Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work is about more than inviting lots of different people to the table — for a sense of belonging to truly be felt, an environment needs to adapt to fit the needs of those with different backgrounds and lived experiences.
Rhonda Longworth, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs at Eastern Michigan University, sat down with GoodCourse to discuss the nuances of what makes a great leader and her approach to creating an inclusive campus.
I was a faculty member here first, and then I became Associate Provost working on retention and graduation issues. Like a lot of academics, I thought that retention and graduation were academic issues at first, so that’s what I focused on. Very quickly, I realized that a significant amount of challenges come from a student's experience outside of the classroom, so I began working with Student Support and Student Affairs to change how we think about those questions. Over time I began to supervise elements of Student Support and eventually became Provost.
That shift to Student Affairs was really about realizing that a student doesn't become a different person when they enter the classroom, or when they leave — they are one person, and all aspects of their life must be considered in their university experience.
It was brought to our attention that we were not honoring students in the way that they needed us to. There are a lot of different reasons why students may not go by the name that they were given at birth or the name on their social security card. We are an institution that wants to welcome everyone, whoever they are, and that was our way of saying “We see you the way you see yourself” and making a small change that made a big difference to them.
I believe in the idea that you have to be authentic — people that are self-reflective enough to be comfortable in their skin can be great leaders. We can deal with a lot of differences between people, but people being inauthentic makes it hard. Showing your true self and being able to be vulnerable is how you find your voice, and that makes a great leader.
Seeing challenges and trying to overcome them is what makes great leadership, and you don’t always have to succeed, but you need to work at it anyway.
It also comes from a place of kindness towards others. People might not always agree with you, but everyone is imperfect, and leaders need to be able to move forward and find power in any situation. Seeing challenges and trying to overcome them is what makes great leadership, and you don’t always have to succeed, but you need to work at it anyway.
The first thing you need to do is want that balance yourself. Then we can model it — people can have serious differences in how they see the world, but that doesn’t mean we can’t treat people respectfully. I’m a political scientist by training so I rely a lot on processes for that, helping students to understand that we don't want to hide from difficult conversations. As academics, we can model that in what we do. For instance, we don’t shy away from showing something controversial in a curriculum; we display and critique it. On everything, there needs to be a dialogue of conversation from both sides.
Social media has caused many of us to step away from those who disagree with us, but life doesn’t look like that. It’s important to be able to coexist with those that do not agree with you. We need to be able to have disagreements in a way that differentiates between fact and opinion. It isn’t easy, but it is possible.
The first is for us to get out of our own preconceived notions about where students should be. The pandemic accelerated an issue that was already there in that students were not where we expected them to be when arriving here. We looked at where they were when they arrived and where we wanted them to be when they left and looked at how to close the gap, rather than expecting something that wasn’t there.
There are also different kinds of students; some are full-time, some are part-time, some have jobs, and some are parents. 22% of our students are African American — so we had a choice; were we going to ignore that unique experience and act like it’s the same as everyone else’s, or were we going to explore their experience and meet them where they are? We must look at all student groups and ensure they finish at the same place, even if they aren't starting from the same place.
Overall, making people feel welcome is about understanding what a person needs if they are to thrive and do it no matter what it is. It should never mean that a person has to change in order to belong. Diversity isn’t just about bringing people in; it’s about changing ourselves and the university environment to create a welcoming space.
Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents by Richard Neustadt. This is a non-fiction book that speaks about the politics of leadership from the perspective of US Presidents, but it resonates on so many different levels. When it comes to leadership, what you learn is that you are rarely going to be able to command others to do something purely because of your title. Power is almost always a negotiation with other people, and that applies whether you are the US President or working in Higher Education — this has always stayed with me. Getting things done needs to be a collaborative process.