Doing the Work of DEIB

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Monday, November 29, 2021
Harvard Business School’s first chief diversity officer explores how diversity and inclusion efforts have changed—and what still needs to be done.

In September, Terrill L. Drake became the first chief diversity and inclusion officer at Harvard Business School in Boston. While building on the school’s Racial Equity Action Plan, he will also work to create an inclusive climate across the campus and participate in strategic planning, programming, training, curriculum development, and recruiting and hiring.

Drake has a long history of working toward inclusion. He previously served as associate dean of strategic initiatives and head diversity officer at the Villanova School of Business in Pennsylvania and as the executive director of diversity initiatives at the University of Maryland Smith School of Business in College Park.

Drake recently was elected to the steering committee for AACSB’s Diversity and Inclusion Affinity Group. Earlier this year, he spoke at a meeting of AACSB’s Innovation Committee, of which he is also a member, answering six vital questions about the state of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) on today’s business school campuses. The article below is based on his remarks.

How have the conversations around DEIB evolved throughout your time as a diversity advocate?

The work has changed in six key ways.

First, we’ve been making sure we include our entire community. Last year, a lot of institutions heavily focused on race because of what was happening with our Black community members, but we don’t want to exclude others. My colleagues at other business schools and I have started to hear from our Asian and Latinx community members asking when we are going to continue the conversation around equity for them as well. We also want to focus on DEIB issues of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, veteran status, and age.

Second, we’re trying to get school leaders to understand that we need more than representation—we also need the infrastructure to support representation. A great place to start is to make sure the people who are already a part of our community feel included. We need to identify the gaps for them and focus on those. That way, when we do increase representation, we have the infrastructures and the systems to support it.

Third, there has been an evolution in the way we talk about the work. We started with diversity, then we talked about diversity and inclusion, and then it was diversity, equity, and inclusion. Now we’ve added belonging and justice. Those of us who are doing the work every day understand what the terms mean, but others have a tough time. That’s particularly true because different colleges on the same campus might talk about DEIB in different ways, and different institutions also might think about it in different ways. When we add the global element, the definitions get even larger. I think we need to move to a shared definition of DEIB.

Fourth, most institutions have moved beyond a superficial acknowledgement that “yes, we think DEI is important.” No longer is the work relegated to one person who is fully responsible for DEI. But schools still aren’t aligning resources, staffing, and financial commitments with the work that needs to be done.

Fifth, we’ve also moved beyond using people’s anecdotal experiences to drive the work. Instead, we’re collecting data around those experiences and using that to identify pain points, form strategies, and move initiatives forward. This type of data collection has bolstered the case for business schools to be more engaged in diversity work—and it’s helped engage faculty, students, staff, and alumni as well.

But it’s still important to hear those anecdotal experiences. On many occasions, I have asked students to make presentations in which they talk about what’s happened to them inside and outside of the classroom. Such presentations help leaders understand what it’s like to be a Black male or a Latinx female on a particular campus. And when faculty hear directly from students, they begin to really understand the importance of diversity initiatives and how their own behavior can negatively and positively impact students.

We’ve moved beyond using people’s anecdotal experiences to drive the work. Instead, we’re collecting data around those experiences and using that to identify pain points, form strategies, and move initiatives forward.

Sixth, DEI work has become more collaborative. As both universities and business schools launch diversity initiatives, we can capitalize on what’s being done and move the needle across an entire institution.

Within the higher education setting, what are the desired competencies for diversity and inclusion advocates?

Chief diversity officers need to be consultative when we’re seeking to understand an issue or fix a potential problem, particularly when we’re reaching out to faculty. We must gather information about whatever incident happened so we can supply tips on how to fix or navigate challenging situations in the future. We know how even minor situations can turn into much bigger issues if they’re not addressed or if someone feels attacked.

It’s also key for diversity officers to be transparent, making sure that everyone understands the larger goal of DEIB work and how people fit into it. That’s why we must be really communicative and keep people updated about our goals. If we haven’t made progress on certain commitments, we need to say why and explain what we’re doing to work on X, Y, and Z.

Another trait diversity officers must have is diplomacy. We must be both delicate and firm in our interactions with faculty, students, and staff. I sometimes think it’s not our job to solve problems for individuals, but to bring folks together to solve their own problems. Yes, if the situation has escalated, sometimes we have to step in. But if there are simple miscommunications and misunderstandings, we can give people the tools and tips to recognize and solve the issues themselves.

For chief diversity officers, visibility is also key. While we want our deans and our other leaders to talk about the importance of DEI, we need to be seen doing the work. We should be sitting on leadership teams to make sure our voices are heard when administrators are thinking about initiatives that will move the institution forward. If we really want the work to be embedded, and not just a bolt-on, diversity advocates must have a voice throughout the entire organization.

Finally, chief diversity officers need to be measured in approach. We can’t take things personally. We can’t be emotionally charged when we go into situations that may be emotionally charged as well.

What are the major barriers preventing business schools from making a greater impact with their DEIB initiatives?

The first one is the difficulty of creating a shared language across the institution. Diversity officers need to make sure everyone understands and can get behind what we mean by diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Some officers might even have sessions with different groups as they develop definitions so the whole community can take ownership of the concept.

The second one is insufficient institutional resource allocation. There has to be infrastructure to support the work, and it has to be done by people, not just one person. I also think it’s time we recognize that, while formal roles are important, so are informal roles. Who are the champions on the faculty side who help push the work forward and talk to their colleagues? What’s happening on the staff side? Those questions are key.

It’s really difficult to shift a culture. When DEI work is part of the shift, the situation can become highly politicized. We need to inspire our communities to engage in change.

The third major barrier is the fact that there’s a variance in how stakeholders see the value of the work. They have conflicting thoughts about what should be prioritized. If donors or partners don’t agree with how a school is moving the work forward, or question how it’s being done, that can create issues for chief diversity officers.

Another barrier is the fact that it’s really difficult to shift a culture. When DEI work is part of the shift, the situation can become highly politicized. We need to figure out how to inspire our communities to engage in change.

Which stakeholders are most essential for effectively creating positive change in DEIB within higher education and beyond?

Every single person at our business schools, all of our stakeholders, should be part of this work. We need university leaders, business leaders, faculty, staff, students, alumni, and parents to play roles. We need a communitywide effort.

If we want to ensure that every single person is having an excellent experience at our institutions, we must be keyed into their experiences. We need to get feedback, then ensure that what we’re doing actually meets the needs of all groups.

What changes would you like to see around DEIB in higher education?

We need a shared dialogue across industries. What do we mean in higher education when we talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging? How can we be sure that the businesses we’re tied to mean the same thing when they talk about DEIB? Certainly, AACSB can be a huge help in developing a shared language.

We need to see our leadership teams present unified fronts and really understand the importance of the work. But we also need our leaders to talk about diversity within their functional areas, so their teams are brought into the mission and know they have a role to play as well.

What do you think business schools need to start doing in relation to DEIB?

They need to align their resources with their intended actions. The word “resources” applies across a number of dimensions, including human capital and financial capital. How are school leaders empowering people in both the formal and informal roles of DEI?

They also need to better integrate DEI into the curriculum. What examples are being used in the classroom? Are faculty teaching cases with diverse protagonists? Not everyone comes to the table with the same understanding of DEI, so how does a school create a baseline? For example, in a course on how to manage diverse teams, the professor should help students understand that, to be effective leaders today, they have to be empathetic, understand DEI issues, and be able to move diversity initiatives forward.

Finally, business school leaders need to be resolute in pursuit of the work. They can’t be pushed around by particular stakeholders—they have to commit to the work and move it forward regardless of what some of the noise might be. And then they have to really make a commitment to sustainable change.

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