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We are in the midst of dramatic change. Over the past year, those of us in higher education have seen numerous presidents and chancellors announce retirements, leave for other jobs and otherwise vacate their posts. Those shifts have occurred at Harvard University, the University of Florida, the University of Michigan, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Purdue University, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, Tufts University, New York University, Dartmouth College and Smith College, to name just some of them.
While these shifts are not abnormal, such a sea change in leadership can call into question a number of the institutions’ stated commitments to equity—many of which have been amplified, launched or renewed since 2020. At Penn State, the new president has faced criticism after the university reversed course on a highly publicized racial justice center. That’s one example of how institutional priorities may shift when one president or chancellor leaves and another takes the helm.
The University of Utah confronted a similar challenge when former president Ruth Watkins announced her departure in 2021. Watkins embraced the principles of equity and belonging, and she appointed a humanities scholar, Mary Ann Villarreal, as the inaugural vice president for equity, diversity and inclusion. In the process, she created a new division that would lead structural change to build a more equitable, diverse, accessible and inclusive campus.
Watkins also championed the university’s acquisition of the New Leadership Academy from the University of Michigan in 2021, where the program had been established and run since 2015 at the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good. I have been a part of NLA since 2015 and, with the retirement of its founding director, now serve as its director. The New Leadership Academy is a national program that prepares leaders with the resources to meet the complex challenges associated with equity, diversity and inclusion in higher education and beyond.
Yet while NLA trains leaders across the country to champion and embrace equity, diversity and inclusion, the University of Utah was at a crossroads when President Taylor Randall took the helm in the fall of 2021. Should the institution abandon its previous commitment in favor of a new approach? Or should it double down on its commitment with the renewed energy that only can be brought forth by a new champion? Under Randall’s leadership, the university chose the latter.
Alas, however, it seems many leaders and institutions are unprepared to stay the course. The difference lies in how equity and belonging efforts are implemented throughout a campus. In my experience working with other institutions through the New Leadership Academy, those that abandon their efforts have traditionally relied upon one leader, one champion—such as the president or a single equity, diversity and inclusion leader—to move the work forward. When that leader moves on, the work falters. To address this common challenge, NLA has supported the university in implementing a framework that ensured the work would be sustained beyond the presidential leadership transition.
Cases in Point
The University of Utah is one of the first public institutions in the nation to implement shared equity leadership, or SEL. This leadership approach aims to scale equity, diversity and inclusion work and create cultural change through individual and organizational transformation. Under SEL, individuals at all levels within an institution embrace a personal journey toward critical consciousness to become equity-oriented leaders. Collectively, institutional leaders embody a set of values and enact a set of practices that form new relationships and understandings, ultimately working to disrupt systems and structures that inhibit equitable outcomes. Put simply, SEL is an approach that makes equity everyone’s work.
What does that mean in concrete terms? In our work specifically supporting the university, we piloted the Shared Equity Leadership curriculum from the American Council on Education and the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California to move the model from theory to practice. We have used their SEL tool kit and developed a self-study guide that helps faculty and staff members self-reflect and encourages them to begin a personal journey to learn how to support diversity, equity and inclusion efforts across the campus.
We also helped launch a strategy council that brings together people from across the institution to become the change agents who center equity at the university. And we regularly provide the EDI division with tools and resources to scale equity efforts institutionwide. NLA has hosted SEL Learning Circles and supported the implementation of the Self-Study Guide, and it is providing in-person workshops for members of the strategy council this June. We’ve often found in our work that leaders want to pursue equity work and don’t know where to start. Our workshops and learning circles help them plan, engage and connect with equity, diversity and inclusion learning resources and one another.
Our collective efforts are beginning to take root. We are seeing departments that we assumed were less likely to engage in these efforts begin to take ownership of this very important work, initiating changes that center equity and foster belonging among students, faculty and staff. The campus safety division, for example, has hosted Tracie Keesee, co-founder and president of the Center for Policing Equity, for deeply introspective sessions examining its work and has made diversity, equity and inclusion an important feature of new officer orientation.
What’s happening at the University of Utah is not uncommon. In the New Leadership Academy’s work with institutions and leaders nationwide, we’ve heard in our interviews and seen in practice that the institutions that have prioritized making equity and inclusiveness everyone’s business have experienced the most success in operationalizing those values. At one small public university in the South, for example, the diversity strategy had rested upon hiring, yet they had very few open positions. We worked with leadership to integrate equity, diversity and inclusion into their strategic plan and to consider SEL as the mechanism to bridge EDI work from the chief diversity officer role to everyone at the institution in the strategic plan.
As another example, at a private Christian college in the Southeast, NLA spent three days in workshops with the president and executive cabinet discussing plans to integrate EDI into each role on campus and advising them how to pursue their own personal journeys toward critical consciousness. And through our NLA Fellows Program, people across the nation have gathered to work through their own institutional challenges and opportunities, tying new efforts back to the SEL model.
Regardless of the leadership transitions, the challenges and opportunities faced by higher education administrators must be evaluated through a lens of equity, diversity and inclusion. The likelihood of success is increased when leaders at all levels are equipped with the knowledge, tools and courage to lead with those values. Shared equity leadership is among a few proven ways to ensure diversity, equity and inclusivity efforts live beyond the individuals in specific roles at specific times. It is how institutions can begin to sustain the culture they are striving for not only today but over the long haul.