Tackling Diversity Along Many Dimensions

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Tuesday, July 5, 2022
By Melanie Brooks, C. Matt Graham
Photo by iStock/SDI Productions
A faculty-led initiative at the Maine Business School brings the community together to learn about diversity and inclusion.
  • A new DEI task force at the school formed in response to social unrest in the summer of 2020.
  • The school adopted and promoted a statement outlining its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • Events such as film screenings and workshops encouraged stakeholders to discuss diversity issues and learn how to behave with sensitivity.

An emphasis on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging is a key principle for business schools that are members of AACSB. In particular, schools seeking AACSB accreditation are expected to define and support diversity, foster sensitivity to cultural differences, offer opportunities for underserved populations, enhance various perspectives, and demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inclusion.

In the U.S., that commitment to diversity became even more crucial during the spring and summer of 2020, which saw a wave of protests sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans. Those protests had been preceded only a few years previously by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, which had highlighted the ways women had been harassed and abused.

In the wake of these events, faculty from the University of Maine in Orono were concerned that students might be impacted emotionally and psychologically. After the death of George Floyd, a group of professors decided to create the Maine Business School (MBS) Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Task Force.

Associate professor C. Matt Graham, a co-author of this article, joined with accounting lecturer Dave Barrett and associate dean Jason Harkins to create the task force to identify resources for students, faculty, and staff who might need support. Eventually the task force gathered the input of many stakeholders at the school—other faculty, staff, students, the executive dean, and external constituents who joined conversations about how to encourage diversity along many dimensions.

A Collaborative Effort

From the beginning, the volunteer group working on DEI issues was a faculty-led initiative in which participants shared governance—and this was critical to its success.

“To be effective, DEI initiatives need clear support from leadership and engagement by faculty and staff,” explains Faye Gilbert, who was dean of MBS at the time and is now a professor of marketing at the school. It’s essential for the dean to avoid overdirecting the process, she adds. Faculty and staff must see each other as opinion leaders and advocates for DEI progress so they are more likely to lean in on discussions about the important issues.

“To be effective, DEI initiatives need clear support from leadership and engagement by faculty and staff.”—Faye Gilbert

At MBS, the committee began its work by holding bimonthly meetings to craft a statement of the school’s commitment to DEI. While the rest of the faculty members did not adopt the statement in its first draft, they were excited about the possibilities and supportive of the idea of having a DEI statement for the school. The reworked statement was adopted by MBS faculty in October 2020 and by the Graduate School of Business faculty in October 2021. It consists of two straightforward sentences:

The Maine Business School and Graduate School of Business believe that supporting, respecting, and appreciating diverse perspectives and experiences strengthen our community, challenge our assumptions, and yield better decision-making in business and in life. We are all committed to ensuring that all members of the MBS and GSB communities feel welcomed, heard, and engaged.

Gilbert created a banner printed with the diversity statement, and this was presented in the atrium of the Donald P. Corbett Business Building. MBS also began including the statement in its strategic plans, assurance of learning reports, and communications with members of the advisory board.

Four Community Events

In addition to crafting a statement of purpose, the committee looked for ways to distribute information and hold forums that address DEI issues. One important accomplishment was the creation of content for an MBS DEI website that went live on March 26, 2021. The website catalogs resources, offices, and places that provide support for DEI initiatives both on and off campus.

In addition, over the past two years, the school has hosted four noteworthy events designed to raise DEI awareness:

A screening of the film “Nevertheless” in October 2020. The dean worked with two student organizations—Women in Business and honor society Beta Gamma Sigma—to arrange for a virtual screening of this documentary. It looks behind the headlines of #MeToo and Time’s Up by providing case studies focused on sexual harassment and its effects on the lives of the people involved. After the screening, filmmaker Sarah Moshman joined the event for a panel discussion run by a student moderator, who fielded questions from students, faculty, and staff. A community of almost 100 gathered to learn from the film, interact with the producers, and encourage each other to look deeper into the issues of equity, inclusion, and belonging.

A virtual workshop in April 2021. The event, “How Women Rise: Changing the habits that can hold you back from reaching your full potential,” featured author and leadership coach Sally Helgesen. Part of the school’s ongoing Inspired Innovators series, the workshop was hosted by the Maine Business School, UMaine’s Graduate and Professional Center, and representatives from four Maine employers: BerryDunn, Bangor Savings Bank, MEMIC, and MMG Insurance. The 350 registrants included UMaine students and faculty, as well as employees of the sponsoring organizations.

By surveying attendees after the event, the school found that both men and women felt they had developed a broader understanding of the situations that affect women in the workplace, while also learning about practical ways to evolve from them. Said one respondent, “This was inspiring and very helpful. I wish I had heard it 20 years ago.” A second one noted that it’s always necessary to promote the visibility of women, but that it’s especially critical right now because “the COVID pandemic has pushed some women back in terms of progress personally and professionally.”

Workshop attendees felt they had developed a broader understanding of the situations that affect women in the workplace, while also learning about practical ways to evolve from them.

A showing of the film “Trace the Line” in February 2022. The DEI committee partnered with Bravebird, an indigenous and female-owned production company, to virtually screen this 90-minute documentary. It provides an intimate look at an African American poet and a white painter living in the U.S. during 2020, a stressful year that included not only social unrest, but also the COVID pandemic and increased political division. After the screening, the filmmakers joined students, faculty, staff, members of the school’s advisory board, and community members for a question-and-answer session.

A DEI workshop for faculty and staff in March 2022. After the films had been screened and discussed, the DEI task force polled faculty and staff to solicit input on other events that would be helpful. Because many respondents asked for training, the school held a virtual workshop that drew 27 MBS faculty, administrators, and staff. The workshop was led by MBS alum David Patrick, co-founder of Racial Equity and Justice, a nonprofit that supports those who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC).

The workshop opened with individuals describing themselves by using three to four descriptive terms they felt captured their personas. As people began listing their definitive attributes, the others in the group quickly saw the diversity in the characteristics they included. Attendees then discussed the fact that sensitivity was needed to recognize how people may vary in their descriptions of themselves.

Through the workshop, attendees also gained insights into understanding implicit bias and achieving diversity, racial justice, and equity. They learned more about DEI issues and discovered ways to manage life with sensitivity and flexibility to ensure that all are welcomed, heard, and engaged.

Wider Engagement

The MBS DEI committee continues to meet twice a semester to discuss the status of current initiatives, track progress toward goals, and brainstorm ideas about how to address other issues. The committee also has recognized that it needs to collect better data on the effectiveness of its initiatives. After the spring 2022 workshop, the committee surveyed participants and learned that most agreed or strongly agreed that additional training would be useful. Other survey results will guide which new policies and practices MBS uses to promote DEI in the workplace.

Committee members hope to continue the new tradition of presenting DEI initiatives that involve learners from the university as well as those in the workforce. For instance, they plan to identify additional films to showcase at UMaine in the fall of 2022 and the spring of 2023. These screenings will be followed by discussions with producers to enhance the learning experience and help attendees recall key points from the films. Committee members also hope to add at least one workshop or seminar every year to help faculty, staff, and students gain new skills and insights.

School leaders expect additional student organizers to participate in these efforts. While students in Beta Gamma Sigma and Women in Business helped host the school’s first DEI initiatives, other organizations on campus soon came on board. For instance, the Student Portfolio Investment Fund (SPIFFY) worked with representatives from Women in Business to encourage SPIFFY members to participate in DEI events and seek out more diversity in their ranks. The UMaine chapter of the American Marketing Association has also expressed interest in helping plan future events. In addition, for the 2022–23 academic year, the DEI committee plans to recruit a student ambassador to help engage more of the UMaine campus community.

It’s not just students who are supportive of DEI events and interested in joining future efforts, says Gilbert. “Faculty, staff, and members of the external community from some of Maine’s largest employers are all engaged in suggesting topics,” she says. These include everything from ending harassment in the workplace to supporting women in leadership to achieving racial equity.

This wide-ranging and ambitious work can be accomplished only with the cooperation of several campus resources, including the office of diversity and inclusion, the office of student affairs, and the communications staff. It truly is a global effort from the entire university.

Melanie Brooks
Marketing and Communications Manager, Maine Business School, University of Maine
C. Matt Graham
Associate Professor of Business Information Systems, Maine Business School, University of Maine
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