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On the third and final day of the 2021 NECHE annual meeting, I arrived in time to grab a bit of breakfast and do a little networking. This year I was fortunate to be able to attend NECHE with two colleagues of mine from BU’s higher education administration program, Lisa Ijiri and Harriette Scott. The three of us shared several raised eyebrows and just as many laughs over the week. Each of us did our fair share of networking and deep thinking about the future of higher ed. I caught up with Lisa at breakfast that morning and then headed into my first session.

I chose to attend Strategies for Improving DEI Efforts, and it was really good. NECHE held several diversity, equity and inclusion–focused sessions this year, and I think I attended all of them. In higher ed, the primary emphasis of DEI work seems to be on the students. Many institutions have one or more required DEI-related courses as part of their general education or foundation requirements, and some are also focused on weaving DEI throughout the curriculum.

Requiring this of our students makes sense, but it raises a question—what DEI-related work do we require of trustees, leaders, faculty and staff? When it comes to equity work, do we hold ourselves to the same standards that we hold our students?

This was one of many questions prompted in the morning’s session. In addition, leaders talked about making sure that their institutions focused on the following:

  1. A regular review of policies and procedures (especially in areas of admissions and hiring)—an annual DEI audit;
  2. Ongoing training and development for faculty, staff, trustees and students;
  3. A regular review of events and programs; and
  4. Regular and ongoing data collection to monitor an institution’s progress.

I was struck by a question from the audience—What do you do about the local community? How do you address racism in your local community? What does it mean to recruit students of color and faculty and staff of color to your institution when your institution is located in a community that is openly racist and anti-Semitic? This reminded me of something Scott Jaschik had said earlier in the week—geography matters more and more. We ignore the climate and culture of our local communities at our peril—especially when it comes to racial equity work and our efforts to recruit, retain and promote BIPOC students, faculty and staff.

What are your institutions doing to work with local communities in the space of DEI? Who does this well?

After the DEI session, I headed to the third and final keynote, which was delivered by Nathan Grawe—The Agile College: Navigating Demographic Change. If the warnings and premonitions shared by Scott Jaschik and Arthur Levine in their respective keynotes earlier in the week hadn’t been enough, Grawe’s demographic forecasting spelled out in primary color–coded detail exactly which of our institutions were likely to gain and lose students in the coming years. And the mere phrase “agile college” feels like some sort of cruel, oxymoronic higher ed joke. Unfortunately, agile is one of the last words I would use to describe the overwhelming majority of our institutions. According to Grawe, components of this agility would include a focus on:

  1. Retention;
  2. Revised academic programming;
  3. Planned downsizing; and
  4. Merging/partnering.

In retrospect, all of these seem obvious, and none will be easy. Levine would urge us to partner with faculty in all four areas as we build the future together.

I know what I’ll be reading over the holidays—Grawe’s The Agile College: How Institutions Successfully Navigate Demographic Changes (2021) and The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present, and Uncertain Future (2021) from Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt.

Mary Churchill is the former chief of policy and planning for Mayor Kim Janey in the city of Boston and current associate dean for strategic initiatives and community engagement at Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis and an ICF certified leadership coach.

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