Diversity – are universities sincerely up for change?

Ahead of our second Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Retreat, Simon Fanshawe, Leadership Foundation associate and partner at Diversity by Design, shares his thoughts on the need to advance diversity by thinking about the culture within institutions more broadly. The Retreat is an innovative 24 hour immersion that challenges senior leaders to redesign recruitment, promotion and staff and Board assessment processes in order to diversify their workforce and governance in order to get the most out of the talent in their institution.

There is much high level evidence that shows the value in having a diverse workforce in our universities (McKinsey 2015 etc). It is increasingly clear however that for diversity to be truly valuable it has to be articulated in terms that are specific to our subjects and fields of passion. For instance,

  • There is a richness in English literature at the moment much of which comes from the great writing in English by authors who are not English. To reflect that global depth in literature how do we diversify our English Department staff culturally?
  • With an aging population, we need to redesign how we use space and localities at home, at work and in the public realm. Diversity will vastly enrich disciplines such as design, structural engineering, and planning if we engage staff who face challenges to their mobility and can draw on their own experiences of the world.
  • If health provision needs to be more preventative how does research and treatment relate to and communicate with increasingly diverse populations? If Population Medicine is to become the norm, how will that challenge the ‘expertise’ of medical professionals who will need to understand people’s direct experience of health and how will that require a wider diversity of people in the management of medicine and health services?
  • If the axis of the world is moving east, what cultural and ethnic combinations of staff do we need in the study of world economic and shifting geopolitical forces to gain real understanding for students and research?

Change and adapt

I heard a vice-chancellor give an inaugural lecture the other day. She identified six ‘couplets’ which both helped and hindered universities to change and adapt.

Three of them particularly resonated with the work we have done on diversity in universities over the recent past:

  1. Universities have a long and distinguished sense of their tradition. But as they draw on this to produce a richness in academic research and teaching, it also produces a conservatism and risk averseness. When we propose a way of assessing candidates for recruitment or promotion so that those that are choosing the candidate are more able to assess the evidence, with their unconscious biases designed out, it always strikes us how much gentle persuasion we have to use against very traditional push back. Academics seem reluctant to change. In the trials we have been doing in universities; leadership, advocacy, and determination for change has been invaluable.
  2. She coined a phrase to describe the internalised cultures that grow up in all organisations, but specifically in universities. She called it: “normalised weirdness”. It struck me that typical university recruitment and promotion continues to be accompanied by expressions of the desire for change, yet with minimal results in the diversity of applicants, those shortlisted and eventually appointed. Such a poor return on the investment of effort would, in any of the fields of study of the same academics, lead to depressing conclusions on the evidence and a radical change in the approach to the solutions. But, instead, the lack of change in the diversity outcomes is rationalised by the “normalise weirdness” of arguing that there is a trade-off between diversity and excellence. And that despite the lack of diversity, universities are nonetheless recruiting and promoting the “best person for the job”.
  3. And her third (out of six) was a strange (my adjective, not hers) fear of experimentation, which is justified implicitly by an idea of “expertise”. There is an underlying sense that the acknowledged expertise in their field necessarily leads academics particularly to the make the right judgements. Even when the fact of clearly less diverse outcomes show clearly that the processes of recruitment and promotion are failing to draw on and boost the full range of potential talent, and instead continue to advantage hugely one group of staff. The poor diversity results nonetheless leave the claims to expertise unexamined and unchallenged.

Our response

The pace of change in diversifying our governing bodies is also slow and there is a need to look at the underlying reasons of this. This Retreat aims to provide that opportunity in a collegiate and collaborative atmosphere to develop practical solutions which will diversify staff and Board/Council members. It will run on separate and interlinking strands. Bringing together both representatives from the executive and the Board/Council, we will give participants time to work on questions which are within the separate remits of governance and the executive. And then there will be space for both to come together to look at whole institution responses

Built on these principles, the 24 hour Retreat will offer space to:

  1. Examine the latest research on diversity – the reasons for the relative lack of progress, issues in selection, questions around bias and how to design it out, high performing teams – and apply it to the specific needs of your institution.
  2. Hear examples from the work of Leadership Foundation and Diversity by Design in universities – what has worked, where change needs to happen in processes and the hurdles to overcome.
  3. Develop some practical solutions (in governance and operation) for your institution, working with colleagues from other universities.
  4. Lead even more effectively on diversity.
  5. Reflect on how diversity can drive the core functions of a university – teaching, research, student experience and impact on the world – regionally, nationally and globally

In conclusion, the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Retreat has been designed to create a significant difference in how universities can benefit from practical diversity strategies. A huge amount of goodwill and good work is taking place in universities, and this programme seeks to build upon that through the energising of senior executives and governors to enhance their knowledge and tools to support the creation and development of long lasting change.

How to book
The second run of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Retreat will take place in April. Designed for senior leaders and governors it is free to attend. The one-day intensive programme will be delivered by Simon Fanshawe OBE, former chair of University of Sussex, and Roy Hutchins, former director of Astar Management Consultants Ltd, alongside Vijaya Nath, director of leadership development at the Leadership Foundation, and Roger Kline, research fellow at Middlesex University and an associate of Public World. For more information or to book your place online, use this link: EDI April 2018

This is one of three blogs that we shall be publishing in the coming weeks by the leads of our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Retreat

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