Equity in Action: Deans Discuss Racial Justice

Four St. Thomas deans gathered recently to discuss racial justice and the approaches they are taking to best integrate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the classroom, the pedagogy and the hiring practices of their divisions.

“I know our deans here today would say that a focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, social justice and anti-racism is built into the DNA of each of their colleges or schools,” said panel discussion moderator Dr. Wendy Wyatt, vice provost for academic affairs and professor of media ethics. “But you might also all agree that higher education has recently reached what we call a watershed moment in terms of the ways we approach and act on these issues.”

The deans’ conversation was a session at St. Thomas’ inaugural Equity in Action: Cultivating Antiracist Universities virtual conference in April. Panelists included:

  • Buffy Smith, interim dean of Dougherty Family College
  • Kathlene Holmes Campbell, dean of the School of Education
  • MayKao Y. Hang, dean of the Morrison Family College of Health
  • Rob Vischer, dean of the School of Law

Here are some highlights from the hourlong conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Establishing diversity, equity and inclusion in the colleges

Interim Dean of the Dougherty Family College Buffy Smith
Interim Dean of the Dougherty Family College Dr. Buffy Smith.

Smith: The Dougherty Family College is a mission equity-driven college. We had to consider what our curriculum would look like. We had to consider what our faculty and staff would look like. The scholars that we serve, 95% of them identify as being BIPOC and 73% are the first people in their families to go to college. Our student body represents over 15 languages. We knew that our curriculum had to reflect, honor and affirm the rich cultural experiences of our scholars. We were very intentional to make sure that the courses were rigorous, but that our teaching practices would be culturally relevant.

In terms of how we would select our faculty, we signaled that we wanted a diverse faculty and staff to reflect and serve as role models and mirrors for our scholars, by making sure that our candidates for faculty positions and staff positions understand how to create culturally sustaining supports, and how to practice culturally relevant teaching. We ask that explicitly in the job description, as part of their teaching statement.

In terms of the results of trying to be very intentional about curriculum, we also require that our faculty teach at least one assignment that's focused on a social justice topic. Currently, we have 46% of our faculty and staff who identify as BIPOC. And we are committed to even increasing that number.

Dr. Kathlene Holmes Campbell, dean of the School of Education, speaks in the O'Shaughnessy Educational Center auditorium on March 19, 2019.
Dr. Kathlene Holmes Campbell, dean of the School of Education, speaks in the O'Shaughnessy Educational Center auditorium on March 19, 2019. The event, hosted by the School of Education and the College of Arts and Sciences, focused on topics surrounding black historical consciousness.

Campbell: We were already an established unit. And the difference when I came in is we created a standalone school. But education at St. Thomas has been here for almost 100 years. You're taking one of the oldest professions and colleges and reimagining it. We're always on a process. I'd never say we're even close to where I want us to be because we're always trying to strive for something that I think is more perfect.

When I came in [June 2018], I started to look at what is our school's strategic plan and theoretical framework looked like. In education, we must adhere to a number of state standards, as well. I wanted to make sure that diversity, equity and inclusion was built into every single aspect of it to hold us accountable.

I met with every single person in the School of Education and asked them different questions about what our strengths and challenges were. I created a landscape analysis that I asked our chairs and directors to complete. And then I compiled that qualitative data and found some common themes. From that, what we started to see emerge were about seven different pillars of diversity, equity and inclusion. That started our DEI plan.

If I break down our seven pillars, they go over our policies and procedures, the curriculum with climate and environment, professional development – for students, faculty and staff – recruitment and retention strategies, student enrichment, and community engagement. And we recognize that we need to hit all those layers consistently in order to change the system.

MayKao Hang
Dean of the College of Health Dr. MayKao Hang.
Mark Brown / University of St. Thomas

Hang: The College of Health is new. It is taking units from existing colleges and building it into a new entity. The most important thing for me to do this year has been to build the vision with the faculty and staff around diversity, equity and inclusion. The college was set up to advance health equity, which about 80% of that happens outside of health care. And then the 20% making sure that people who are in delivery systems are also doing a good job with the guiding principles for the Morrison Family College of Health.

This has been a heavy year with strategic planning. I think about it falling roughly into five different bucket areas. The first is the vision. The second is resources. So what money are we putting behind this? Who are the people that we're hiring into the college? Do they also believe that racial equity is important? And I should really say that for the leaders that we've hired into the Morrison Family College of Health, there's been a test of demonstrated and capable leadership in the DEI space. Diversity is a pathway to reaching racial equity, but it's just the start. The third bucket is the skills that we have as educators, as researchers ... can we identify cross-cultural research questions that won't result in more bias and same thinking? And do we have culturally sustaining pedagogy with the classroom teaching that we're doing? Fourth bucket is the action plan. Talk is cheap. What are we doing here to build DEI into the college charter, into our curriculum committee, into ad hoc committees that we might be forming. And then the fifth is, all of this can go great, but if we don't have an incentive for the change to occur, it won't occur. I've been embracing conflict this year, around racial equity and other types of things that are happening within the college to really use it as an opportunity to educate and to change.

Rob Vischer headshot.
School of Law Dean Rob Vischer.

Vischer: One thing that hasn't changed for the law school, that’s important to keep in mind, is that our DEI work has to be rooted in our mission. And for us, our mission is as a Catholic law school. We don't want DEI to ever be an add-on or a standalone project. It is important to frame this work as part of our collective call to bear witness to the truth of human dignity and the conditions necessary for human flourishing.

Pope Francis and many other voices within our tradition have provided encouraging and challenging exhortations on these issues that are by no means the exclusive sources of insight, but they should be a grounding element for our work as a Catholic law school.

In terms of lessons derived along the way, there are many.

I'll just mention one. In 2014, following the killing of Michael Brown and the ensuing protests in Ferguson, Missouri, a small group of Black students came to talk to me about how difficult it had been for them at the law school. Not because their classmates or professors were saying hurtful things, but because no one was saying anything. We weren't talking about what was going on out in the world. We were focused on our narrow subject matters and what we had to cover in the courses and what the programs already were that were in place. And we needed to be asking, OK, where is this broader conversation taking place? We have to facilitate an ongoing conversation, which may look different at different times, depending on what's going on in the world. And that was an important lesson for me to internalize.

One other thing that I think has developed is an even stronger commitment to the notion that we have to embrace the discipline-specific nature of this work, what we're doing, what we're talking about is going to look different in the law school than in the College of Health and in the School of Education. And that's OK, we really want to integrate the DEI concerns and values into our disciplinary work. It has to be part of understanding who we are as lawyers and lawyers in training, and what the implications of DEI are for our discipline. It's got to be integrative all the way down.

DEI work in the curriculum

Campbell: It should be in every course. I think it's disturbing when I hear people say, ‘Well, where's the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion course?’ It shouldn't be pulled out. It should be in everything that we do. When I came into the School of Ed, I wanted to make sure DEI is a through line. When I'm thinking about training individuals, either who will teach or lead schools or in higher education, I really want to make sure that they're prepared. And that they're also prepared to confront a system that was built for some kids – not all kids.

When we think about our courses, it's not just saying, ‘Oh, we should revise courses at St. Thomas, and then make sure they're equitable.’ It's more than that because we're connected to state standards. We have to push on the state. Not only do we need to change here at St. Thomas and revise every one of our courses, we need the state to revise the state standards for teacher education.

In April, we held a meeting with the state licensing agency, because they're reviewing the standards of effective practice, which is what we abide by. Those standards have been the same for the last 20 years. That means over 21,000 new teachers have gone through the same exact curriculum. And that those standards do not have anything about anti-racist practices at all. If you look at how many kids that would impact, it impacted a little over 5.8 million children in the state of Minnesota over the last 20 years. For us it's not just changing what we're teaching here, it's bigger than that.

We're working at not only looking at our course audit and saying, ‘Well, how can we make sure DEI is present in everything we do? We're forming a work group right now and we're getting ready to propose language to the state by the end of this summer, because that's what we should do. And it should show up everywhere.

Hang: We built into the structure of the college, the DEI committee as a standing committee. The DEI committee will be reviewing any curriculum that goes forward to check for bias, content and potentially language and making recommendations. We've built into our governance structure some checks and balances while staying within the bounds of the accreditation and licensing boards. One of our challenges is the licensing boards because of the way those tests are administered and what you have to teach to with those standards. As we move along, there'll be more opportunity to identify the things that are preventing us from moving forward in a way that makes sense for St. Thomas.

For nursing, it’s been very traditional in terms of tertiary care of placements and some other things. We're trying to move outward into the community, into nonprofits that might not consider a nursing affiliation, but have valuable learnings from a public health nursing perspective to have placements there. We're not just thinking about the curriculum, we're thinking about the whole set of experiences that students have access to while they're here at St. Thomas and creating brand-new versions of how we do placements.

Smith: All our faculty incorporate culturally sustaining pedagogy. All our staff when they're working with time management skills, professional development, life skills, or student clubs or organizations, it's all centered around culturally sustaining supports or pedagogy.

It is the responsibility of all of us at DFC to make sure that our scholars have a strong sense of belonging, and that they are academically prepared. And professionally prepared, as well, with our internship program, to be powerful leaders. We believe, and we make this clear in our hiring process, that ... culturally sustaining pedagogy is part of what we do at DFC. It's a clear expectation. We don't have pushback in terms of faculty or staff on that issue because it is who we are.

Vischer: I'll just add one other component. And this may be particularly pertinent to white academic leaders. Never underestimate the importance of your own vulnerability. You need to embrace it. We need to embrace it. This area can be so fraught with fear of mistakes that we close ourselves off from growth. As academics, we've kind of been enculturated with this notion of being impressive all the time. It's important that we're transparent with what we don't know and that we're transparent about what we're learning and putting into practice. This is a journey, it's not just a one-size-fits-all plan that can be pulled off the shelf as an exercise of will. We have to stay vulnerable.