An inclusive climate is essential to student retention and their motivation to succeed. It makes students feel they truly belong to an institution that cares about them. However, knowing how to implement a culture of care and inclusion can be difficult and takes a dedicated Higher Education (HE) professional with a passion for what they do.
GoodCourse spoke to Katrina Caldwell, Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer at Johns Hopkins University, about the importance of campus climate in DEI, its impact on the well-being of faculty and students, and the initiatives that she is most proud of.
It was not my original plan. I studied English Literature and planned to write a best-selling US novel. I joined the University of Illinois at Chicago's graduate program, and the summer after my first year, I had an opportunity to teach TRIO summer bridge students who had just graduated from high school and were transitioning to the university in the fall. I enjoyed teaching them how to strengthen their writing skills, but I enjoyed helping them learn to navigate the campus the most. I fell in love with that aspect of the work but didn't know that I could actually have a job working with students in that way. From there, I kept trying to pursue opportunities to do similar work.
It’s a grassroots organization, meaning that even though they report to the president, they advise the president as well, and they choose their own agenda, which is so important to these types of advocacy equity-seeking groups at higher institutions. They have autonomy, meaning they can hold the institution accountable in meaningful ways, and my job is to provide a space for them and inform them of institutional changes that might impact the advice they give the president. So, they've been instrumental in everything from thinking about partner benefits to support for childcare on our campus to more recently thinking about how we support our LGBTQ faculty and staff in different ways.
Absolutely. Normally when we think about HE, we think about students — but our staff is crucial. Without our staff, institutions could not move forward; they are the lifeblood of the organization. They are unsung heroes.
We know that inclusive climates impact productivity, motivation, and retention, so we must understand our climate and create systems to regularly address issues raised by our employees. One of the ways that I have found to be the most effective to begin that process is to conduct an institution-wide climate study, so everyone understands that they have an important role to play in a process that will impact them.
After the study is conducted, the next steps include sharing the outcomes of the survey, developing initiatives and systems that will be put in place to address those outcomes, and then annually communicating what changes have been made as a result. Then in three or five years, you can conduct that climate study all over again to see if you have indeed shifted culture, but the study itself is not the work. The work is those tangible changes that we know need to be put in place. Training or workshops might need to be a part of the improvement plan, but training does not shift culture. It builds skills and reinforces expectations, but you need system changes (e.g. accountability metrics for managers, pay equity, discipline/dismissal for bad behavior, etc.) to shift culture.
Climate is also essential in persistence/success, retention, and the whole student experience. It even impacts the way that students have a relationship with their institution once they graduate. So we look at whether there are strong alumni and supporters because your alumni are your biggest advocates in encouraging other folks to go through that experience. Students are the reason HE exists, so it’s important that we ensure that when we enrol them at our institutions, we are ready to make sure that they ALL feel valued, heard, and welcome.
To me, the most important role I play in this work is ensuring that the students I work with have the best opportunity to reach whatever goals they want. They don't have to be academic goals — they can be anything — and I can support them. Connecting with those students is what brings me back to my purpose because this work can get very challenging, and sometimes you can get caught up in the day-to-day minutiae. It's important to step back and see the impact that you have because they inspire you to keep moving forward.
Don't do it by yourself. This is going to be isolating work. Find your people, your network, and a few strong mentors, and quickly figure out who you can trust to bring into your inner circle to help advise you and give you perspectives.
I admire all of the folks who forged a way for me in this work - many of them did not receive the recognition or fancy titles, but they sacrificed so that I would have the opportunity to lead at an institution like Hopkins. When I started in Mississippi, I was the ‘inaugural’ Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement/Chief Diversity Officer. Still, there was actually someone who had been in that unofficial role for almost twenty years called Dr Donald Cole. He was the most gracious and helpful mentor colleague, even though he didn't get the accolades of the official title.
First, I’d say I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou because I saw myself in that book and related to it, and also Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins, which showed me that different theoretical frameworks were aligned more with my experience, which I could use to understand my viewpoint and experience in the world and that I would in my work for the first time.