While diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have become increasing priorities in higher education over the past several decades, the COVID-19 pandemic and recent political and social upheavals have added urgency to the cause. Higher education leaders can no longer ignore the importance of fostering diversity and inclusion and creating equitable opportunities and outcomes for students, faculty, and staff. Whether it’s working to diversify recruitment, interviews, and hiring of faculty in a department; ensuring that faculty of color or women are not systematically being denied promotions or tenure; looking at pay equity across groups; working on climate issues; or tackling inequitable graduation rates for students from different racial or socioeconomic backgrounds, leaders face a complex set of challenges. Many college and university leaders are struggling with how exactly to approach these challenges: Which equity goals should be prioritized? How can we ensure that multiple populations’ needs and voices are not only accounted for but actually centered as this work progresses? How do we break down systems and structures that inhibit equity? How do we hold people accountable for making change? These and many other questions continue to vex leaders as they work to implement equity agendas.
Our research (see Kezar et al., 2021) highlights the importance of leadership in making changes to promote more just and equitable outcomes in higher education and suggests a leadership approach that can meet the complexity and urgency of this moment: shared equity leadership (SEL). Rather than relegating DEI work to one person or office, SEL includes multiple people in the process of leadership. SEL emphasizes the role of leaders across the organization at all levels—from faculty to department chairs to deans to provosts, from academic affairs to student affairs to business affairs—in prioritizing equity and working collectively to accomplish equity goals. Whether at the department, school or college, or entire college or university level, thinking about leadership as a collective activity—and in turn about how every individual, regardless of role, position, or identity, can contribute—can lead to deeper, more meaningful, long-term change.
SEL comprises three main elements: (1) the personal journey that leaders must undergo as they build awareness of their own identity, develop a critical consciousness, and cement their commitment to equity; (2) values that are shared among members of the leadership group and animate their collective work; and (3) a set of practices that leaders continually enact, which enable them to share leadership and create more just and equitable conditions on their campuses. These three elements fit together in a mutually reinforcing cycle (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Shared equity leadership model
First, to do the work of institutional transformation, individuals must do their own personal work of learning, reflecting, and growing in their knowledge of their identity and positionality as well as the systemic or structural nature of inequity. No matter where individuals may be on their personal journey—engaged activists, dedicated change agents, or those who feel uncertain or newer to equity work—by making a commitment to ongoing growth and learning, there is space for everyone in SEL. Some leaders in our study described how their personal experiences with discrimination or prejudice ignited their commitment to do equity leadership work. Others shared stories about their professional background, detailing specific training or experiences that informed their desire to be social justice leaders. Leaders told us that the journey of doing equity leadership work has transformed how they understand themselves, their students, and the inequitable institutions they hope to change.
To be effective at doing this work, leaders must collectively embody a set of values and enact certain practices. Values are the beliefs and ideals that matter to individuals or groups. Our research points to eight different values that are crucial for equity leaders:
While these values are shared among members of a group working together to tackle equity challenges, every individual engaged in the work does not necessarily need to excel at every single value. For example, in a group of deans working together to change faculty hiring practices to recruit and hire a more diverse pool of candidates, one dean may be particularly adept at demonstrating vulnerability in sharing his experiences as a man of color interviewing for positions at predominantly White institutions. Another dean may take a more analytical approach and even be a little uncomfortable with the idea of vulnerability in the context of the workplace, but she may demonstrate great courage in challenging upper-level administrators to confront policies and practices that inhibit these new hiring guidelines’ development. Leaders can acknowledge and believe in the importance of all these values, even if they may not all be particular areas of strength for every person. It is natural within organizations for such differences in strength and skill to exist; SEL embraces these differences rather than assuming that everyone will eventually arrive at the same place or fit one particular way of thinking or behaving. The benefit of having multiple leaders working together is that individuals can capitalize on their strengths and learn from their colleagues at the same time, and the collective benefits from the skills and experiences of all the people in the room.
These values underlie the practices of campus leaders who are committed to doing equity work. By practices, we mean the ongoing, regular activities that leaders perform individually and collectively to accomplish equity goals. In our research, we found a wide variety of practices that leaders enacted. There is one foundational practice: centering marginalized groups’ needs. This practice asks leaders to put people from traditionally marginalized groups at the center of every decision and think critically about how any decision or change might impact them. We also identified five categories of related practices (see Figure 2), which include
Some practices, like the relational ones, can be enacted by anyone regardless of their place within the organizational hierarchy; anyone can work to build positive relationships or build trusting relationships with colleagues. Other practices, such as diminishing hierarchy or some of the structural practices, might be challenging for someone in a mid- or entry-level position to enact; these might be best enacted by more senior leaders with the power and authority to make these sorts of changes. For example, a cross-functional group working to ensure that the general education curriculum features diverse and inclusive content might include executive leaders, like the provost; mid-level administrative leaders, such as directors of the teaching and learning or the multicultural center; influential senior faculty; nontenured or adjunct faculty; and students. In this setting, the people in the group with the most positional power or authority should be intentional about diminishing hierarchy and creating spaces where students or non-tenured faculty feel comfortable to speak honestly and share their thoughts. Seemingly small actions, like seating everyone in a circle instead of at a conference table with a “head” or the most senior people in the room volunteering to take notes, can have a big impact on diminishing hierarchy, building trust, and fostering positive relationships.
Figure 2. Shared equity leadership practices
SEL offers an opportunity for making meaningful, long-lasting change by bringing the expertise, skills, strengths, and experiences of multiple leaders to the table in solving higher education’s most pressing equity challenges. As leaders at all levels continue to reflect on how traditional ways of operating may be hindering the equitable outcomes they desire, they should consider how an SEL approach can make equity everyone’s responsibility and embed equity leadership across campus.
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
Elizabeth Holcombe, PhD, is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Southern California’s Pullias Center for Higher Education. Dr. Holcombe researches organizational issues that influence student success in higher education, including leadership, faculty workforce and development issues, undergraduate teaching and assessment, and undergraduate STEM education.
Adrianna Kezar, PhD, is the Wilbur-Kieffer Endowed Professor and Rossier Dean’s Professor in Higher Education Leadership at the University of Southern California.