Developing Diversity Training

February 18, 2016

Provost Katie Conboy

A message from the President's Office by Katie Conboy, Provost and Senior Vice President

This week, Katie Conboy, Provost and Senior Vice President, and I share information about our plans to develop diversity training at Simmons.

In this “Thoughts from the President” message, we share our best thinking about how we can respond to the specific concerns that have been raised by the ‘Students of Color Inclusion Council’ (SOCIC), and how they fit into a larger goal of welcoming diversity and inclusion on campus.

There is no doubt there is important work to be done now to better prepare faculty, staff, and students to participate in a truly inclusive community. And yet we also know that there is no single training session that can accomplish this goal. So we will take certain steps now, while also developing a more sustainable longer-term strategy that creates ongoing opportunities for learning about what members of our community have identified as barriers (or potential barriers) to their full inclusion in the Simmons community: race, ethnicity, religion, language, gender, sexual identity, age, ability, and national origin.

A search is underway to identify a consultant or combination of consultants to conduct basic diversity and inclusion training for faculty and staff. Training will begin this semester with senior leaders of the College and will continue with faculty and staff. We expect to identify the consultant by the end of February, and to determine the percentage of faculty and staff who will participate in the training before the end of the year. From students, we have heard particular concerns about racism and bias, including microagressions and stereotype threat, and we want to focus at least part of the initial training on these issues.

Microagressions are comments made in the context of everyday activities that communicate—intentionally or unintentionally—derogatory or degrading attitudes towards members of any marginalized group. When microaggressions happen in class, students are concerned that faculty members do not always know how to handle the situation. Sometimes, they have told us, faculty and staff are the source of microaggressions—as are their fellow students. Stereotype threat is differently complex. Research has shown that when people feel they are living in accordance with stereotypes, they can begin to worry that they will somehow confirm the stereotype people hold of their group—especially if there are relatively few members of their group in the community. Additionally, being singled out to speak on behalf of one’s group can further contribute to feelings of otherness and alienation. The initial training will attempt to bring everyone to basic level of understanding of these issues.

At the same time that we plan for this training, many other initiatives are being planned for our community, and we hope these will amplify and extend the training, including:

  • Assistant Provost for Diversity & Inclusion Lisa Smith-McQueenie and members of the Diversity and Inclusion Action Council (DIAC) will hold biweekly meetings called “Talkin’ on Tuesdays” to address such topics as bystander awareness, racism and other isms, preparation for the teachable moment, and creating an inclusive classroom environment.
  • Lisa will also re-broadcast a series of webinars on “Racial Climate on Campus” that have general applicability to Simmons, and she is partnering with the YWCA Community Dialogues on Race and with Community Change, Inc. for other events that will promote campus dialogues on race.
  • The Center for Excellence in Teaching (CET) and the Faculty Senate have created book-group discussions for this semester with three important perspectives. The CET will sponsor a discussion of Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi, and the Faculty Senate will host discussions of Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?; Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me; and Patricia Hill Collins’ Another Kind of Public Education.

For those who also want the opportunity to be self-guided in their learning, the Library staff has proactively created a diversity and inclusion resource guide.

Obviously, by addressing these specific issues through training conducted by external consultants and dialogue facilitated by internal experts, we can begin to address culture change at Simmons, but the work will have to be ongoing. As we undertake it, we might also consider whether examining the culture of higher education might be important for us as well. Colleges and universities are places that blur generational lines in the pursuit of life-long learning. They are places where faculty and staff often come and stay, observing many cohorts of students as they move through a single institution. They are places where students may come directly from high school or may come with years of experience, places where close relationships between faculty and students—and among students—are encouraged and celebrated.

It’s interesting, in this regard, that a recent study by Deloitte and the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative revealed that there are important generational differences in people’s ideas and ideals around diversity and inclusion. In an article published about this research in Fast Company last May, Millennials are said to be seeking “cognitive diversity” in their workplaces: “the blending of different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives within a team.” Millennials support inclusion as essential to innovation and business success; they want differences to be present in their work, not restrained or modulated. Baby-boomers and Gen-Xers are more likely to define diversity as “a representation of fairness and protection to all,” and their business case for inclusion may be more focused on “compliance and equality.”

This may be instructive to us at Simmons. While there is no doubt that we must confront racism and other bias on campus, we should also recognize the more subtle expectations that may be held by multiple groups on campus—and foster dialogue that helps us to understand and learn from each other.

So, beyond the initial training, and beyond this year’s dialogues, there must be ongoing support for faculty and staff members to deepen their knowledge about and appreciation for diversity. And students, too, need training to understand how to support each other as peers in their academic and social lives and as they look to their futures, preparation for their careers and relationships after their time at Simmons.

We look forward to making immediate progress while developing a sustainable diversity and inclusion strategy for the future.