The Interview USA
Duke University
Associate Dean of DEI

Nicolette Cagle

When it comes to tackling harassment and discrimination on campus, building a trusting relationship with students is vital. Often this means asking students for their views on university policies and making sure that students can raise issues through a number of different channels.

As Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Duke University, Nicolette Cagle works hard to build the confidence of her students through her work at the university. GoodCourse Universities Lead Kitty Hadaway asks Nicolette about her journey into the DEI space, and how Duke is fostering diversity and inclusion on campus.

Nicolette's journey

Kitty: Nicolette, what motivates you in your DEI work, and how are you helping to foster diversity, equity and inclusion at Duke?

My mission is to help life on earth thrive. In the context of my DEI work, this means helping students to cultivate successful and meaningful university experiences.

Within Higher Education here in America, we are continually becoming more aware of how painful it can be for students to feel unheard or excluded. I very much want to be part of the solution that changes that, and transforming our university culture and learning from the past is key to accomplishing our mission.

Sometimes my work involves improving policy and managing upwards. I spend a lot of time identifying the rules and structures that have led to overt discrimination at Duke, and setting challenges for our team to make the changes necessary.

For me personally though, the most important thing is to help students and staff to develop growth mindsets. This means fostering a culture where people can be open with each other, and where we all feel that it’s okay to make mistakes.

We also support our students through intensive, long-term and cohort-wide initiatives. This can start even before people enroll at Duke. One example is our Environmental Science Summit Program which is geared towards local high schools. This involves an intensive two-week program, but also regular meetings throughout the year.

In addition to this, I help to design and facilitate DEI training for professors. This involves semester-long and year-round training, rather than addressing DEI issues just at the start of an academic year and never discussing them again.

For me personally though, the most important thing is to help students and staff to develop growth mindsets. This means fostering a culture where people can be open with each other, and where we all feel that it’s okay to make mistakes.

Kitty: I’ve noticed that on the DEI pages of Duke University’s website, a lot of emphasis is placed on reporting procedures. How do you help to build a trusting relationship with your students, so that they feel able to come to the university with their problems?

We’ve set up a number of different routes for students to report their concerns to us, including informal and anonymous routes, so that we can at least get a good picture of the issues at hand.

Students need to feel that they have power and a voice. Reporting procedures are an important part of ensuring this is possible, alongside building student DEI advisory boards and showcasing the diversity work of students themselves.

The most important part of our incident response structure is coffee conversations, where we speak to people whose behaviour has been reported to us about why their actions were hurtful. We have implemented this as an alternative to formal reporting routes, where appropriate, as this can be very taxing on both parties and often feels very high-stakes.

In 95% of cases, those reported to us are never mentioned by other students to us again, so I think that a non-disciplinary approach to low-level issues can be very successful. Over time, students get to see the success of this approach and trust that we are tackling things correctly and taking the issues that they raise seriously.

Kitty: Duke has invested a lot of time and effort in collecting your students’ views. Your 2021 Campus Climate survey indicated that lots of your students have experienced microaggressions, which is in line with patterns across the sector. How can you tackle these behaviors?

Our coffee conversations are an important part of tackling microaggressions because they are a conversation point. They’ve become a good opportunity to address the fact that microaggressions are unintentional more often than they are intentional.

Another important part of our approach is institutional training and awareness. Every department in our school now has anti-racism training. One-off unconscious bias training is sometimes ineffective when people aren’t reminded early and often of the different issues, so we try to incorporate it into the academic year.

3 Quickfire Questions

Kitty: What advice would you give to anyone hoping to make a career in DEI?

It’s important to actually schedule in time to reflect – keep doing your own work, which includes reading widely and completing different training courses as they come up. It’s important that we all keep learning.

Kitty: Who do you most admire in the EDI space?

I really admire Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. She describes herself as a former writing teacher turned equity freedom fighter, and she is a great example of how working closely with leaders and pre-service teachers can affect change.

Kitty: Is there a book that everyone should read?

Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, by Bell Hooks. It’s a fantastic look at why encouraging students to break down boundaries is so important.

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Kitty Hadaway
Universities Lead
Kitty is passionate about using technology to create safer and more inclusive campuses, and is an expert on student engagement and delivering training at scale. Get in touch at to learn more.

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