Students these days have a wealth of concerns, from academic to financial, social to environmental. It is difficult to engage students on issues of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), in particular, students who are not themselves historically marginalized.
Fatimah Conley, Vice President of Institutional Equity and the Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Delaware, spoke with Kitty Hadaway, Co-host of The Interview, about her approach to student engagement, her initiatives for advancing cultural competency on campus, and more.
I am the Vice President of Institutional Equity and the Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Delaware. The great thing about this inaugural role is that I get to craft what it is and isn’t, which is important too. This responsibility is still diffused across the organization; equity and achieving success must be shared across campus. I get to work with an awesome team of about 40 people. I oversee the Center for Black Culture, Student Diversity and Inclusion, the Vice Provost of Equity, the Center for the Study of Disability, and Equity Compliance. In that, the best part is that I get to work with great people who are here for the same reason as me: to ensure that everyone is treated as they should be on our campus, regardless of identity.
I have always had a passion for DEI work. In my personal and professional life, my background has a lot of intersectionality with respect to my personal and familial identities. I lived through Hurricane Katrina, which came in my third year of law school. I transferred to another semester at a different school for that period of time, which was eye-opening because it was in the deep South — very different from New Orleans. Coming back post-Katrina, trying to help the city rebuild and seeing inequity play out in real-time, from the government response to which neighborhoods were being rebuilt, the approach to economic development, and access to education. I was an attorney at that time and saw the legal system be affected by wealth. That made me say: if I can help people while in a legal position, that’s great. But when George Floyd was murdered, there was a vacuum across the American landscape concerning structuring accountability to mobilize institutional change in predominantly white institutions. That made me decide it was time to change over more formally to DEI work to fill that vacuum.
The idea of Chief Diversity Officers in HE is fairly new. I think that people are still trying to figure out what exactly this role should do. My question was, what is the difference between what our job descriptions are and what our purpose is on campus? I don’t necessarily think those things are always in alignment. I think there is an authority issue; when a lawyer tells you to do something, you listen. But now that I advise in equity spaces, with as much knowledge as I had before, people sometimes think that advice does not carry as much weight. There is a hesitancy to receive that. Most people who are not lawyers would say they have very little understanding of the law, but most people think they know something about DEI. So when you want to get people to change, it is a much more personal subject matter. It makes this work very different from when I worked in the room as a lawyer. I believe that as time goes on, this will change.
The institution that I am at, I am extremely privileged inside this position to have a great working relationship with the Division of Student Life. That division recently rolled out AREI, which is about Advancing Racial Equity and Inclusion for the student body. They have a plan for how to do that for the students, with milestones and means of implementation. The plan is going to go far, but we need to closely collaborate to make sure that the work actually gets done.
We have folks that come to our campus from all over the world, so students all have different ideas about what DEI means. When they first come to campus, they have a series of events, including in-person workshops, to help them better understand these issues. We have a program called Social Justice Peer Educators, where we take cohorts of students who become SJPEs and learn about social justice principles. They are then deployed into student groups and organizations to have these conversations with their peers. It’s important that young people hear about this and have an open dialogue with people their age.
The other crucial thing that makes or breaks this work is the ability to reach the majority of students and engage them in civil discourse around topics with which they may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable. We are at a place in this country where you cannot disagree with someone without being canceled or turning into an argument. If we cannot have healthy debate and bring people from privileged backgrounds to engage openly with these topics, then we will not change the campus climate. So much of what we’re doing begins with increasing their ability and awareness to have those conversations.
The other crucial thing that makes or breaks this work is the ability to reach the majority of students and engage them in civil discourse around topics with which they may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable.
It varies by the day. One of the great things we have at this university is we have community engagement initiatives. We are a Carnegie-indicated community-engaged institution. And experiential learning by far, more than any training, is what actually changes people. It is incumbent upon folks to go into different communities and spaces and have natural dialogues that you would have with anyone who’s new to something. You are advancing equity in that, without doing it under the rubric of ‘advancing equity’. I try to get students into those spaces and also bring different folks to our campus to advance those institutions. We have a great study abroad program which is 100 years old. My own son went to Martinique for a month; being immersed in a different culture he came back a different person. I don’t believe that anyone who has stayed in another country can say they came back with the exact same ideology with which they left. It changes you. We also create these opportunities within Delaware. On top of that, I try to get involved in the student community so that they know they can bring me in before there’s a problem and have regular conversations with me.
Students of this day and age have so many competing priorities. You have to care about your studies, the environment, your social media profile, getting a job, the economy, the election cycle, and more. That’s before you even talk about your family, friends or relationships. It is crazy to me what these students are expected to care about. I think it is hard for them to be engaged in many different aspects of their lives. I hear about student apathy but I think it is more about student overload. We see a huge amount of burn-out.
The place where I see them engaged the most is in the classroom. They have to go to class. They have to learn. Our mission is to educate. So if you are not spending a good amount of time with your faculty and with folks inside of the classroom, whatever the subject is, then you won’t have the same opportunities to get them engaged because that is the place where they connect with their classmates the most on different topics. If you can reach them there, you can reach them. It is imperative to ensure that we figure out ways to educate them on cultural competency at the professor level, so the students get a great foundation.
Students are least engaged with their peer groups, in my opinion. If their identity isn’t of topic or something of concern, it can feel sometimes like ‘Why do I care?’ A lot of people who aren’t marginalised feel that topics of diversity don’t concern them. This is why it is important to make sure that you’re infusing social justice into the social experience as a way students can learn about these issues.
Speak to what motivates them. It is not ‘If you build it they will come.’ You must bring it to them and meet them where they are — on social media platforms, in student locations, and in points of engagement.