Universities are big, complicated institutions. Making sure that DEI issues are always high on a university’s agenda is a challenge that many professionals in this space meet throughout their careers.
As Chief Diversity Officer and Senior Advisor to the President at the University of Florida, Dr. Marsha Currin McGriff’s work involves bringing together the perspectives of students with the priorities of her institution’s senior leaders.
GoodCourse co-founder Chris Mansfield sits down with Marsha to learn more about what her journey into the DEI space has been like, and how she manages the needs of so many stakeholders in her role.
I’ve been working in Higher Education for 24 years now – my interest in the sector started when I was a graduate student, and has kept me going until now. So I don’t plan to give up this work any time soon!
My last name, Currin, is Irish. There’s an Irish proverb that says, “may the road rise to meet you.” This resonates with me when it comes to how I see my DEI work: it has always been a part of my life and career, right from 1999 in my first role as an academic advisor, where my job was to help support underrepresented populations.
Students often don’t get to see how policies and procedures come to be formed. I’m very proud of how I’ve been able to pull back the curtain for them.
I moved into a number of different DEI roles after finishing my postgraduate studies, and had the privilege of being able to work with students from a vast array of life circumstances – disabled students, students who had experience of the foster care system, and students who are parents.
In my forties, I really started to reflect on my career path and consider where I wanted to apply myself the most. This is what led me to apply for my previous role as Associate Vice President for Inclusive Excellence at Ball State University, and then to my current position as Chief Diversity Officer and Senior Advisor to the President at the University of Florida.
I’ve been fortunate to work on both sides of the Higher Education landscape – right in there closely with students, as well as in the administrative side of things. I’ve been able to get an overview of really crucial things like budgets and strategy, while also getting to work closely with students and really learn as much as I can from their perspective.
Students often don’t get to see how policies and procedures come to be formed. I’m very proud of how I’ve been able to pull back the curtain for them – show them “how the sausage is made” – and help them have an input in that, to shape their university’s climate and ethos.
I’m very focused on deconstructing the “administration myth”, showing students how things are done so that they understand why processes can be slow. Just because things are taking time to change doesn’t mean we don’t care – we just want to get it right.
Once students see how things happen, we can take every opportunity to build them into that system. For example, students sit on our Presidential advisory council for DEI issues. Giving students the ear of the university’s President is helpful for us as well as them: we need to be able to understand their perspectives in order to represent them. Communication is key, as is actively making the time to listen to students.
When I come to a new institution, I want to see what its values are. At the University of Florida, DEI is an integral part of our institution’s strategies and intentional design – so when it comes to raising DEI issues with the President, I’m doing that with the aim of meeting shared goals in mind.
It’s important to reach a consensus on the right path forward. That involves setting up listening sessions where different stakeholders can interact with and hear from each other. At the same time, I use my experience across the Higher Education sector to build an overall strategy to help us approach DEI issues, which I keep bringing to the President over time. Reflecting on our university’s strengths and weaknesses means that I always have new opportunities for change to raise.
It feels like I wrote that piece of work a long time ago now! But what I really learned from my graduate studies was how varied the opportunities and liabilities of having intersectional identities can be.
Across the board, Black women in America deal with a lack of respect, energy, time and financial support. At the same time though, we have wonderful traits like confidence and self-belief, and we often find a lot of encouragement and support in our own communities. One fact I remember from my research is that Black women voters outnumbered voters in any other gender-race category in both the 2008 and 2012 elections, which some people find surprising.
In my work at the University of Florida, I want to hear from female Black students about how they are experiencing their learning environment and what I can do to help them reach their goals. I want to support them in reaching a level of academic success that matches their personal excellence.
Part of why we spend so much time building trust with our students and involving them in our decision-making processes is so that we know how to best support them when things in the wider world are affecting how they feel.
A recent example of how we support students at difficult times is the shooting that happened in Buffalo, New York this month. We held a vigil to mourn the lives lost in this event, where staff and students could come together and grieve what had happened. Making space for moments like this is an important part of being a heartfelt leader, looking for ways to serve and support students at difficult times as fully as we can.
No matter what’s going on in the world, we also consistently offer counselling, mentoring and listening circles to all of our students. We don’t try to shelter students from real life, but instead help them to weather the storms so that they can leave our university as well-rounded adults.
Don’t stop believing in yourself and in the fact that change is possible.
I admire all of my colleagues at the University of Florida so much for their effort and their ability to get difficult things done.
Diversity Beyond Lip Service, by La’Wana Harris. This is an excellent step-by-step guide to how to create meaningful change in institutions that deliver the objectives we need.