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Colleges as Courageous Spaces

Leading equity and inclusion efforts on college campuses is vital work, but also challenging and stressful. Why the effort is worth it — and why diversity is never really a one-person job.
Richard Reddick
Richard Reddick leads a session at the Institute for Educational Management at HGSE
Photo: Molly Akin

Most college and university leaders recognize the importance of the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work being done on their campuses, but that doesn't always mean the work is happening for the right reasons or leading to the right results. In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Richard Reddick discusses the expansion of DEI initiatives in higher education, the rise of diversity work as a profession, and how the work should foster more courageous spaces on college campuses. Reddick, Ed.M.'98, Ed.D.'08, is a longtime leader in the field who was named the first-ever associate dean for equity, community, engagement, and outreach at the University of Texas at Austin in May 2019. He is also faculty co-chair of the Institute for Educational Management, a Professional Education program at HGSE.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard Edcast. Diversity, equity and inclusion is a growing focus for many colleges and universities, but the intent behind this work and how its done varies tremendously. Richard Reddick has been doing this work for a long time. Now as the inaugural associate dean for equity, community engagement, and outreach at The University of Texas in Austin, he's leading equity and inclusion efforts on a broader scale. We talked about what diversity work is and isn't, and really why it's some of the most vital work being done on college campuses today.

Richard Reddick: When you think about anything concerning diversity, equity, and inclusion, those are typically systemic things. So mentoring students is something everybody should be doing. Creating an inclusive environment, we all should be doing. But then there's this idea that, well, that's the chief diversity officer's job, so they should be doing that kind of work. So then they're overwhelmed with responsibilities. The other thing is, and no offense to my friends who teach physics, it's not physics. It's interpersonal. It's a lot of reflective experiences. I actually wrote a piece with some colleagues about self care for diversity educators because a lot of this is taxing work on the psyche. My friends who do this work, who identify as queer, when they are talking about homophobia or other sort of prejudices towards queer people, they're talking about things that happen to them.

A lot of us have this part of training in our jobs. Right? We do trainings of some kind. And you're working with people who have all levels of immersion, experience, interest, concern. And they can say things in those spaces that are quite harmful and hurtful. And you have to kind of say, "Okay. Thank you for that contribution." And if you sort of lose it, then you've lost credibility as an educator. And in fact, that article came out because of the team I worked with at Texas. We were bringing on another team member to work with our diversity education team. And we asked our new colleague. How do you manage your self care? We didn't ask about your knowledge in it. We're like, "How do you take care of yourself? Because this job requires it. Do you do kickboxing? Do you do yoga? Do you read?"

Going into doing a session, and when people have completely unexamined biases, and they're kind of just spouting them out, you're sitting there hearing it. So oftentimes, we work in pairs because of that moment because I cannot be here in this moment. This is just too much, so that person can walk out, you can keep the session moving. So yeah, it's often relegated to the chief diversity officer. But I think most chief diversity officers would respond that I don't mind leading this work. I don't mind being the convener of this work. But it's not just my job.

Jill Anderson: Seems like there's a lot of people who this is a first for them, having these types of roles across universities and colleges. But for people who aren't at the table for some of these DEI committee meetings, it might seem a little bit out of left field. All of a sudden, we now have all of these DEI events, or meetings, or training opportunities. So maybe you can help break it down a little bit more to just understand the need for this type of stuff to be happening.

Richard Reddick: It's been easy to identify the fact this actually is a need. And I think also, let's credit students, especially in the last 10 to 15 years, who've really ... In fact, we were just talking about the Missouri student uprising, and how that really has shaped how students respond to this, because there but for the grace of God, go a number of institutions. Missouri's response was not unlike a lot of institutional responses. They didn't have an apparatus to respond to that. More importantly, they didn't have an apparatus to kind of chart and sort of know what was going on. So probably about the time of Missouri, I got calls from the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and they were like, "Okay. What's up with this role? What are the responsibilities of somebody in this particular position?"

And unfortunately, a lot of times still, it's like responding to negative campus climate. That's one part of it. But shouldn't it be about sort of structural change, so you can actually ameliorate the situation before it becomes that kind of situation? And I think what it means what you have a diverse student population and a diverse faculty, or a diversified faculty, I should say, people will start pointing out inequities, like you've been fine with this situation the way it is. But now there are more of us here who hold these identities. This isn't working.

And it's nice to have somebody to be able to think broadly about what it means. But then also, keep in mind that diversity is simple representation. That's happening demographically, like in Texas where I live, Massachusetts, and California, we're having a rapidly diversifying population. What inclusion means is actually going beyond the numbers and actually bringing people to have a common shared valued experience. And of course, equity means ensuring that people have access to resources, rewards, all those things. It's important to also make the point that like any major important role, recruiting, retention, these are responsibilities we all have as institutional partners. Right?

But it's helpful to have somebody who is charting the course, who is able to assess the progress, and also speak truth to power. This is kind of an uncomfortable job in some ways because you're the person who has to kind of be the canary in the coal mine. This is not going well. This is a problem. The work we did in the 2000s with the National Campus Diversity Project, we started noticing that there were people in institutions that had positions that were looking at student success for underrepresented minority students. And we also noticed that institutions making the most progress had the most folks in centralized positions.

So you look at the flowchart, and you've got this sort of sprawling framework. And they're on the very corner right there. Then it's like: How much authority does that person actually have? When we saw it when it was kind of this centralized thing, and it's the president, the provost, this person doing diversity work. Right there, you have the institutional emphasis from that leadership. I always tell people who are interested in these kind of position that leadership matters. If you can't get a commitment from a president, or a provost, or a vice president in this role, if you're not a vice president, then you might want to seriously reconsider the job because it works best when you can actually say, "I am speaking ex cathedra," literally I am speaking from the perspective of the president, or the provost, or VP, or the dean, whoever it is, because that's how important this work is.

We wouldn't have the vice president of research as somebody on the reporting chain who's got four different supervisors. That person goes to the president. Right? So institutionally, I think when we see it closely in line to the leadership structure, that's when success matters. And of course, I wouldn't have taken this job without having a visionary leader who wants to see these changes, who I can confide in, who trusts me. So those kinds of things are very essential to these roles because I've seen these roles, and people run screaming from them because it takes so much from you. And if you don't feel you've got that complete support, then it's a very isolating position to be in.

Jill Anderson: Right. Just the fact that it is kind of in some ways a whole new field, it's come under some criticism for taking a lot of funding from certain positions.

Richard Reddick: There's folks who've been in the field working in the space. There are national organizations focused on chief diversity officers. The role itself is probably new. But the work's been being done in different places. And now institutions have decided this is the best practice, to actually have somebody in that role. And there is this sort of conversation about the administrative bloat. Right? Is that another administrator you're paying for? The way I see it is this. If you're not investing in this work, and you have to take the sort of premise that for predominantly white institutions, you've got historical, structural, racism, inequity built in. Right?

We were talking about Ruth Simmons. And Ruth Simmons famously, when she was president at Brown, started talking about Ivy League connections to slavery. So it's baked in. But the question is: What do you do with that knowledge when you have it? Do you just kind of say, "Well, that's the way it was"? Or do you actually start realizing that a lot of inequity today goes back to the founding of the institution, institutional mission. Who's been historically excluded from the institution? So yes, you absolutely need to sort of recognize that it's a condition of being part of our societal milieu. The other part, of course, is moving towards action. So what's the plan going forward?

And then students are expecting us to have better responses. I mean, maybe students 20 years ago were like, "Hey, diversity is a good thing. We want more." And I was that student generation who wanted diversity and wanted to see more people like us. Now students are saying, "Now that there are people on campus who resemble us, and we can create a critical mass." And we can actually say, "We want to see systemic changes actually take place." That's as it should be. So I think it's an appropriate response. If anything, it's a late response. We are sort of confronting severely ingrained and historical inequities, and we have to think about what that means. It's not sufficient to say, "Well, bad things happened in the past." Unless you're doing things to reimagine, reconstruct, and actually reflect on your historical inequity, it won't get any better.

Jill Anderson: Right. You had mentioned when you meet with education leaders or teach workshops with them. I'm curious. Is there something they're all talking about?

Richard Reddick: I hear a lot of fear. People are worried about doing, or saying, or behaving in the wrong way. And one thing that I and we talk about is authentic leadership. For leaders, it's important to have a connection to your own story. How did you get here? How do you understand issues of equity and equality? You may have lived them. Right? And so many people assume that, oh, well, unless you're a person of color, or a queer person, or a woman, you could be a white male and you could talk about experiences you've had as a first generation college student, for instance. So that's an important piece of it.

But I often hear people hesitant because they think they're going to say or do the wrong thing. And I'm like, "Well, you have to create an environment where you're all constantly learning." So yes, if you set yourself up as an expert, and you fail at that, you'll be called out for that. I also hear a lot about the concern about talking across difference. Right? Folks have been doing this work for some time, who've really asked the questions. How do we start talking about how we are different? And how do we have challenging conversations about that, especially at a time where the political discourse in this country's become so polarized? And people often link their political beliefs to racial, ethnic, gender, sexuality. Those are all sort of co-mingled.

What I've tried to do is, first of all, to do this work from humility, to never assume. I have done the research. I have done the reading. But I am constantly learning. And I don't want to ever be in a space where I feel like, well, I'm an expert at this. And my job is to sort of harangue you. I think I told my dean, "I have no interest in becoming a diversity cop." I don't want to do that work. But I do want to be a fellow traveler. I do want to be a person who is leading, but also a person who is learning. We hear conversations about, well, I'm trying to get my head around what is happening with LGBTQIA plus students in that community. It requires contact. It requires immersion. You have to walk in the spaces that you don't necessarily know as your own spaces.

And I think I'm lucky. I'm a kid who grew up in a military family. I went to 12 schools before I graduated from high school. I'm pretty comfortable going in places that I don't know anybody. And what you find out is that there is something humbling and reinvigorating about being in spaces where you aren't part of the dominant identity group. Of course, I'm an African American male. That's often the case for me. But even in spaces where other identities are ones that I'm not as connected to, it's good because you get to see the energy in the community.

Just recently, I was in a feminist bookstore in Austin. And a good colleague of mine, her son wrote this amazing LGBTQ history. Just being in that space and hearing those stories, and really seeing the impact. A trans student said, "This is the first time I saw somebody who looked like me in a history book," you get chills. You're like, "Oh, my gosh." And you realize how important it is, and you realize we have to be in solidarity with each other. So we're so afraid of "getting it wrong," but I think you earn credibility when you go into spaces willingly to learn, and not in spaces to be seen. And then you build relationships with people. And you build relationships that are authentic, and not just like, well, I have a gay friend I can call. Or I have a [inaudible 00:13:39] friend I can call. So when you do invariably use the wrong pronoun, or assume certain things, you've got support. And I think you lead by actually saying, "I've done some things that didn't go well the first time, and I'm actually good. And I'm okay, I survived."

This is a concept that Robin DiAngelo talks about, white fragility. I think for a lot of white folks who do this work often feel like, well, if I get it wrong, I'm going to be chased out of the room, and I'll be scarlet letter. I'm like, "No, you need to build up capacity to hear people say the construction of whiteness is oppressive to people." And you didn't individually create whiteness, but you benefit from it. Until you actually start engaging with that, it'll be a problem. And to me, that's a challenge versus being told you don't have any worth. I've actually talked to people who say, "Well, I want to be part of this conversation, but I don't have anything to say." I'm like, "You have a lot to say."

I've had conversations with two people. One's an author and one is a filmmaker. And these are both people who identify as white, who are doing work about communities of color. And they both sort of expressed sort of this hesitation about doing that work. And I'm like, "We need more white people doing work like this because other white people see you doing it, you've shown a way of existing." And then secondly, you're reducing the burden on people of color, who've been doing this work for forever. Right? And it's one thing to be a person who says, "I'm doing this brand new scholarship that never existed before," that's problematic. But to say, "I'm part of a community doing this kind of work, and I'm adding to it, and I'm doing it in a way that recognizes my position-ality," that's really powerful.

And it was funny because the author was sort of saying to me, he's like, "Oh, wow. I never thought of it that way." I'm like, "That's so important." I said, "If a young white man is seeing you write about racial violence, that's going to leave an impact on him, especially the process that you went through."

Jill Anderson: Right. I wonder a little bit about universities, colleges. How can they not make this a checklist item?

Richard Reddick:  I talk to people who have the role I have, either at the college level or the university level. And we all have different iterations of our jobs. Almost all of us have equity or diversity in our title. But how does that actually look? And even at my campus, I've talked to my colleagues. And we have very different remits. For instance, I'm involved in structural things like hiring. So every job search we do, I am actually the person responsible for making sure that we have thought about equity and diversity and inclusion in the job posting, in the assembling of the committees. That's what I get to do in my job. Some jobs have nothing to do with that.

And so it does become sort of this discernment. That paint by numbers kind of approach is doomed to fail. You have to have institutional buy in. The institutional leader has to say, "This is critically important to my success. I want to see this happen." And frankly, has to be in the work. An institution where a leader says, "Well, your job is to deal with diversity stuff while I'm off raising money," that is not a place you want to be. You want somebody saying, "I am invested in this work, and I want you to lead, but I'll be right next to you. I'll be in front of you at times. And I'll be behind you other times." But the idea that this person's role is not something where we're going to offload it.

I was at a conference a couple years ago. And it happened that we had a group of chief diversity officers. And one common complaint was when something happens on my campus, the president steps up to the podium and walks away and says, "You deal with this," in not so many words. Nobody wants to do that work. And of course, when it comes to resources, look, we need to make sure we're doing a better job retaining, recruiting, promoting our faculty of color, our students of color, our staff of color. And you don't get any responses to it, then that's a problem. Right? So to me, the thoughtful institution will actually explore. What do we need to do as an institutional ethos to improve? And climate's almost always the first thing. How do people who are from underrepresented communities feel about being in the space? That has to be courageous because it's often not laudatory stuff. It's actually horrible here, and here's why it's horrible.

So for me, my work is embedded in community. I'm in the community. It's part of what I do. I'm out on campus every day. And that's really important because my institution is not unlike a lot of other, we call PWIs, predominantly white institutions, or traditionally white institutions. We have fraught relationships with communities of color. And so when people see you as an institutional agent, and they're like, "Okay, so you're from the university, and you're in the space. Why?" And for me, it's even more, I think, special because I'm from that community. So literally, I encounter people who I knew when I was in high school. ...

Jill Anderson: Oh, wow.

Richard Reddick: ... Or we have those kind of connections where we have the same community connections, and it builds an air of credibility. At the same time, I'm not going to surrender my credibility to benefit the institution if the institution's not going to back me up in the process. Right? So again, this is a part of the job that's difficult. You're often sometimes speaking truth to power. You're critiquing the institution you work at. You're calling out things that you don't do well. And you have to have people who are willing to hear that truth, and then willing to do something about it. And I feel where I am that's what's happening. And of course, it's a continual thing.

I mean, I certainly have ideas that probably are pushing the envelope in ways that people are like, "Not so much." But it's a healthy conversation. And the trap is certainly falling into this sort of, we just have it for the sake of having it, versus we have accountability in the role we have, which is the community has to feel I have a challenge. How do I make a college of education feel more a part of a community? And it's literally the physical community of Austin, Texas. It's also the state of Texas. It's also beyond that. We have alums all over the place.

I went to England this summer and I took students with me. And they're like, "I'd love to work in the UK." So that's our community. It's not just the two blocks around campus. That's been a challenge because people justifiably have suspicions because it has not gone well. It has not gone well for many institutions. Town and gown relationships, universities often not as thoughtful as they could be about how they interact with communities. And we also tend to wall ourselves off, literally build walls. And part of what I do in my role is that I help to either open gates, or take walls down altogether. And that's quite a mission. You can't do it by yourself. You have to do it with colleagues and community. This is why in this space it's so important to be with other people.

One of the best things we do is just simply getting together and talking about: How do we handle the things that we do? How do we operate in spaces where there's less reception to our work? I certainly do talk to chief diversity officers about picking battles. Right? But at the same time, you can't just completely ignore this particular school or unit because they seem to be hostile. You have to find ways to use the term that Derrick Bell used, interest convergence. How do we get people to start thinking about how equity works in their favor? And I've actually gotten to the point where I talk about competency, and I talk about it's your job. Right? It's not even about what you personally believe, you have to do this to do your job well.

Jill Anderson: Richard Reddick is an associate professor and an associate dean for equity, community, engagement and outreach at The University of Texas at Austin. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard Edcast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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