Oftentimes, institutions attempt to tackle systemic issues of inequality by enforcing rules from the top without any other attempt to address the true sources of the issues. This way, it can be easy to follow the letter of the law, so to speak, without delving deeper into the why. In recent years, however, many places such as universities have been taking a more proactive approach — not only implementing policies from on high but encouraging the people to understand the issues and take part in helping to shift the environment to a more equitable one.
GoodCourse spoke to Colin Scott, Vice President of Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) at University College Dublin (UCD) about how staff, administration, and students can all work together to build change at the cultural level.
I can date it exactly to 2013. I’d been Dean of the law school for two years, and during that period I’d progressively seen and better understood some of the equality challenges we faced in the university. Three incidents upset me, and on the third one, I hit a “Reply All” on an email to the president and all the senior leadership of the university. Then I dived under the desk thinking maybe this was the end of my beautiful but short leadership career. But actually the president and his colleagues were sympathetic to what I’d raised.
Over the following two years, we had a change in regime with a new president, and I advocated for a stronger values-based approach to strategy. The president formed a new EDI group reporting directly to the university management team, and he asked me to chair it. Ireland joined the Athena Swan Charter in 2015 (a framework used to support gender equality in HE), which required a national HE review. It was recommended that every university have an EDI president, and, as I was already fulfilling part of that role as the EDI group chair, our president proposed that I take on the VP role.
We always had very good people working on equality, but when I started, the equality officer would’ve chiefly been responsible for implementing policies and making sure we complied with legislation. Since 2015, though, we’ve been much more proactive around addressing EDI challenges. The responsibility has to be with everyone in the university—all of our staff and all of our students. We’re geared towards cultural change, not simply compliance with legal and guidance. That’s the biggest difference. Whereas a decade ago EDI wasn’t mentioned, it’s now on the agenda of every university group.
It’s the privilege of an academic lawyer like myself to say the law is not so important in this area. It’s not unimportant. It constitutes an important boundary. Compliance with equality rules is necessary but not sufficient to affect cultural change or drive any true version of equality in HE institutions or society more generally. One of the key techniques we use in our university is to encourage different groups, schools, units, and teams to engage and take ownership of understanding their EDI challenges and then create a plan to address them. The Athena Swan program is a really good example of it where we don’t tell universities what their gender equality action approach should be. We tell them we want them to develop an analysis of their data as to where their challenges lie and get them to draw up their own action plan, which we then evaluate.
Compliance with equality rules is necessary but not sufficient to affect cultural change or drive any true version of equality in HE institutions or society more generally.
We know from surveys, both staff and students, that there’s a major problem of sexual harassment and violence, not just in our university but nationally. In 2021, we undertook the biggest consultation in UCD’s history, consulting very widely with staff, students, and externally. What we’ve done with our new policy, procedures, and structures is significantly reduce the emphasis on having a formal complaints system. We have one, and it’s very important we have it, but it’s not the main focus. Our main focus is a set of proactive measures and structures to build a culture of respect on campus. This includes an awareness-raising campaign and various training programs for all staff and students, each set at different levels and intensities depending on the person’s role. We’ve also developed an anonymous report and support system that gives us data on challenging hotspots around the campus. We’ve established a new three-person full-time support team chiefly concerned with receiving disclosures and supporting those who make them. If you disclose, there’s no implication or expectation that you’ll make a formal complaint. But if you wish to, you’ll be supported around it. We also now have an oversight group independent of structures and procedures to assess whether the changes we’ve made are really leading to the cultural change we’re aiming for.
I find students very engaged around issues of sexual violence and harassment and issues of housing equity. Another really important instance recently has been around period poverty. Our student union worked with the library to pilot the provisioning of period products to students on campus in such a way that they demonstrated the demand and how it can be accomplished. And now the university has taken it on across the campus. This is a real stand-out example of student leadership on a significant equality issue. Our student union has representation across all of our major decision-making groups. They’re super engaged. It makes me really optimistic about our future.
Listen and demonstrate enthusiasm for listening, around taking up the issues they raise, but also being honest around things. Demonstrate the integrity to not over-promise what an institution can do but rather take on shared challenges together to address them.