Inclusive Conversations

Diversity and inclusion can be challenging ideals to discuss, let alone realize. Elizabeth Simmons shares strategies gleaned from conversations with trusted colleagues.

January 9, 2015

In a previous column, I described spending a year learning about academic leadership as an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellow.  One of the best parts of the experience was talking extensively and honestly with new and experienced administrators from a wide variety of backgrounds, disciplines and institutions.

It was fascinating to hear their viewpoints on the common challenges we all face: rising costs, uncertain revenue streams, shifting public attitudes toward higher education, the challenges of assessing student learning, and the need to support interdisciplinary work.

Some of the most enlightening conversations related to a topic that can be stressful to discuss with people you have not known for very long: diversity. I was glad that so many other administrators were willing to talk about this topic with me, because I needed the practice. Unless I discuss issues related to diversity regularly, I can become timid and tentative, which limits my ability to be proactive about promoting inclusion. I learned several important things through this year of conversation that I would like to share. 

To set the context from which I write, here are a few words about my background. I identify as white, cisgender and straight, which affords me certain kinds of privilege in U.S. society. However, as a woman physicist, I am a member of a small and visible minority within my discipline (fewer than 10 percent of full professors in physics are women).

That status has resounded through my professional life; I’ve experienced everything at work from outright harassment and discrimination to full acceptance and camaraderie. Back in our neighborhood, I can generally relax and blend in as another suburban mom. Yet, as part of a multi-ethnic family with openly LGBTQ members, I have experienced enough examples of racial and gender bias to make the much larger incidents reported in the media feel less abstract and more personal.

Lessons from President Bobby Fong

During the ACE year, I was fortunate enough to take part in a meeting that included the late Bobby Fong, then the president of Ursinus College. In the course of the discussion, he made some insightful remarks about the key elements of responding effectively to public incidents of racial, ethnic, gender or other bias. While he was addressing a group of administrators, his ideas are equally applicable to faculty and staff throughout campus.

First, one’s attention and response to such incidents must be continuous and ongoing, part of regular engagement with the issues, and not a set of singular reactions to supposedly isolated occurrences.  After all, the evidence shows that members of minority populations experience microaggressions and other discouragements almost continuously.  Although only the most egregious situations are reported in the news media, which makes bias incidents appear unusual, the problem exists on a daily level.  

Second, the best response to a given incident is made from a vantage point that is somehow “close” to the occurrence – e.g., it should come from a leader of the department, course or building where the incident happened. That tends to make the response more targeted, more obviously related, and more appropriate in scale. It also underlines that the incident has affected how individual people interact on a daily basis within an office or classroom or dormitory.

Third, in formulating the response, one should adopt a personal and human approach: How did this impact me? How did it make me feel? This draws others into the situation in a way that may let them empathize rather than merely taking sides or becoming defensive. It communicates the harm that has been done without imputing motives to anyone.

Fourth, it is important to recognize that everyone involved in the situation is human. Perhaps the ill-spoken remarks or offensive cartoons did not come off as intended; maybe they were a careless error rather than an intentional slur. 

President Fong talked about how initiating an “avuncular” conversation may help a person see that certain actions actually hurt someone else, however unintentionally. This increases the possibility that the responsible party will be able to make a genuine and heartfelt response to those who were affected.

Appreciating Allies

Over the course of my time as an ACE Fellow, I had numerous conversations with new administrators who were trying to resolve certain longstanding equity issues in their units and found themselves stymied by unexpected challenges. A couple of examples particularly stood out:

One department head faced a tricky issue related to teaching assignments, and was trying to handle it in a way that would be equitable across gender, rank and other factors.  Some female faculty members did not realize that the teaching configurations they had requested were unusual, in terms of the distribution of courses across semesters and the balance between introductory and advanced classes. When those requests were not granted, they attributed the decision to gender bias. 

Exacerbating the issue was the fact that some of their male colleagues had requested superficially similar (but technically quite different) accommodations that were granted. When the department head tried to explain the distinction and propose an alternative solution, the faculty members’ assumption that gender bias was involved undermined the attempts at resolution.

Another new unit leader had discovered that longstanding compensation patterns in the department displayed signs of gender bias. This person immediately set to work on rectifying the issue, but had to do it in a confidential way. So those in the marginalized group, who stood to benefit from this individual’s efforts, were not aware of the time-consuming effort being made on their behalf. In the meantime, they openly expressed suspicion about the administrator’s commitment to diversity.

In both cases, individuals whom I knew to be deeply invested in promoting inclusive practices wound up being mistrusted because of their genders. This was particularly frustrating for them because they were also simultaneously engaged in both local and institution-wide efforts to improve the climate for all faculty members. In other words, just when they were actively trying to make a difference, they were also feeling unappreciated and even under siege.

This made me reflect on how important allies are. As someone who is a gender minority in my field, I have benefited greatly from the assistance of mentors and allies from the majority population. I have tried to thank and appreciate them along the way.  

However, until I heard these stories, I don’t think I had ever realized the personal risks these allies take in standing up for minority groups in my field. Being human, they may sometimes try an imperfect solution or use the wrong words or simply come across as awkward and uninformed.  This can lead to their being mistakenly labeled as hostile or prejudiced by the individuals they were trying to assist.

Those of us who are in the “underrepresented” role in a given situation should strive to appreciate the efforts of those who try to help us, even when those efforts are flawed. Instead of focusing exclusively on their shortcomings, we should also try to understand their underlying intentions.

For instance, switching the methods we are using to communicate with them (e.g., emails vs. phone calls, hallway chats vs. sit-down meetings) or including a neutral party in the conversation might help us determine whether the bias we perceive is personal, structural, or mostly a product of miscommunication. 

Early in my career, I encountered an administrator who often made ill-judged off-the-cuff remarks, some of which came across as sexist. I feared that he would not take me as seriously as he took my male peers. But then I had an individual meeting with him about my career plans and found that he listened carefully, asked questions, and followed up as promised. 

With that experience in mind, I was suddenly able to discern other ways in which he was treating male and female faculty members equivalently. Moreover, I acquired enough perspective to realize that his verbal gaffes were mainly unfortunate attempts at humor, and shrug them off.

Where time and opportunity allow, one might even reach out to help potential allies do a better job of being inclusive. Building on President Fong’s third point, if we let our allies know how their words or actions have impacted us personally, it can enable us to communicate a nuanced message that pushes for change while maintaining an important relationship. For example, one might be able to say: “Because you are generally an advocate for inclusion, I want you to know that I felt uncomfortable when I heard your ‘joke’ during the faculty meeting. It made me acutely aware that I was the only woman in the room.”

By the same token, those in the “majority” role who want to be inclusive should check frequently to see whether their intentions are being communicated clearly and whether their efforts are actually useful to those they hope to assist. In fact, initiating explicit conversations about inclusive practices and goals may forge a collaboration that takes the participants beyond their original roles as “majority” and “minority” and improves the workplace for everyone.

The Dangers of Assumptions

At each of the ACE cohort retreats, the Fellows held many long discussions during and between our formal sessions. Some were overtly about topics related to race or privilege. Others, ostensibly about fiscal or logistical matters, revealed how class-based perspectives can unwittingly bias our perceptions of seemingly neutral topics. After one retreat, I found myself pondering three different, yet related, experiences I’d had that week:

  • In a plenary session, my analysis of a case study was called into question specifically because I worked for a university deemed to be elite.
  • At times, I found myself feeling inwardly apologetic about my background, as if the experiences of those coming from different circumstances were somehow more valid or genuine.
  • During a project, I abruptly realized that I needed to start paying better attention to the very grounded and astute comments of a team member whose accent differed from mine.

I am glad to have had those awkward experiences while within a group of trusted peers. With the best of intentions, we will all make flawed unconscious assumptions and step on one another’s toes from time to time. It is good to have the chance to think about the implications when one is among friends and feels safe enough to attempt some honest self-reflection.

Looking back on the incidents later in the week, I could appreciate that I need to be vigilant about not making unwarranted assumptions based on appearance, accent, or other irrelevant items. This is not truly surprising: as Project Implicit amply demonstrates, we must all constantly work to keep our implicit biases from influencing our behavior. At the same time, I realized that I deserve the same consideration in return – people should not make superficial assumptions about my competence based on my looks or background either.  

Similarly, I came to appreciate that, while I must strive to be aware of the various forms of unearned privilege I enjoy and to understand how they influence my perspective, I should not be ashamed of where I come from. The fact that my colleagues and I have had different life experiences should be a source of additional richness in our conversations, not walls that prevent us from communicating. 

In confronting the assumptions that others make about us (or that we make about them), we should remain mindful of President Fong’s fourth point, which he phrased quite aptly as “cutting people some slack.”

This idea resonates particularly strongly with me. After all, reaching out across lines of difference in any direction can be scary. I am often apprehensive that I may say something wrong and end up being unintentionally insensitive. But I attempt to reach out anyway because it’s the only hope we all have to establish comradeship and effect change. 

In memory of the eloquent and inspiring Bobby Fong, when a tricky situation arises, I will try to remember to “cut some slack” to those on the other side of the conversation… and hope they will do likewise for me.


Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Lyman Briggs College, acting dean of the College of Arts & Letters, and University Distinguished Professor of Physics at Michigan State University.


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