Sharing Leadership and Moving to Culture Change to Save Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Values within Challenging State Policy Environments
Today’s environment for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) looks dramatically different than just a year ago. Several state legislatures are now asking colleges and universities to report on their DEI budgets as well as provide lists of the programs, trainings, services, and initiatives that focus on DEI so the state legislators can identify and cut such efforts. Legislation also targets DEI training, diversity statements in hiring and promotion, and using race or ethnicity in admissions and hiring. Florida has led the conservative backlash against DEI, but several other states—including North Carolina, North Dakota, Texas, and Tennessee—have also passed laws aimed at dismantling DEI efforts, with proposed bills in many other states across the country (“DEI Legislation Tracker,” 2023). The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, has developed model legislation that lawmakers in several states quickly promoted; it would abolish DEI offices and staff, eliminate the use of diversity statements in hiring, and bar training that educates staff and faculty on how to identify and fight systemic racism (Rufo et al., 2023).
Campus leaders have been unprepared for these assaults and in some cases reacted by dismantling DEI offices proactively. I want to offer another approach that can address the issue while also continuing to support DEI goals and objectives. One of the main reasons that DEI efforts are particularly vulnerable is that they have not become a normative practice ingrained within campus culture. Typically, DEI efforts are concentrated and siloed to a chief diversity officer (CDO) or DEI office that exists in parallel to the mainstream work of campus. DEI efforts are more vulnerable to attacks when they remain outside day-to-day campus operations. Separate DEI positions or offices are easy to identify and have become easy targets for political attacks from conservative politicians.
What I propose is moving toward shared equity leadership (SEL). In recent studies my colleagues and I have conducted at the University of Southern California’s Pullias Center for Higher Education, we identified campuses that have made substantial progress on eliminating equity gaps and advancing their DEI agendas by using SEL (Kezar et al., 2021). Our study found that campuses that had made substantial progress on their DEI goals—despite their institutional type and contextual differences—shared a collaborative approach. Campuses that used SEL transformed in many ways that supported DEI goals. They became much more diverse in terms of hiring, promoting, and retaining of faculty and staff from diverse racial backgrounds. And the campus leaders dismantled problematic policies and practices that had stood in the way of equity.
In SEL, equity becomes everyone’s work, not only that of a CDO or DEI office. This approach deeply entrenches DEI in day-to-day campus operations and drives culture change. Embedded in faculty, administrative, and staff roles across campus, the work becomes less of a target for cuts. This approach also ensures the work has the critical mass of human resources necessary to transform institutions into equitable and inclusive spaces. We have now conducted a second phase of research that identifies in detail how SEL works by offering the organizational structures to broadly distribute work, builds capacity among campus employees about how to broadly execute, and provides the planning and accountability apparatus so that the work is sustained over time even as it is distributed among many more people.
Can SEL fully shield DEI from attacks? Not completely, as we see from bans on critical race theory, which suggest that DEI-related practices and ideas can be targeted, not just organizational structures (Zahneis & Supiano, 2023). Nonetheless, adopting SEL would certainly make it much more difficult for legislatures to locate and isolate the work for broad-scale cuts and bans. And if equity-oriented work is routinized more as a good practice, such as disaggregating data to look for equity gaps, it would be much harder to see the activity as problematic given that sound administrative practice doesn’t grab headlines.
An earlier column in Academic Leader introduced SEL to leaders, so here we focus on how it is particularly attuned to this political moment. In short, though, the goal of SEL is to create culture change that embeds shared values around DEI into the core of campus operations. In SEL, leaders across campus collaborate to change organizational culture so that equity becomes everyone’s work rather than siloed in a single office or within a single leader’s purview. The SEL model entails three main elements: (1) a personal journey toward critical consciousness in which leaders solidify their commitment to equity; (2) a set of values that center equity and guide the work; and (3) a set of practices that leaders enact collectively to change inequitable structures (Kezar et al., 2021). There are nine values and 17 practices. But every individual does not have to execute every value and practice. Because it is a collaborative effort, these are aspirational characteristics that campus leaders work to adopt collectively.
It is critical to note that CDOs and central DEI offices were present at many of the SEL campuses we studied, first as catalytic agents and then as hubs to connect and coordinate the shared and distributed SEL work. But we also found that some campuses used the president’s cabinet, a task force, or a council instead of a central DEI office to coordinate their culture-changing work. What is promising about SEL in today’s environment is that it provides alternative models for continuing the goals of DEI when centralized DEI offices are made politically infeasible or even illegal. A campus can repurpose an existing structure or office to serve as a coordinating unit to keep culture change sustained and continue to work toward their equity goals, even in today’s challenging political climate.
Our body of work on SEL provides a blueprint for campuses aspiring to transition from centralized DEI structure to a decentralized or matrix approach, with information about organizational structures, accountability, alteration of roles, job descriptions, capacity building, and other key information. Yet it takes significant time to move from a centralized structure to a new one. It does not happen in days, weeks, or even months. Therefore, it is imperative to start now, not wait until your state or campus comes under attack.
DEI Legislation Tracker. (2023, July 14). The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/here-are-the-states-where-lawmakers-are-seeking-to-ban-colleges-dei-efforts
Kezar, A., Holcombe, E., Vigil, D., & Dizon, J. P. M. (2021). Shared equity leadership: Making equity everyone’s work. American Council on Education; University of Southern California, Pullias Center for Higher Education. https://www.acenet.edu/Documents/Shared-Equity-Leadership-Work.pdf
Rufo, C. F., Shapiro, I., & Beienburg, M. (2023). Abolish DEI bureaucracies and restore colorblind equality in public universities. The Manhattan Institute. https://media4.manhattan-institute.org/sites/default/files/model_dei_legislation013023.pdf
Zahneis, M., & Supiano, B. (2023, June 9). Fear and confusion in the classroom. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/fear-and-confusion-in-the-classroom
Adrianna Kezar 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.