Creating a Sense of Belonging

Article Icon Article
Thursday, February 20, 2020
By Joyce E.A. Russell
Illustration by Mike Austin
The Villanova School of Business puts diversity, equity, and inclusiveness at the heart of its future plans.

As the School of Business in Pennsylvania considers its future, one of the questions we’re asking ourselves is, “How do we ensure that all of our students, faculty, and staff continue to have a strong sense of belonging and a feeling of inclusion?” For that reason, we have made diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) a top priority for our 2020–2025 strategic plan.

Some pieces of our DEI plan have been in place for the past few years, and more are taking shape, but I’m convinced that success will be contingent on five elements: having senior leadership support, collecting and sharing data, building the right infrastructure, committing to DEI as a strategy, and devoting resources to the effort. VSB already is working to achieve all five.

1. Leadership

Unless a university’s top leaders are behind DEI initiatives, it’s difficult for an individual college or unit to get much done. At Villanova, the senior administration has made it clear that it is going to link DEI efforts to strategy, and it’s going to measure results. This top leadership support is extremely beneficial and paves the way for all colleges to follow suit.

Senior administrators also want to know how the situation currently stands. The university periodically carries out “climate surveys” to get input about critical issues, and recent surveys have centered on inclusivity. Our previous results revealed that some students from minority populations didn’t feel the same sense of belonging as other students. So our question became, “How can we ensure that all students have an even more positive experience?” And from this original data, the university has continued to collect more data to track progress.

One way senior leadership at Villanova addressed the question of belonging was through a professional development day in 2019 that focused on DEI and included alumni, employers, faculty, and students. We wanted not only to share information about what the university was doing, but also to get feedback about what we should be doing. Through this day and many other events, senior leaders continue to illustrate their strong commitment to DEI across the entire campus.

2. Data

As the university develops a broader DEI strategy, VSB is gathering data that pertains to our own community. People often think there’s no problem unless the numbers prove there is. Someone might say, “We have plenty of women in this department!” when actually there are just a few. If we don’t know where we are, we don’t know where we’re going. So measurements are important to make progress. What is most important is to collect both quantitative and qualitative data to better understand the landscape and the perspectives of all students, faculty, and staff.

Currently, in VSB’s undergraduate class, 41 percent of our students are women, and 25 percent are students of color. Breakdowns vary by major or discipline, as there are fewer women and minority students in fields such as finance and real estate, and more in fields such as marketing and management.

About 70 percent of the Villanova students are Catholic, which isn’t a surprise in an Augustinian institution, but we want students, faculty, and staff of all faiths to feel comfortable at the school. We also want that same sense of belonging to extend to LGBTQ students, who aren’t always certain they will be welcomed at Catholic institutions. Part of the Augustinian mission is to be inclusive, because we believe everyone brings value and has worth.

While I believe it’s essential to have numerical data, we also rely on anecdotal and first-person evidence to gain an understanding of the school’s current state. For instance, at a recent meeting of the dean’s advisory council, we brought in students of color, who took part in informal lunchtime conversations with council members about both the good and the challenging aspects of their lives at Villanova. The discussions were full of surprises. For example, they noted that sometimes underrepresented students are less likely to hear about business societies to join. It also might be more difficult for them to get invited onto teams for class group projects, despite the fact that they are academically very strong students.

3. Infrastructure

Now that our school knows where it is, how can we get where we want to go? One thing we must do is create the right infrastructure to support change. Two years ago, we hired Terrill L. Drake as associate dean of strategic initiatives, and one of his responsibilities has been to oversee the development and implementation of our strategy and all activities associated with diversity, equity, and inclusion for VSB. (Read more from Drake in “Diverse Voices, Personal Stories.”) One of his priorities has been to establish and oversee an office of DEI, scheduled to open in spring 2020. The office will also include a faculty director and staff director who will help manage VSB’s DEI initiatives.

Just as important, VSB is looking for diversity champions at every level and in every unit of the school. Their job is to interact with students in a positive way, and to make sure the rest of the faculty and staff don’t do or say the wrong things. Faculty champions can talk to their peers and say, “You weren’t doing that intentionally, but it still has an impact. You might want to think about phrasing something in this way.”

The school gives out awards to faculty and staff who have promoted DEI—maybe by setting up affinity groups or by organizing “industry treks,” in which students meet with high-level professionals in various industries. We know that what we reward, people will pay attention to. And because award winners are voted on by their peers, everyone is very well aware of the diversity focus at VSB.

We rely on numerical data and first-person evidence to gain an understanding of the school's current state.

In addition to seeking champions among the faculty and staff, we look for ways to bring together students with specific interests, primarily through clubs and affinity groups. For instance, women on the VSB faculty have started societies dedicated to traditionally male-dominated fields such as finance, real estate, and technology. Many of the groups hold events that include faculty, undergraduates, graduates, and professional members, which encourages networking and mentoring.

We believe that once we have an infrastructure in place—an office of DEI, specific designated committees, programs to support the DEI imperatives, representation across the entire college—our school will be more successful in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion.

4. Strategy

Because lack of diversity on campus is often a pipeline issue, we also have engaged in outreach activities. I believe it’s important to reach out to K-12 populations and find the girls and underrepresented minorities who are interested in math and possibly business. The STEM fields have done a great job in getting these students interested in tech and engineering. Business has not. We need to educate this population about the opportunities in business. One of VSB’s new assistant deans, Cathy Toner, is now focusing on community outreach to build these partnerships between VSB and various K-12 groups. She is also reaching out to other organizations, such as the Girl Scouts, that reach targeted populations.

And as a leader, I need to show my support for these partnerships. For example, I recently joined with four female business professors to put on a conference for high school juniors and seniors in a business class at an all-girls’ school. After I delivered a keynote speech, the faculty members led workshops about their academic fields to groups of the girls. Students enjoyed learning about business and were particularly fascinated by the leadership professor who discussed the #MeToo movement and the ways power is abused. Many of them told us they had never thought about careers in business until they heard us speak.

We also need to reach out to students of color. Not long ago, faculty and staff in VSB’s Real Estate Center partnered with Nexus Summer Programs to deliver an immersive college experience to talented teens. This summer, VSB hosted a business camp for a group of African American and Latinx high school students from around the country. Once students met our senior leaders and faculty members, they began to see how business can have a positive impact on society—and they began wondering what they could do in business.

We want to collaborate with more groups on summer programs that bring diverse students to campus so they can picture themselves at Villanova. Even if they choose business, but don’t apply to Villanova, we’ve achieved our larger mission of helping them understand the value of business. We’ve expanded the pipeline.

We are also partnering with other organizations to reach diverse populations: the Forté Foundation, an alliance of businesswomen, companies, and business schools; national chapters of business organizations devoted to African American and Latinx students; and employers such as the Big Four accounting firms, which frequently have DEI initiatives of their own. More recently, we expanded our longstanding partnership with the Special Olympics to conduct research on accommodating the needs of people with disabilities. We believe it’s the first partnership of its kind where a business school is preparing to do research on intellectual disabilities and use that to develop best practices.

While the external focus should bring more diverse populations to campus, we are also looking inward to make sure these populations are comfortable once they arrive at VSB. For instance, we’re in the process of developing a curriculum designed to train faculty and staff in DEI. The training program will be created by a task force that is collecting feedback from researchers, alumni, and employers. Many of the associate deans and other leaders of the business school have already attended universitywide programs on inclusive hiring, but I want the message to filter all the way down. When training is mandated—whether it’s training in inclusiveness or harassment— it sends a message that all of us need to do our part to ensure we are creating an inclusive culture.

At the same time, we have conducted training on inclusive hiring to make sure we hire more faculty and staff from underrepresented groups. We know it is important for students to see people similar to themselves so that they feel a greater connection to the school. Partnering with The PhD Project is another good way we can try to bring in more diverse faculty.

5. Resources

Not surprisingly, it takes funding to support both outreach and on-campus initiatives. For instance, when I arrived on campus four years ago, the women faculty who were running affinity groups weren’t being compensated much for their work. I named them directors, funded them, and gave them course relief so they had more time to devote to the societies. There has also been a cost associated with hiring new staff members for the DEI office, as well as for running diversity-themed activities. Some of the money has come from targeted fundraising and some from VSB’s five centers of excellence, which underwrite several of our events.

Other sources of money are available to individual students with specific needs. For instance, students of any background can apply to the Davis Fund for Student Experiences, which provides financial support to those who want to pursue opportunities such as international travel, research, independent studies, and pitch competitions. While these funds are available to any student in VSB, they offer another resource for students of diverse backgrounds who might need an extra boost.

A Growing Urgency

While DEI always has been an important issue at business schools, it has become a more critical topic in the past few years as contentious politics deepen racial and gender divides. Shifts in demographics also have contributed to the urgency.

I believe industry has reacted more quickly to the new realities than academia. CEOs know that, in order to meet the needs of their customers, they must have teams that are diverse in all kinds of areas, from race to gender to ability. They know that they make mistakes when they don’t include diverse perspectives. That’s why I think it’s important for business schools to bring in corporate voices when they’re launching DEI initiatives, because employers are at the forefront of best practices.

My own goal remains to make VSB a welcoming place for everyone. Villanova was founded over 175 years ago to serve immigrants and people of different backgrounds, and that’s what we have to remember. We know we have a lot of work to do, but we are well on our way to making a difference.

Joyce E.A. Russell
Dean Emeritus and Professor, Villanova School of Business, Villanova University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
Article Tags
Subscribe to LINK, AACSB's weekly newsletter!
AACSB LINK—Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge—is an email newsletter that brings members and subscribers the newest, most relevant information in global business education.
Sign up for AACSB's LINK email newsletter.
Our members and subscribers receive Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge in global business education.
Thank you for subscribing to AACSB LINK! We look forward to keeping you up to date on global business education.
Weekly, no spam ever, unsubscribe when you want.