Paving the way to diverse interactions

Guest Blogger: J. Andrew Shepardson, Ph.D., Vice President for Student Affairs, Dean of Students, Bentley University

Diversity is critical to Bentley University’s mission of educating creative, ethical, and socially responsible business leaders. As a place-based institution, having a diverse and inclusive community is critical to students feeling welcome and safe on campus.

In 2012, we had the opportunity to reimagine our strategic plan as we headed into our centennial. A primary goal of the plan was for all students to have meaningful, diverse interactions during their time on campus. Through these interactions, students become better prepared for the world beyond Bentley. This goal is distinct from but complimentary to our long-standing objective of diversifying our community through enrollment management and human resources.

While developing the strategic plan, the University was committed to the idea that diverse interactions were an educational imperative. Even if we were successful in achieving our demographic percentage goals, we realized that we would fail our students if we did not promote meaningful, diverse interactions. Business research is clear (documented in Bloomberg) that a diversity of thought, grasp of social issues, and the value placed on inclusive decision making are qualities that set leaders—and companies—apart from one another. This was confirmed when I met with a group of recruiters to see which skills or experience outside of the classroom was most important to them. Diversity, and specifically the ability to work with others and find value in those interactions, was at the top of their lists.

As a division, we were doing diversity programming. However, we acknowledged that we were not where we wanted to be. We wanted meaningful, diverse interactions to be fully integrated throughout a student’s entire educational experience. We wanted students to see this type of learning as integral to their experience and our campus culture as internships had become.

The first step to achieving this was the establishment of a divisional working group, which is not in itself an innovative idea, but their work turned out to be transformational. The group quickly articulated that the division would not be successful at promoting diverse interactions among our students if we could not engage in diverse interactions ourselves. We encourage students to have conversations around difference, but do not always model how to do it effectively. The working group believed that divisional staff—police officers, coaches, medical staff, and student affairs professionals—could serve as role models to effectively change the campus culture around them.

We set a goal that 5% to 10% of work time for all 190 members of the division would be dedicated to diversity and inclusion. We needed to ensure that diversity and inclusion were built into the day-to-day work of each staff member and department.
We started the fall semester with a divisional meeting focused on vulnerability and storytelling. This session followed the format of a similar program that all first-year students participated in during orientation. The goal of this meeting was to build trust with one another in order to have deeper discussions across difference throughout the year.

During the fall semester, every member of the division also completed the implicit bias assessment. This was followed by a series of programs called Common Ground Conversations to debrief the experience. The important aspect of the Common Ground Conversation was to have a safe and structured environment to talk about implicit bias and how it can show up on campus. This was followed by a full-day retreat for the entire division to talk about aspects of social identity and privilege.

After a year of structured divisional experiences, we have moved on to having staff craft their own way to fulfil the 5% to 10% goal.

Each week, a different member of our working group sends out a weekly resource email called 5-5-5. The emails are broken down into three categories—5 minutes, 5 hours, and 5 days—depending on how long a staff member has in a given week to dedicate to diversity and inclusion work. This gives staff three ways, depending on their workflow for that time of year, to engage with diversity. As a result of all departments being represented in the working group, each suggestion comes from a unique perspective—maybe an international focus one week followed by diversity issues facing athletics the next week.

We also created a Table for Three lunch program. Table for Three is an opportunity for staff to engage in conversation in an informal environment with people who are different than them. Staff members who opt into the program are placed into groups of three. Groupings are based on getting people together who don’t work with each other regularly and may be unfamiliar with each other. Each group is provided a small stipend to have lunch on or off campus as well as a packet of low-risk prompts connected to diversity topics to start the conversation.

The key to our work has been to approach it with positivity. We are a diverse division. We have 190 staff members—some have spent a great deal of time in the classroom learning about social justice, all have different life experiences, and several were new to conversations about diversity. While language and real world life experience can cause a divide, we have consciously tried (and it is sometimes hard) to instill the assumption that each staff member is approaching the conversation with positive intent.

So what has this accomplished? First, we have all learned that these conversations can be difficult. For instance, I host a monthly lunch for my leadership team with the express purpose of having conversation about diversity and inclusion. A group of seasoned, committed professionals has sometimes struggled. Many of us have worked together for over 10 years, and we still have miscommunications that cause frustration.

This requires us to be humble. We will not always say the right thing at the right time. It is important for us to acknowledge that if this is difficult for us, imagine how challenging it must be for our students. We need to continue to lead by example and support our students as they embark on having their own meaningful, diverse interactions. We have to remind ourselves that if it is easy, we are not moving forward.

I could not be more proud of the division of student affairs and the work that we have accomplished to date. Engagement in conversations around diversity and inclusion is at every level and in every department in the organization. While it is a clear expectation, the staff are coming to the conversation willingly and with enthusiasm. This is not to say we are finished or even close. We are not. We have much work to do. However, the enthusiasm and encouragement of the members of my team makes me more confident than ever in our ability to succeed.

J. Andrew Shepardson, Ph.D.
Vice President for Student Affairs, Dean of Students
Bentley University
Twitter: @deanshepardson

Andrew Shepardson oversees the social, recreational, cultural, health, and behavioral growth offered to students through educational programming and activities at Bentley University. He is responsible for varsity and recreational athletics, the Center for International Students and Scholars, the Center for Health, Wellness and Counseling, the Dean of Student Affairs Office, student conduct and engagement, Title IX, the multicultural center, new student orientation, the residential center, student programs and engagement, and university police. Shepardson came to Bentley in 1993 as judicial coordinator and was promoted to assistant dean, associate dean, and dean in 1996, 2002, and 2004, respectively. He began his current position on the cabinet in 2011. He completed his Ph.D. at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. He has an M.Ed. in student development and counseling from Northeastern University and a B.A. in English from St. Michael’s College in Vermont. He has taught at the undergraduate level as an adjunct faculty member in the management department at Bentley, at the graduate level in both the administration of higher education program at Suffolk University and the higher education doctoral program at Northeastern University. He has been named staff member of the year by Bentley students; won the Circuit of the Year award from the Association of Student Judicial Affairs; received the Founder’s Day award from his colleagues at Bentley and the Dissertation of the Year by the Association of Student Judicial Affairs.

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