Practical Advice on DEI: Diversity, Civility, and the Liberal Arts

A new CIC report, Diversity, Civility, and the Liberal Arts: Reflections on a CIC Initiative, offers practical resources and lessons learned from two recent CIC Institutes. Several eventful years after the institutes took place, participants convened to reflect on lessons learned and how their work at the Institutes shaped efforts on their campuses.

Diversity, Civility, and the Liberal Arts report cover

In 2017, CIC received a grant from the Mellon Foundation to support the institutes, which were created in response to a small but troubling wave of student unrest. The purpose was to disrupt the pattern of protest/response/return to status quo that many institutions found themselves repeating by leaning into the teaching and learning mission of their institutions. Fifty institutions sent teams of faculty members, academic administrators, and student affairs administrators to workshops in 2018 and 2019—intensive programs that included presentations by leading scholars on a variety of relevant topics plus team-based work to develop specific diversity, equity, and inclusion projects on participating campuses. The Institutes were directed by Beverly Daniel Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College (GA).

In 2021, a group of participants was convened to look back on their institute experience and to reflect on lessons learned in subsequent years. This report not only summarizes institute takeaways but also looks forward, exploring the changing context of DEI work in a new era marked by a contentious presidential election, racial reckoning inspired by the murder of George Floyd, and a global pandemic.

The report offers practical resources and lessons from the original institutes, including recommended readings and examples of successful DEI initiatives in the areas of curricular reform, co-curricular programming, faculty and staff training, and the effective use of data for planning. It also features a wide-ranging conversation with a half-dozen participants from the original workshops, who discuss how the experience prepared them—or sometimes failed to prepare them—for new challenges. What they learned, says Jeff Carlson (Dominican University, IL) is that addressing the challenges of diversity “couldn’t be episodic, or a one-off ‘activity’—it had to be structural, a transformation of the work itself that would constitute a permanent improvement no matter who’s working at [your college] at any given time.”

In this excerpt from the report, authors Jo Beld (St. Olaf College, MN) and Bruce King (Elmhurst University, IL) summarize what Institute participants had to say about implementing effective changes on campus.

Success Factors and Stumbling Blocks

In their follow-up reporting to the Institute, the teams from the 50 colleges and universities were also asked to identify factors or circumstances that supported successes—and those that created challenges—as they implemented their proposed action plans on campus. The success factors they identified were not necessarily unique to DEI initiatives but characterize most stories of successful institutional change:

  • A linkage to core institutional goals and values through intentional connection of a plan or project to the institution’s mission, history, vision, and/or strategic plan;
  • Visible public support from the president and/or other senior administrative leaders;
  • Clear next steps with specific individuals or offices—new or existing—charged with specific tasks;
  • Collaboration across multiple units of the institution, sometimes through the creation of a new “hub” for project activities—an office, a faculty committee, a council—and sometimes by building new alliances;
  • Infusion of DEI project content into existing programs or events, such as all-faculty or all-staff retreats, orientation programs, professional development programming, general education requirements; and
  • Showcasing the immediate results of specific activities, such as new or revised syllabi completed, new courses offered, learning goals articulated, pilot programs launched or institutionalized, new positions filled, etc.

The obstacles they identified will also look familiar to anyone who has sought to lead a significant institutional change effort:

  • Resource constraints. These are especially problematic for change that requires significant volunteer effort, such as revising elective courses or implementing new pedagogies. Resource constraints also contribute to institutional uncertainty, which acts as a disincentive to innovation.
  • Workload constraints. Many of those responsible for leading the implementation of projects had insufficient “bandwidth” to commit to the work, or had other institutional issues or crises added to their workload at the same time.
  • Leadership transitions or vacancies. Several institutions were challenged by a recent or impending change in the presidency or by the unexpected departure of colleagues in key leadership positions.
  • The challenge of project management. Large-scale change, which all the participants were seeking to foster, requires both time and project-management skills—both of which can be in short supply, even when there is an administrative office or cross-functional task force serving as a hub for the work.
  • The conundrum of change leadership. Participants left the Institute experience with heightened energy, commitment, and focus, but the projects they sought to advance were not theirs alone. Project success ultimately depends on the investment of other colleagues who may or may not share their sense of urgency, and who (especially if they are faculty members) exercise considerable autonomy in their own day-to-day decision making.

In short,…they recognized that institutional transformation—particularly in relation to justice, equity, and inclusion—is slow, demanding, and unpredictable work, and that no matter what they had accomplished in the first six months following their Institute experience, it would be at best a starting point.