When I arrived at Denison in 2013, I was struck by how committed the campus community was to diversity, equity and inclusion. Having worked globally from 2005-2013, I felt fortunate to arrive at a place that was committing significant resources to being more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. I was also impressed and inspired by the willingness of the campus community to talk openly and honestly about challenges and opportunities. Over the last six years, we have continued to make progress. The credit for that work is broadly shared among a range of faculty, staff, administrators, and students who are committed to that work and who are driving change in the areas of the college they can impact. This letter is meant to invite our campus community into a conversation about how to continue to do this work together.
Our approach to diversity, equity and inclusion reflects commitments and goals shared across the college. However, many of the actions are decentralized in academic departments, student development offices, student groups, and elsewhere. I inherited this approach and have maintained it because I believe it is the best way to create broad-based and deep cultural change across the college. The downside of a decentralized approach is that it is hard to see all the pieces and how they fit together. This limits our ability to coordinate our efforts to maximize impact. It also limits our ability to assess the overall work being done.
The purpose of this letter is not to identify all of that work being done, but rather to describe how this decentralized work fits into a larger whole that is driving the college forward. As president, I am committed to furthering this work, because it is crucial to the health of the college and to our educational mission as a liberal arts institution. By summarizing the work we are doing, I am purposefully inviting the campus community into a conversation about our joint work.
To better organize this work moving forward, I have asked Veve Lele (Associate Provost for Diversity), Trinidy Jeter (Director of Multicultural Student Affairs), Katy Crossley-Frolick (Director of Off-Campus Study); Kim Creasap (Director Office of Gender and Sexuality), Phoebe Myhrum Bentley (Director of Religious and Spiritual Life); Nancy Gibson (Senior Associate Director of Admissions), and Sarah Gepper (Assistant Director of HR) to serve as our Diversity Team and convene a larger group of faculty, staff, and students to partner with them to achieve three goals this semester: catalogue all the work being done across the college, start a process of finding places where we would benefit from more coordination, and assess if our areas of focus are the right ones.
What does it mean to say the college is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion? The following are definitions provided by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) in a piece entitled Making Excellence Inclusive. While there are many definitions, these give us a common springboard.
- Diversity: “individual differences (e.g., personality, prior knowledge, and life experiences) and group/social differences (e.g., race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, and ability as well as cultural, political, religious, or other affiliations).” Broadly, we want to recruit students, faculty and staff who represent a wide range of backgrounds, views and perspectives, because this tends to create the best learning environments. To get there, we have been focused on recruiting students, faculty and staff who have historically been under-represented on campus.
- Equity: “is the creation of opportunities for historically underserved populations to have equal access to and participate in educational programs that are capable of closing the achievement gaps in student success and completion.” Equity at Denison means recognizing a wide range of groups who need specific forms of support. This requires us to be comfortable that we are not all treated the same all of the time.
- Inclusion: “active, intentional, and ongoing engagement with diversity—in the curriculum, in the co-curriculum, and in communities (intellectual, social, cultural, geographical) with which individuals might connect—in ways that increase awareness, content knowledge, cognitive sophistication, and empathic understanding of the complex ways individuals interact within systems and institutions.” Inclusion at Denison is about creating a truly pluralistic community in which everyone is committed to engaging in ways that allow us to learn from one another and across difference.
Why is the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion important to Denison: Last Spring, we organized a committee of faculty, students and staff to rewrite our diversity statement. That statement should be ready for community input later this semester. It builds from a basic principle: at an institution of higher learning, difference helps generate new knowledge and improves the quality of our thought, our ability to be creative, and our capacity to solve problems. Working from and across our differences allows us to connect in effective collaborations and to approach uncertainty and complex global challenges with new insight. This requires us to be a place characterized by difference of many kinds; a place that recognizes, honors, and celebrates the value of diversity; and a place that values constructive disagreement as a part of intellectual inquiry, problem solving, and the creation of knowledge. It also requires us to be a place that calls for holding our differences not in isolation, but in relationship, to one another.
Our work to be a diverse community is focused on recruiting a community of students, faculty, and staff who bring a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives, and views to campus. As such, we are focused on increasing recruitment among populations that have been historically under-represented on campus.
- Student recruitment: Our incoming class make up is about 62% white, 22% domestic students of color and 16% international students. According to our National College Health Association data, we are also enrolling more LGBTQ+ students. Our recruitment is increasingly done in close partnership with community-based mentoring organizations resulting in a wide-range of students from various backgrounds joining the Denison community. It is important to note that there has been a significant increase in the number of organizations doing this work. Although our formal relationship with the Posse Foundation will end when the class of 2024 has graduated, our 20 years with Posse taught us a great deal about recruiting and supporting student success across diversities. We deeply appreciate the ways the Posse Program helped us cultivate the campus culture we have today. As we move forward, our plans include extending the benefits of such mentoring organizations to more students. Our challenge is not finding organizations that want to work with us, but rather choosing those we feel can best meet our needs. The admission office is taking the lead on this work. We now have 13 existing community-based partnerships and we expect to make announcements about new partnerships over the spring and summer.
- Economic diversity: Three years ago, we shifted our financial aid strategy with a major emphasis on increasing need-based aid for students from lower- and middle-income families. As part of this move, we began meeting the full demonstrated financial aid needs of our students. With this change, we increased need-based aid from $21 million to $45 million a year. To help make this possible, financial aid has been – and will continue to be – our top fundraising goal. Broadly, 30% of our students come from lower income backgrounds and about 25% from middle income backgrounds.
- Faculty Recruitment: The recruitment of faculty from under-represented backgrounds is now steady at about 40% of our new hires each year (this includes both faculty of color and international faculty). The provost’s office is working with academic departments to put processes in place to continue this work and to monitor progress. We are also going to start reporting these numbers more regularly at faculty meetings.
- Staff Recruitment: We have done a good job increasing diversity within student development but need more emphasis in other parts of the college. There is a lot we can learn from our work with faculty hires and from other area employers. I have asked HR to work with each VP to understand what kind of support each division of the college needs and map out plans for increasing recruitment of candidates from diverse backgrounds.
Our work on equity is concentrated on the retention and persistence of students. In particular, we are focusing a great deal of attention on supporting the persistence of students who come from ethnic, racial and economic backgrounds that have historically been under-represented at the college and on first-generation college students.
- Focus on academics. Initiatives are in place to support student success across the curriculum. For example, faculty in the sciences have been involved in a multi-year project on learning and practicing pedagogies of inclusion. In 2016, faculty collected data on students’ experiences and found that students of color do not feel the same sense of belonging in the classroom as other students. These data led faculty to pilot initiatives addressing multiple aspects of belonging and classroom culture. This work resulted in the development of the RAISE (Readiness And Inclusion in Science Education) program funded by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation. One component of RAISE is a partnership with Leonard Geddes to create a peer mentor program in the natural sciences.
- Focus on campus life. Within Student Development data are disaggregated to show the experiences of different populations on campus. Cohort-specific data are used to inform priorities associated with parity of outcomes. A recent example includes considering the specific needs of different student populations to shape training, clinical education, and outreach efforts of the student wellness staff. They are focusing on the distinctive needs of LGBTQ+, low-income, and international students and students of color. In addition, Denison’s new Title IX Coordinator is engaging with different student populations to understand and support their safety needs and educate the campus about sexual respect.
- Centers and faculty-led initiatives that support specific student communities. The Office of Multicultural Student Affairs; the Office of Gender and Sexuality, the Open House, and the Office of Global Programs are all doing extensive work to support specific student populations on persistence and success. Faculty and staff are also coordinating newer groups like Sisters in Dialogue, Men of Color Support Group and supporting more student-led groups like BLASS (Black LatinX Asian Science Society).
- Work to reduce financial stressors that negatively impact student success. Beginning with the financial wellbeing study conducted in 2016, Denison has made material changes in financial aid packaging and book grants, created the Red Thread Grant, and extended financial support into the area of student wellness. This ongoing work addresses financial stressors in order to increase student persistence and success. You can read more here.
- Focus on career exploration. Given the importance of this work at the college, we are devoting more attention and resources to the career preparation and launching process. Recognizing that students who come from first-generation and low-income backgrounds face a particular set of challenges, we have put supports in place to help these students launch quickly and successfully into jobs and graduate programs. We created a full-time position in the Knowlton Center to organize and deepen this work and we are funding internships, externships, and a range of programs from our January Career Readiness Boot-Camp to First-Look. This semester we will pilot a program with Anthropology & Sociology and Black Studies to bring this work into academic departments to deepen their support of first-generation students and students of color.
- Increase on campus support for faculty and staff from traditionally under-represented backgrounds. We currently retain faculty of color and international faculty at the same rates as domestic white faculty (75%), but we are also aware of particular challenges experienced by such faculty. The Associate Provost for Diversity works with all faculty and all departments in recruiting, retaining, and supporting faculty. This role is particularly focused on addressing personal and structural issues experienced by faculty from under-represented groups. To improve this work, Provost Kim Coplin, VP for Student Development Laurel Kennedy and I are meeting monthly with Black Caucus and Faculty Of Color and International Faculty (FOCIF).
We are also turning more attention to supporting staff. Three years ago, we added a staff engagement position and created the Employment Communication Committee. This will be a continued focus of the next phase of our work.
Our work on inclusion is focused on embracing a pluralistic community. I am intrigued by work being done on the new paradigm of pluralism that calls for holding our differences not in isolation but in relationship to one another. This means moving beyond just tolerance, which does nothing to remove stereotypes and our ignorance of one another. The Pluralism Project at Harvard University defines this notion of pluralism as a call for the energetic engagement with diversity of all members of a community. To do this work we should not leave our identities and our commitments behind, but rather hold our deepest differences, not in isolation, but in relationship with one another. This requires dialogue – both speaking and listening – in ways that reveal common understandings and real differences. Hence, a pluralistic community is one where all members are comfortable that not everyone will agree with one another, but everyone will commit to being at the table (with their commitments) respectfully engaging as a way to learn from one other.
With regard to inclusion, I worry about disparaging and hurtful comments directed too often to students, faculty, and staff who come from groups that have historically been under-represented and/or marginalized on campus. Such comments may be careless or cavalier or they may actually be intentional. Regardless, they are disrespectful and hurtful, and not in keeping with the values of the college. The polarized and increasingly toxic (and divisive) political environment has the dual effect of giving license to cruel comments and also silencing those who genuinely question any prevailing view. As the environment becomes more divisive, I worry that more members of the community choose to retreat from dialogue for fear of saying something wrong. None of this aligns with our intellectual or humane values. We need every member of our community to see themselves as belonging at Denison and we need every member to act from personal and institutional values of being welcoming and inclusive and being part of an academic community where issues are questioned, discussed, and respectfully debated as part of the process of intellectual inquiry.
Much of the work cited above on equity has a dual impact of creating a more inclusive and a more pluralistic community. In addition, I want to mention three areas of major focus for the college.
- Creating inclusivity in and through classrooms. The Provost Office is working with faculty and academic departments to support initiatives like the one described above in the natural sciences. A major focus is continuing to expand the work of the Center for Learning and Teaching as a place to enhance ongoing workshops and training that helps faculty explore social identity in our classrooms. The other major effort is done through academic departments and the classes they teach that directly work to bring diverse groups into conversations about difference. For example: women’s and gender studies is offering 5-7 sections of WGST each semester which means that roughly 33-40% of the campus student population has completed or is enrolled in WGST101 which creates a better understanding of socio-political meanings and practices of gender in our lives.
- Creating campus environments where students are routinely introduced to the skills of multicultural competency, or what we might call global dexterity, a combination of cultural knowledge and skills for working and learning across cultural difference. The focus on listening, personal narrative, and civic deliberations in residential communities reflects these commitments, as does our increased use of restorative justice principles in resolving student conduct concerns. Leadership development programs intentionally incorporate the skills of perspective-taking and listening across difference. Bringing together the offices of off campus study and international student services last year created new opportunities to foster global dexterity. The work of the Red Frame Lab underscores listening as the most fundamental skill of effective problem-solving.
- Reimagining the First Year Experience. As recently announced, Dean Mark Moller is leading a process with faculty, students, and staff to reimagine the first-year experience of all students. One of the expressed goals of that work is create more pluralistic communities. We need to widen the circle and get every student invested in purposefully creating a pluralistic community where we engage in difference as a core part of the Denison experience. We start from a place of strength with a robust first-year experience, and have great opportunities for rethinking how curricular and co-curricular learning could intersect, especially throughout the first (and perhaps the second) year of college. Moving first-year students into two larger residential groupings next year will also provide an opportunity to do this work with more purpose and better outcomes.
- Deepening our commitment to the arts: The fine and performing arts are another way we are celebrating diverse perspectives and enhancing intercultural understanding, empathy, and global engagement. Examples include the dance department’s global dance program sponsoring “Red Sky: A Contemporary Indigenous Company” in March, the music department’s ongoing TUTTI Festival, the Museum’s now-open “Say It Loud” exhibition, Vail Series offering “Baker-Tarpaga: When Birds Refused to Fly” last November and “Brasil Guitar Duo with JIJI” this February. The arts give us opportunities to continually bring a more diverse set of voices into our classrooms and to enrich our community through student exhibitions, performances and concerts. The combination of the Eisner Center and Bryant Arts Center gives us a unique opportunity to deepen this work and reveal the arts (and the student and faculty voices they represent) in even more profound and significant ways.
Last Comment: It is important that we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion in ways that enhance the work above. We need language that articulates that a strong academic community both is diverse and finds ways to foster continual engagement and relationships across difference. I am hopeful the development of a new Statement on Diversity will give us an opportunity to re-engage this conversation as a community. As I stated above, I also think bringing us together regularly across the college will give us more opportunity to learn about, partner in, and leverage the work being done. Hence, the new Diversity Team will be a step forward. In my role as president, I am committed to work on diversity, equity, and inclusion because I believe this work is crucial to ensuring all members of the community know they belong on this campus, the overall health of the college and to our educational mission as a liberal arts institution. I am proud of the work we are doing and excited about all we will continue to do together.