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New Thinking on Accountability for DEI Work

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leadership and Management

New Thinking on Accountability for DEI Work

Increasingly, state systems and institutions are calling on higher education institutions to monitor and demonstrate progress for student success and ameliorate equity gaps. Due to the lack of progress after years of dedicated efforts to improve student success or campus climate, external groups (e.g., policymakers and accreditors) have grown concerned and are demanding results. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) announced a standard around DEI in the accreditation process; this step, which took effect on January 1, 2022, is among the many growing efforts to hold higher education institutions accountable for their DEI efforts. Additionally, national players—such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Sloan Foundation, and the National Association of System Heads—are starting to prioritize progress on DEI, whether through their funding formulas, programs, or frameworks. And while there are attacks happening to slow DEI progress, they have not altered the expectations and dedication of these higher education stakeholders to support DEI goals.

At a time when campuses are starting to be held accountable for meeting metrics around diverse student success, research at the Pullias Center at the University of Southern California suggests that the path toward success is one paved with new forms of leadership—namely shared equity leadership (SEL). We wrote about SEL in an earlier article for Academic Leader. Here we want to focus on creating well-designed and appropriate systems of accountability within SEL. Pullias Center research has identified a new distributed accountability model within SEL that shifts who is accountable, to whom they are accountable, for what they are accountable, and how they hold themselves accountable. The model ensures that progress is made on DEI goals. This is extremely important as decades of DEI work have not resulted in progress—a fact that has emboldened those who want to dismantle DEI work as costly and ineffective. To ensure that DEI efforts continue, we need to demonstrate results.

Who is accountable

Traditionally, accountability for DEI has fallen to the chief diversity officer or a diversity committee. But under SEL, every member of campus has DEI goals and responsibilities, and these are built into performance systems and budgeting processes. Annual reviews for staff and promotion and tenure processes for faculty include DEI goals and expected performance outcomes. For administrators, there are not only performance benchmarks but also budgetary consequences for meeting or not meeting DEI goals.

Boards of trustees also play a prominent role in ensuring DEI progress. Campuses with SEL have boards that prioritize DEI, establish DEI subcommittees to develop working plans, become  educated about DEI, and monitor DEI goals. They work closely with the president and their cabinet, sharing data regularly about progress. Boards are responsible for approving and monitoring DEI plans at each of these campuses.

To whom they are accountable

To whom the campus is accountable also shifts. Boards have typically not held campuses accountable for DEI, but under SEL, they make DEI a priority so campuses become accountable to external groups for meeting goals. Accountability also expands in campus administrators— typically the cabinet—sharing results regularly with the campus community so that everyone has a sense of the progress or lack thereof, and data sharing makes transparent different levels of progress across different schools and colleges, for example. Accountability means that every group on campus is seeing data and thinking about ways they can act to close equity gaps. Additionally, the local community is often a key stakeholder, and administrators shared data about progress with them as well. DEI efforts often involve creating partnerships with local community and government agencies, so reporting back to these groups about progress establishes mutuality and allows them to see that the partnerships are meaningful and making a difference to results.

What campuses are accountable for

What campuses are accountable for also changes. DEI goals have primarily focused on institutional metrics, such as student retention and graduation rates. But these measures are far removed from the work of the campus to create better outcomes. Also, the environment in which students learn has traditionally been ignored. Under SEL, environment assumes a central focus. This means that boards held employees, particularly administrators, accountable for campus behaviors, processes, and climate, which are regularly measured.

Administrators developed behavioral expectations for themselves and other employees that were reinforced in hiring processes and orientation, and then included as an accountability measure in performance evaluations (e.g. foster and promote in diverse teams, coaching and mentoring other on DEI). These expectations and associated review processes establish a set of norms that guide the type of culture and environment campuses are trying to create. Campuses are also holding themselves accountable for equity-related results in a range of operational processes ranging from admissions to hiring to promotion processes to professional development to evaluation. Leaders also describe the importance of regularly measuring the climate on campus as well as within different units and departments. Boards and administrative leaders considered it inadequate to solely look at outcomes without any concern for the quality of the experience.

Process of accountability

The process of accountability has also shifted dramatically. Because SEL means broader distribution of responsibility for DEI, strategic planning processes differ in that they often designate specific offices and individuals as being accountable for specific goals, and units were often encouraged to develop their own plans. Increasingly, we see a movement away from a single strategic plan for the overall institution to multiple plans with more detail and specific accountability pieces assigned to many different leaders. Staff, faculty, and administrators receive training on using data, assessment, and evaluation processes so that they were better able to work within the new accountability systems. Administrators held regular forums where the metrics were discussed and interim results shared. Different units are encouraged to revise plans on the basis interim results, and leaders indicated that plans were very active rather than sitting on a shelf which was often the tradition with previous planning efforts on campuses. Therefore, a five-year DEI plan would have a public forum where administrators share results each year as well every semester as campus stakeholders sent results into a central office and administrators provided feedback so that units are looking at their results regularly.

And importantly, groups developing accountability plans included DEI advocates to ensure that these plans include-up-to date perspectives on DEI work. DEI advocates helped expand the measures used, developing new climate measures and helping revise planning processes so that more people are held accountable across campus for outcomes for example.

In the end, given the lack of progress on most campuses for DEI goals, equitable student outcomes, and the creation of an environment in which students, faculty, and staff can succeed, it is time to revamp our accountability systems and commit to doing better. Learn more here.

Adrianna Kezar, PhD, is the Dean’s Professor of Leadership and Wilbur-Keiffer Endowed Chair at the University of Southern California and director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education.