Building an Inclusive Community

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Monday, April 11, 2022
By Aronte Bennett
Photo by iStock/kupicoo
The Villanova School of Business takes a three-pronged approach to creating an environment where all are welcome.
  • Villanova’s new associate deanship for DEI puts inclusivity on a par with teaching and research when it comes to the school’s priorities.
  • The school works to diversify every part of the community, from student groups to advisory councils.
  • Participants in DEI initiatives not only provide input on what could be improved, but help devise solutions.

Community is a hallmark of the experience at Villanova University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From its founding in 1842 as a refuge for Irish immigrants who were denied educational opportunities elsewhere to its 2016 declaration of protection for undocumented students, Villanova has a history of welcoming students from marginalized groups. As one of only two U.S. schools sponsored by the Augustinian order, Villanova subscribes to the Augustinian values of Veritas, Unitas, and Caritas, which loosely translate from Latin to truth, unity, and love.

But despite the school’s commitment to fostering an inclusive and welcoming climate on campus, we know that students from underrepresented groups can experience isolation. This can be true whether the members of those groups are defined by racial, ethnic, economic, religious, or other characteristics.

To combat structural inequities and to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) on our campus, the Villanova School of Business (VSB) identified inclusivity as one of three imperatives in the strategic plan it rolled out in the winter of 2019. The plan was championed by Joyce E.A. Russell, the Helen and William O’Toole Dean of VSB, who has emphasized DEI since her arrival in 2016.

One of the products of the strategic plan was the creation of an Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI). In January 2020, the VSB ODEI was established and Terrill L. Drake was appointed as head diversity officer. Six short months later, the university and the rest of the world grappled with the realities of racial injustice that were laid bare after the murder of George Floyd and other Black Americans. Soon the localized whispers of inequities in the U.S. crescendoed into national roars demanding racial justice.

During the summer of 2020, it became apparent that we needed more dedicated efforts to address diversity issues. VSB ODEI was expanded to include one graduate faculty director, one undergraduate faculty director, and one staff director. I onboarded as a faculty director during this period of expansion.

When the college’s leadership team was restructured in 2021, Dean Russell took the opportunity to introduce the position of associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The school already had associate deans who were in charge of developing core competencies in students and supporting impactful faculty research. By creating an associate deanship for DEI, the school elevated inclusivity to the same level as the other strategic imperatives—teaching and research.

Armed with experiences as faculty director and informed by my research on vulnerable populations, I applied for and was appointed to the new associate dean position. It was now my job to oversee the cultivation of an inclusive community.

Being a ‘Positive Agitator’

Building on the inroads the team had already made, I hoped to push us to greater heights by calling on concepts taught in my marketing courses about understanding the role of audience perceptions. I unabashedly borrowed from my counterparts in industry to develop an approach that incorporates the voice of the community—a riff on the popular marketing strategy that seeks out the voice of the consumer.

I also made the point that we should not use the terms students and community synonymously. It is clear from the data we have collected via campus climate surveys that our consumers are not just students. The community we are working to improve also includes faculty, staff, recruiters, parents, alumni, and visitors.

We must advocate for those whose voices are not being heard and for those whose experience within our walls is a far cry from the version to which we aspire.

The VSB ODEI considers its role to be that of positive agitator and courageous advocate. We recognize that in order to improve the community experience, we must first critique it. We must advocate for those whose voices are not being heard and for those whose experience within our walls is a far cry from the version to which we aspire. Moreover, we realize that edicts from on high are often met with empty seats and unopened emails. If we are to build and improve our community, we must converse and collaborate with the groups we seek to serve, inviting their participation in uncovering and eliminating elements that work against inclusivity.

For this reason, we have taken a three-pronged approach to incorporating the voice of the community into our operations. We seek out a set of diverse voices; we empower champions to cultivate community; and we collect data to drive continuous improvement.

To anyone else charged with creating a more inclusive community on campus, I suggest that you could follow the same three steps. Below, I outline them in more detail.

1. Seek Out Diverse Voices

Anyone tasked with community management must have a broader outlook and consider prospective employees, alumni, advisory councils, and visitors. This means you must identify points of ingress on your campus and intentionally look for diverse voices for each.

Simultaneously, you must narrow your perspective. Rather than viewing groups in the aggregate, look at community experiences on a more granular level. Realize how experiences differ between student leaders and students who have low levels of campus engagement, between professional staff and custodial staff, and between adjunct faculty and tenure-track faculty.

You can accomplish this by intentionally populating and holding regular conversations with representative groups. It is unlikely that wishful thinking or even a press release highlighting a new DEI initiative will change the composition of the groups that make up your community. If you walk into a meeting of student leaders and recognize that the identities present do not reflect the makeup of your student population, it is time for a conversation about recruiting from a more diverse pool.

This same logic applies to all corners of your community, from faculty and staff leadership meetings to admissions committees to dean’s advisory boards. The conversations you will have with the newly configured groups, when compared to their former iterations, will provide deeper insight into the nuanced experiences of a much wider cross-section of your community.

When you’re adding voices to various groups, acknowledge that you are playing a long game. Proclaiming victory after the appointment of one person is shortsighted—likely only to result in tokenism, while falling short of meaningful change. By working to diversify your supporting structure until it represents the community—or better yet, society at large—you will gain invaluable information from diverse and sometimes opposing perspectives.

For instance, the Dean’s Advisory Council at VSB recognized that its membership was markedly more homogeneous than our student population. Acknowledging that its members needed to reflect the community, the council took it upon itself to move away from standard network-based recruiting efforts. Council members were encouraged to reach beyond their personal networks to invite participants with unique perspectives into the conversation.

2. Empower Champions

After digesting what you’ve learned from your newly expanded community groups, you may feel compelled to create solutions and design programming that will fit their needs. I implore you to resist that urge.

Instead, take the task to the community. Ask constituent groups to propose solutions to the concerns and suggestions they have raised. In doing so, you’ll benefit from their varied perspectives, and you’ll gain frontline understanding of relevant nuances. Listen when they deliver their suggestions. Then you, as an earnest collaborator, can introduce the parameters and constraints demanded by existing structures.

You may feel compelled to create solutions and design programming that will fit the needs of your community groups. I implore you to resist that urge. Instead, take the task to the community.

It is unlikely that the final version of the solution will be identical to the original proposal. However, the co-collaborators within your community will feel a sense of ownership that will prove valuable when you need buy-in or participation from their groups. It is much easier to convince people to invest in a process they had a hand in creating. Additionally, their participation will result in increased awareness of and positive word-of-mouth about your new initiatives.

At VSB ODEI, we have embraced solutions proposed by community voices. For instance, we’ve enlisted a student consulting group to help us identify and address climate concerns in our physical spaces. We’ve worked across disciplines to design a Race & Justice course specific to the issues that our burgeoning business leaders will face. We’ve also collaborated with our staff advisory council to develop digestible learning bursts to be featured during staff meetings.

3. Collect Data

While bringing in and collaborating with diverse groups will result in solutions that drive community, a third step is necessary: gathering data. Once you have executed plans designed in collaboration with constituent groups, you must reach out again to determine if these groups are satisfied with your programming efforts. Though your product is born of good intentions and through cooperative ideation, it still might fail to meet the needs and expectations of your audience.

The only way to make this determination is by implementing pointed metrics. The data you collect will enable you to improve the relevance of your offerings and the usefulness of the information you provide your community.

At VSB, leaders of our student affinity groups helped us recognize a need for increased communication on current affairs and encouraged us to host a series of safe-space conversations. Some of these discussions tackled the unique experiences of women in male-dominated professions and the importance of authenticity in the workplace. Hoping to benefit a larger swath of our community, we introduced conversations for staff and faculty in addition to those held for students. To our surprise and dismay, while the staff and faculty events were well-attended, the student-facing events were not well-received.

So we went back to our students, those who participated and those who did not, to better understand how we could improve our offerings. We learned that our content was appropriate, but we needed to revisit our format. As a consequence, we were able to restructure the events to be more attractive to students. For instance, we learned to avoid Zoom fatigue by hosting in-person events, scheduled at times that complemented student schedules, and we featured tasty food options whenever safely possible. We also instituted a post-event survey to help us improve all of our offerings.

Heeding the Call

Our leadership team at the Villanova School of Business has heard the clarion call of inclusivity. We understand that the continued success of our institution hinges on our ability to catalyze a cultural shift. We must effectuate a community ethos that goes beyond recognizing diversity by also engendering an appreciation for it.

We have invited members of our community to lend their voices in conversations and subscribe to our mission through collaboration. By doing so, we are hopeful that our future is one in which all members experience our community positively.

Aronte Bennett
Professor of Marketing and Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Villanova School of Business, Villanova University
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