For Franklin Tuitt, Vice President, Chief Diversity Officer and Professor of Higher Education (HE) and Student Affairs at the University of Connecticut, acknowledging the intersections of a student’s experience is the centerpiece of good DEI practice.
Kira Matthews, GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead, sat down with Franklin to discuss his journey into the sector, building inclusivity into strategy, and more.
I’m currently the Vice President, Chief Diversity Officer and Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs at the University of Connecticut.
I grew up and studied in Boston, so I’m very familiar with the area. Previously I was at the University of Denver for 16 years, and was looking to figure out the next stage of my career and move into a leadership position. Primarily, I wanted to engage in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work at a systems level.
I have a memory of looking around the university I ended up applying to for the first time, and thinking it seemed very diverse. However, when I got there in the fall, I was looking around, thinking, ‘Where did everybody go?’ I was 1 of 3 African American males in my class, and 1 of 10 in the entire undergraduate student population. It was shocking and isolating, culturally, socially and racially.
Diversity work began for me as an undergraduate. I remember being in a room with some of my classmates who were also struggling and talking about leaving. We said, we could go somewhere else and face a similar situation, or stay here and try to do something about it. I took on a leadership role in the Black Student Union and engaged the institution in a set of changes that would help move the university towards its DEI commitments.
I firmly believe that students play a pivotal role in helping institutions understand what’s working and not working. It’s important to engage their perspective to learn how students are experiencing the institution on the ground level.
Strategy is indeed key, and it’s important to have a framework that advances how you progress DEI work. Early on, we adopted the Inclusive Excellence Framework as a way of framing our DEI initiatives.
We think about it in 6 ways: access, equity and success; a nurturing climate for historically excluded populations; integrating DEI into the curriculum, research and teaching; professional development for faculty, staff and students; infrastructure; and lastly, ensuring all of the work I’ve just mentioned is actually producing the outcomes we want to see.
The emphasis is on the institution for supporting and facilitating success. All too often, marginalized students at university can feel like a guest in someone else’s house. HE institutions have strong socialization forces which puts students in a position of either assimilating or leaving.
We try to ensure all of our diverse communities feel seen, heard and validated, as this all facilitates a sense of belonging. We ensure the ethos of the institution is representative of our students' broad diversity of experiences — not just prioritizing the majority, so we can engage aspects of home that are familiar in forwarding that sense of belonging.
We try to ensure all of our diverse communities feel seen, heard and validated, as this all facilitates a sense of belonging.
We do this through our programming, teaching, curriculum, and how we design and structure our buildings, the images we feature on campus, and so much more.
It’s not easy, and I’m not a big advocate of mandatory learning. Instead, we have to figure out how to make it hard for students to opt-out, in the sense it becomes so embedded in our institution it becomes normalized. For example, new students go through an orientation experience and we’ve integrated our DEI principles into the onboarding, so that it’s just expected behavior. Crucially, there also needs to be opportunities to progress this learning as students spend more time with us.
As a faculty member, I’ve had the opportunity to work with at least a couple of undergraduate students in my time, it’s been great to contribute to the development of future scholar-practitioners who are now doing amazing work, receiving awards for it and continuing to build on the work that I started, as hopefully the foundation of their academic careers. Teaching, and shaping how people think about DEI work has been a very fulfilling and rewarding experience to me.
More administratively, at the University of Denver, I was part of a group of colleagues that created the Interdisciplinary Research Institute for the Study of Inequality. It’s called IRISE, and is an institutional vehicle that provides pathways for students and staff engaging in DEI and anti-racism work. That institute has blossomed into a really powerful infrastructure that continues to nurture and support numerous folks.
You have to take care of yourself — balance your commitment to change in the world with a commitment to preserving your health and sanity in this space.
I’ve been fortunate to work with some great people. Some of my best mentors haven’t been DEI leaders, but institutional leaders that had a strong commitment to DEI principles. DuBois and bell hooks are people I give most credit to for my work — they are my intellectual mentors.