeting and resources to support JEDI efforts in a way that no longer expects free work from those who experience the pain being addressed.

Dr. Kimberly A. Truong is executive director of the Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Office at MGH Institute of Health Professions and an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

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