Implementing effective change in Higher Education (HE) institutions, in particular on the topics of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), can be difficult. It is important to facilitate engagement by listening to and collaborating with student populations and other stakeholders when rolling out new initiatives.
Dr. Karl Reid, Senior Vice Provost and Chief Inclusion Officer at Northeastern University, spoke to Kitty Hadaway, GoodCourse’s Universities Lead, on how his institution enhances cultural competency, its commitment to DEI work, and more.
I’m Karl Reid, Senior Vice Provost and Chief Inclusion Officer at Northeastern University. This is an inaugural role; we have had a Vice Provost focused on DEI since 2013, but my role was elevated to a cabinet-level position with a more strategic focus in 2021.
Northeastern is an institution like no other. I have worked in industry, for non-profits, associations, and tech. I have never been part of an institution as innovative and agile as Northeastern. We have over 45,000 students on fourteen campuses in three countries — so a student could start their undergraduate education in London and end up pursuing their education in Boston or Oakland. The opportunities for an immersive education are almost as vast for graduate students.
Like many institutions, in the summer of 2020 when George Floyd was murdered, the Black students on campus asked fundamental questions about how Northeastern would respond to their calls for racial equity and social justice. To their credit and the president’s, Northeastern organized a series of representatives working to answer that question while seeing to deeply understand the current state of experiences for Black students, faculty, and staff — and more broadly for all marginalized groups.
This effort led to a call to action in June 2020, that, among other systemic changes, that Northeastern’s incoming students, faculty, and staff will be representative of the nation and society by 2026. My role arose because the institution needed someone to coordinate this plan across the university.
I worked for IBM as a systems engineer with my first job out of college, which I left because I was more interested in product management. I worked in the tech industry for twelve years, and my departure was inspired by two books, Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities about American education inequities, and Stephen Covey’s First Things First, which asked the fundamental question, “What Matters Most” to you? These texts catalyzed my eventual transition into HE. All the work I did before, including volunteer work, helped to prepare me for what I do today.
My engineering background gives me a systems-based approach to everything I do, which I use when considering DEI. It always answers how to create the context for success and what are the interconnected components necessary for change to occur. My doctorate looked at the role of the environment (the setting), the attributes of the individual (their personal and physical attributes), the effect of their motivation, achievement, self-efficacy, confidence, and the role of their relationships on their actions and outcomes. I thought about all of this together.
I found that successful students have high self-efficacy and confidence in their abilities. They have great relationships vertically with their faculty and also horizontally with their peers, and they are secure in their identity. The work that I do in DEI is creating the framing to allow all of this to happen in any context and for all individuals not just students — for people to thrive, have a strong sense of belonging, and thus achieving academic and professional success.
In 2020, in addition to making a six-year goal, Northeastern wanted to ensure that everyone in our institution had a baseline understanding of DEI, and anti-racism.
We put together a series of custom modules in partnership with Academic Impressions, requiring everyone to have this baseline knowledge. We looked at the historical elements of racism and white privilege and white supremacy and why it’s important to address, as well as the benefits of being culturally competent. Ultimately, we want to produce global citizens. To achieve these ends, all members of our community including students have an opportunity to understand, respect, operate, and thrive in multicultural environments. We also stimulate ideas across the university, encouraging innovative ideas through an Inclusive Impact Innovation Fund.
We are now training student ambassadors, faculty members, and university leaders to be more comfortable having conversations about race with the goal of becoming a more inclusive community.
We have hosted a series of listening sessions to help us all understand the current state of DEI, what its future looks like, and the obstacles between these.
We drill down, too. We surveyed the university on our DEI climate and have identified several groups that reported lower levels of belonging and inclusion on campus. However, it turns out that although students do feel safe on campus, the impact of social media and attacks on their identity groups have raised their concerns about safety.
For example, our Jewish students and staff said they hadn’t experienced anti-semitism on campus when we held a series of meetings in the summer of 2021 — but were aware of nearby instances which concerned them. In some communities, police patrols don’t increase the sense of safety given the historical and contemporary relationships between police and the Black community, for example, but among those who identify as Jewish, the NUPD presence and other services that we offer increase the sense of safety even for students who live off campus.
Northeastern was among the first universities to announce that we were going to open post-Covid, requiring the vaccine and providing regular testing for everyone in the community. The safety of our students and staff is of utmost importance.
I mentioned the training that every student and staff member has to do, which provides a baseline knowledge of these topics with specific actions to take when they witness, or are the target of racist behaviors or see or hear insensitive or disparaging remarks about one’s identity. When we rolled this out in 2021, students asked for opportunities for more engagement. So we’re about to roll out phase two, courses incorporated into the first-year learning experience. These modules will create environments where students become more comfortable hearing and discussing viewpoints that counter the norm.
Any initiative coming exclusively from the top down — that is, from administration — without student input is dead on arrival. If you don’t have ambassadors within an institution championing initiatives, they won’t work. Engagement happens when students drive change. We must empower students to raise their voices and speak about ways to develop impactful solutions.
Engagement happens when students drive change. We must empower students to raise their voices and speak about ways to develop impactful solutions.
There is also a lot of engagement on social media, which can be a tool for conflict but also for education. Our senior leadership reviews it daily, and uses these platforms to engage with students and the community where they are.