Diversity strategic planning process fueled by a ‘ready’ campus

By Susan M. Carini | Emory Report | April 20, 2021

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Under the leadership of Carol Henderson, Emory’s first chief diversity officer, a diversity strategic planning process is giving all major constituencies a voice. Seven communities will share findings for university-wide response in November 2021.

Even as she has set in motion the most ambitious diversity strategic planning process in Emory’s history, Carol Henderson, the university's first chief diversity officer, recognizes that this moment is larger than that. Our nation’s recent history has made it so.

Henderson, who also serves as vice provost for diversity and inclusion and adviser to the president, arrived in August 2019, then watched as the events of 2020 brought the university to what she terms a “beautiful tension between the movement of diversity, equity and inclusion undergirded with the tenets of social justice.” 

President Gregory L. Fenves and Henderson agree that a diversity strategic plan cannot not be top-down but instead must reflect broad community engagement.

“The diversity strategic plan is an expression of our values as a university and it will help lead Emory forward while reminding us that diversity, equity and inclusion are truly embraced when they are woven into the fabric of how we engage, teach, learn and discover,” says Fenves.

Harmonizing the Emory chorus

In beginning the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategic planning process, Henderson worked with Office of the Provost leadership and the Council of Deans, with a resulting recommendation to utilize existing governance structures.

In January 2021, Henderson charged seven Strategic Planning Communities (SPCs) representing faculty, undergraduate students, graduate and professional students, post-doctorates, staff, alumni and the external community. (Read the charge document.) In selecting members for the various communities, the co-chairs took account of intersectional identity as well.

The planning centers around three recurrent themes in the many conversations Henderson has convened:

  • Professional Development, Education and Awareness: the advanced learning opportunities, both formal and informal, that enhance knowledge and proficiency in practicing the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion.
  • Climate and Culture: our collective attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. “Culture” is demonstrated in the collective community of engagement, expressed in the values of community members and the ways they interact with one another, felt in the sense of belonging and true investment in one another’s well-being. 
  • Accountability: taking action to identify and eliminate patterns of inequity that impede the ability to fulfill the institutional mission and goals.

Preserving the good and making it better

“My coming here started the process, and there is no doubt that 2020 gave it urgency, but the Emory community was already marching down this road, for which I am thankful,” says Henderson.

From her perspective, “no movement starts without acknowledging those who came before.” However, she is also practical, pointing out that “in so doing, you avoid repeating what didn’t work.” 

Through an extended listening tour and engaging relevant partners, Henderson accomplished the organizational alignment that must precede a strategic planning process. She created the following three groups, which provide synergies for the strategic planning process as they carry out the equally important day-to-day work around DEI. All three will have a central role in implementing the final plan.

  • The membership of the Executive Leadership Council consists of chief diversity officers and the DEI practitioners in the schools and units.
  • The Diversity Liaison Commission is a general body — the boots on the ground — whose members emerge through a nomination process.
  • The Intercultural Development Advisory Group are those who have an academic component in their portfolios concerning DEI. Henderson credits this body with creating a statement on diversity and a glossary of terms

Substantive work divided seven ways

Exercising considerable autonomy, the SPCs meet monthly and, every other month, all seven groups get together.

To ensure consistency, Henderson established guidelines, including inventorying existing programs; determining SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-specific) short-, mid- and long-term goals in the three thematic areas; creating DEI goals that align with Emory’s mission and values as well as best practices; and incorporating other relevant resources, experts and archival materials that assist each community.

The faculty lens

Co-chairs Giacomo Negro — professor of organization and management at Goizueta Business School, chair of Faculty Council and president of the University Senate — and Tim Holbrook, vice provost for faculty affairs, assembled a faculty group that is “diverse across every dimension,” according to Holbrook, and represents all the schools and colleges. 

When Faculty Council issued a call for participants, more than 100 faculty members applied to be part of the diversity strategic planning process. “As faculty, we are excited to do this work, recognizing that it brings us all to a richer experience of what is possible at Emory,” Negro says.

Holbrook has been at the fore of DEI work at Emory for some time, but acknowledges that previous efforts made it seem “something separate.” The comprehensive planning underway “will allow us to integrate DEI work into everything we do. As a community, we will demonstrate that it is core to our identity,” he explains.

Other faculty initiatives that inform this work and are running in parallel include the COACHE faculty survey and Class and Labor II, now referred to as Toward Faculty Eminence

Even after a plan is in place, it will require regular adjustment, and Negro indicates that Faculty Council could establish a standing committee for this purpose. “DEI should be part of the grammar of our existence,” he notes. “We can have misunderstandings but, at the end of the day, we must use a culture of inclusion as a ‘language’ to communicate with one another.” 

Students’ ease — and expertise

The co-chairs for the undergraduate community are Campus Life employees — Malcom J. Robinson, who is assistant director of the Office of Race and Cultural Engagement, and Candice M. Williams, assistant director of the Atlanta Urban Debate League in the Office of Civic and Community Engagement. Enku Gelaye, vice president and dean of campus life, believes they personify “the next generation of DEI leaders at Emory” and bring an important perspective — that of practitioner.

“Ultimately, they carry the work on the ground with our students. They are sometimes here late into the evening working with students on events. They are trusted advisers, which is why it made sense to give them a central role in a planning process that they can help shape,” says Gelaye. 

She terms student engagement with DEI issues as being “very natural. It’s who they are at their core. I hope the ease by which they are willing to tackle these issues translates into our approach.” 

Lori Steffel 21B, Student Government Association president, hopes that when a plan is adopted, “all students will feel safer and the aspects of our community that might have an intimidating or exclusive reputation — job recruiting, applying to join clubs, Greek life — will feel more accessible for everyone.”

The ex officio adviser for both the postdoctoral fellows and graduate and professional students is Amanda Marie James, Laney Graduate School’s chief diversity officer and associate dean for diversity. Once a postdoc at Emory herself, James has a keen feel for the history and aspirations of these groups. 

“Many of these students have been pushing Emory on this front for years,” says James. “Given their research and scholarly interests and time required to complete degrees, the university can be part of their lives for many years. They are hopeful that this process will engender a deeper sense of belonging and a greater mechanism of accountability.”

Hearing from staff

Teresa Fosque is senior HR manager for the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, and Sabrina Burnett is divisional HR director for The Carter Center. As co-chairs of the staff community, they see Employee Council as an important touchstone and are using their HR experience to establish an important grounding for their work.

“We have asked community members to focus first on what is working at Emory; let’s start our discussion there, then build innovative ideas for the DEI work around the themes of the plan,” says Fosque.

Both women imagine that opportunities for professional development and education will resonate with the staff because, says Burnett, “those are essential elements as Emory becomes well recognized for its global impact.” 

Like all of the communities, this one wants to develop a framework and goals in such a way, says Burnett, that “all voices are respected, being unique, and we will share a common understanding of the importance of DEI.” 

Pushing beyond campus limits — alumni and external community  

Given the sheer breadth of the university’s alumni community, which exceeds 153,000, those leading this group are grateful that an alumni survey out now was expanded to add questions about DEI matters.

According to Munir Meghjani 08Ox 10C, who co-chairs the group along with Isabel M. Garcia 99L, there is considerable interest in the “climate and culture” theme. Prior to the diversity strategic planning process, alumni were thinking through what values best represent Emory graduates. The community is deeply vested in helping create a climate of equity at Emory that then can be a model as alumni look to amplify social justice in their personal and professional lives.

To Meghjani, Henderson set in motion a process whereby “people have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It won’t be a smooth process, and it shouldn’t be.” 

Alan Anderson, assistant vice president for university partnerships, is still searching for a more elegant name for the community he co-chairs along with Ciannat Howett, associate vice president for sustainability, resilience and economic inclusion. For now, it is simply known as “external community.” 

His goal is to make the best use of the leading thinkers on the committee — such as Nathaniel Smith, founder and chief equity officer for Partnership for Southern Equity. Though some Emory staff are part of the group, its overall makeup comprises business partners and community DEI leaders.

Anderson foresees the possibility of a dashboard that would allow the external community to see the tangible things Emory will be doing, whether it is a diversity requirement in the curriculum, leaders undergoing the same training as anyone else, or more transparency in the university’s request-for-proposal (RFP) process. 

“It makes sense to empower an outside group of partners with key ties to Emory to be part of actively measuring our ability to do this work. These stakeholders will not, nor would we wish them to, grade Emory on a curve,” says Anderson.

The remaining timeline and emerging hope

As far as her ultimate goal, says Henderson, “it’s about the people and how they live out principles and values, thrive and live in structures, experience and are connected to this wonderful, very diverse and inclusive fabric that we call humanity.”

The SPCs will meet through September 2021, with their reports due to Henderson on the last day of the month. Those findings then will be combined into a draft report that will be shared for comment with the broader Emory community in November through an online process. The final report will be submitted to Fenves in January 2022. 

“With Carol’s leadership and the combined support of the Office of the President and the Office of the Provost, Emory stands to make important strides in diversity, equity and inclusion,” says Jan Love,  interim provost and executive vice provost for academic affairs.

“A racial reckoning is underway in this country as exemplified by righteous anger, protest and remarkably creative and constructive engagement demanding justice for Black people and people of color who disproportionately experience inequalities and chronic violence,” Love continues. “Through the diversity strategic plan, Emory has a great opportunity to change our own culture and carry a message beyond Emory of the rich benefits of a diverse, inclusive and equitable community.”

Henderson firmly believes that collaboration and community engagement are key to the educational mission of Emory. She knows that this work cannot be done alone nor can it be siloed or disconnected from the institutional values that anchor the university community.

From the dozens of engaged community representatives to the wide-ranging voices they are including, Henderson is confident that “our beloved community is emerging. The diversity strategic plan that we will create together is a means to live out our principles and values more fully.”