A New Focus: Culture, Equity, and Inclusion

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Wednesday, December 7, 2022
By Marian Higgins
Photo by iStock/RyanJLane
For a college to be diverse and maintain diversity, its culture must embrace inclusiveness and equity. Georgia State is pursuing that goal.
  • A new associate dean at the Robinson College of Business looks for ways to integrate cultural changes across the school.
  • Key strategies will include investing in relationships, engaging leadership, launching new programming, and tracking progress.
  • Part of the effort will involve sharing the college’s story with stakeholders on campus and in the community.

In July 2022, I started a new position as the inaugural associate dean for culture, equity, and inclusion at the J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Previously, I was associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the Mary Frances Early College of Education at the University of Georgia in Athens. I am frequently asked how a dean of culture, equity, and inclusion differs from a dean of DEI.

For a college to be diverse and maintain diversity, it must have a culture that embraces inclusiveness and equity. Diversity will not make much of a difference if students, faculty, and staff don’t feel comfortable being at the institution.

When administrators are assessing the current culture and environment at their own universities, it is important for them to ask what practices and policies are in place. What are some of the school’s traditions? What does the physical space look like? What are the college’s values, and how are those values communicated? Additionally, who benefits from these current conditions and who is further marginalized by them?

While the Robinson College has one of the most diverse student bodies in the United States, I admit we have more work to do. There are aspects of the culture that need to shift for equity and inclusion to be adopted and then integrated throughout the college. Once a culture of inclusiveness and equity is firmly in place, everyone will feel welcomed, valued, and appreciated, and all students, staff, and faculty will have the support they need to be successful.

I perceive my role as leading the school in that direction, but I’m also very clear that this is an effort for everyone. The work of changing the culture must be integrated throughout the college. It cannot live in one position or in one office. All leadership, staff, faculty, and students must recognize and address the systems or practices that serve as barriers that marginalize members of our community. We have to commit to doing this work together in order for it to be effective and sustainable.

In my first year, I expect that eight key strategies will be crucial as I move this work forward at the Robinson College.

Investing in Relationships

Relationships are vital to changing the culture and achieving equity-focused goals. Given that I’m new to the college and the university, it is even more important that I establish relationships and build trust with the Robinson community. I have spent my first months on the job building these connections.

Relationships are vital to changing the culture and achieving equity-focused goals. I have spent my first months on the job building connections.

My goal is to meet with the college leadership, faculty, staff, students, and external collaborators so that people see me as a partner and a resource. I desire to learn about their experiences in the college and the culture within their departments. At the same time, I am inviting them to share with me how they envision us working together.

Engaging Leadership

Especially when it comes to inclusion and equity, an organization’s culture will change only if leaders demonstrate commitment to the changes. Their commitment is foundational to advancing the work.

Therefore, it is critical for me to engage in deep conversations with school leaders. Collectively, we will determine how we can implement the necessary changes to cultivate a more inclusive and equitable culture. I plan to identify our strengths as a team and decide how to leverage them. I also plan to determine areas for growth and create a plan of action to address them.

Getting Down to Business

Last year, Robinson began implementing Accelerate 2025, the college’s strategic plan for 2021–25, and introduced the final recommendations from the Robinson Inclusion & Equity Task Force. My goal is to meet with the task force to build on what’s been started and to determine how we can move forward.

Working with dean Richard Phillips, I will use the task force’s recommendations and strategic goals to develop a culture, equity, and inclusion plan for the college. This plan will be essential for communicating the necessary action steps for us to advance this work. The newly formed Culture, Equity & Inclusion Council will provide guidance in developing and implementing the plan and monitoring our progress.

I also will work with college leadership to review current practices and processes in key areas. For example, the Inclusion & Equity Task Force and the college’s leadership identified the need to increase diversity among the faculty. I want to understand current recruitment and hiring practices, assess areas for improvement, and determine strategies that will lead to diversifying the faculty.

Enhancing Programming

I desire to offer a variety of opportunities that will help students, staff, and faculty develop an awareness of inclusion and equity issues. One way to do this is through programming.

During some of my initial conversations with students, staff, and faculty, they shared ideas for programming they would like to see on a range of DEI topics. Everyone comes from a different place in their understanding of what it means to have a commitment to inclusion and equity, and I want to address everyone’s needs.

Everyone comes from a different place in their understanding of what it means to have a commitment to inclusion and equity.

To do so, I plan to draw on resources within the college, university, and community to offer workshops and host speakers with expertise in specific areas of equity and inclusion. One likely partner is Georgia State University’s Office of Diversity Education Planning. Not only will I encourage faculty and staff to participate in that office’s existing programming, I also will ask the office to facilitate specific workshops for our college.

Programming alone will not fully address the issues in front of us. However, it will be a starting place for some, and it will give me a chance to involve others in this work.

Creating a Social Impact Initiative

One of the goals of Accelerate 2025 is to address systemic inequities in business and society. As part of this goal, we are launching a social impact initiative that will bring together Robinson’s faculty, staff, students, and external partners to address some of the most pressing societal issues affecting our communities. We are at the beginning stage of this initiative and plan to make progress in the coming year.

Communicating Our Story

One motivation for our equity work is being able to tell the story of Robinson College and its history of diversity. I’m working with our college’s Office of Marketing and Communications to find ways to highlight our achievements, celebrate the strengths of our culture, and share our story as it continues to unfold. We want to reach audiences within the college, the university, and the community, including our alumni and our external partners.

Preparing an Impact Report

At the end of my first year, I will communicate our progress on all of these initiatives to the college, the university community, and stakeholders in the Atlanta area. Delivering outcomes takes time, and it’s important to document and communicate accomplishments. Doing so will keep us accountable and show opportunities for improvement.

Practicing Self-Care

I am keenly aware of the complexity of this work and the impact it can have on DEI leaders. I consistently try to practice grace and patience with myself to avoid adding to the challenges of my responsibilities. In this first year, it will be important for me to establish and maintain boundaries in order to protect my energy, time, and commitments. I also will take time for rest, restoration, and filling my cup. Taking care of me will be essential to my leadership.

Change Takes Time, But Don’t Wait Forever

Change is hard. It may involve some level of discomfort, especially for those who have benefited from the current conditions, systems, and practices. Moreover, changing culture takes time. Some people will be on board from the beginning. Others may need time to understand the importance of the work.

Those of us who want to be change leaders know all too well that change is a process, and it does not happen overnight. We know that some moments will require us to respond expeditiously and with urgency, and some circumstances will require us to pay more in-depth attention. Regardless of the situation, we can't stay stagnant. We have to respond, and we have to change.

As I consider the transformation happening at Robinson, I’m optimistic about the year ahead and I look forward to the outcomes I foresee. I am honored to lead this community of faculty, staff, and students into the next phase of advancing our commitment to equity and inclusion.

Marian Higgins
Associate Dean for Culture, Equity & Inclusion, J. Mack Robinson College of Business, Georgia State University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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