Higher education institutions aren’t just centres of learning: they also have a profound responsibility to create an environment where students and staff from all walks of life feel welcomed, supported, and empowered. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by Rajani Naidoo, Vice President for Community and Inclusion at the University of Bath, who has worked tirelessly to foster an inclusive community on campus.
Rajani sat down with Luke James, Co-Host of the Interview, to discuss issues including the importance of community, cultivating a culture of continuous learning, and building trust between institutions and their students.
I’m Vice President for Community and Inclusion at the University of Bath. In that role, I’m responsible for leading our strategy for building an inclusive community. That includes all activities relating to students and staff, from teaching to research. We’re also looking at making the ways we attract and retain people to be as diverse and inclusive as possible. I’m also a UNESCO Chair, a Co-Director of a Research Centre in the School of Management, and a Professor of Higher Education Management.
For me, the most important thing is to build trust and to listen actively to all members of the community. You need to hear about the issues, the obstacles, and the innovations. It’s not as easy as it sounds: sometimes, people have very different experiences from you, so you need to put yourself in their shoes. Secondly, I’m trying to integrate the whole university in a unified strategy, linking up staff networks, the students’ union, and the top leadership team. We’re trying to identify trailblazers in diversity and inclusion across the university, such as our residential advisors, to increase visibility and celebrate their achievements. We’ve also had a group of alumni from the Faculty of Design and Engineering who have developed an entire program based around decolonising architecture and building a more inclusive curriculum. Those innovators can serve as an example for us all.
It’s important not to be abstract. Instead, you need to link it directly to the work that people do. For example, if you are looking at research offers, you need to ask how diversity can enhance research excellence. When you have exciting ideas, people automatically gravitate towards them. Recently, we had a community and inclusion showcase, where we invited members of the community to set up stalls to showcase their work. In the end, we had over 30 stalls, ranging from showing off research to the students’ union’s work with Fairtrade. It’s about enthusiasm, passion, and commitment: people need to feel like they are part of something.
First and foremost, we want to show people that it’s okay to make mistakes. We don’t want to create a culture where people are afraid to ask questions or make challenges. It’s crucial to involve senior leadership so that we can lead by example. Recently, I held a training program for our senior leaders, which involved bringing in actors to recreate real-life scenarios. That helped us to reflect and think more critically about our approach. Personally, I learned a lot about the experience of students going through gender transition: it’s something I’d understood intellectually, but not with enough emotional depth. Above all, it’s important that we can empathise with people who might be suffering from bias and discrimination.
We’re very fortunate that community is a central pillar of our university strategy. Within the community, we also have diversity, inclusion, and supporting everyone to reach their potential. Like all institutions, we have a statement of equality objective which we developed from a large working group across the university. Although it began as a regulatory requirement, we went beyond that to implement various targeted measures to identify where we can do more. Our more aspirational goals operate on three levels: our university strategy, our statement of equality objectives, and our internal program.
It’s important to make early, meaningful interventions. If you can get those quick wins, then you can start to move along. If people see that their concerns are being addressed, then you can begin to build trust.
I studied the work of Pierre Bourdieu, who pioneered the idea of cultural capital. All students come to university with different types of cultural capital. Although universities preach equality of opportunity, they tend to privilege the cultural capital of the dominant groups in society. So we need to think about how to help students navigate the institution and how to change the institutional culture to make it more inclusive. Universities are so obsessed with competing, that we’re forgetting how to collaborate. To solve the big economic, social, and environmental issues of our times, we need more collaboration not only across institutions but also across nations.
Meet people across the institution and listen to their stories. Ask open questions, build trust, and listen actively. Once you have that foundation, you’ll find that everything works so much better. Community and inclusion work is often very difficult, but if you build strong relationships you can navigate those challenges. Finally, never use management-speak to avoid difficult and honest conversations and don’t make promises that you can’t keep.
When you’re looking after others, don’t forget to take care of yourself. People who work in this field are so passionate and committed, but that shouldn’t be at the expense of your own personal life and well-being.