MSU releases diversity, equity, and inclusion framework to inform strategic planning efforts

Michigan State University has released its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Steering Committee Plan, culminating 18 months of review, stakeholder input, and development. The plan was designed as a framework of recommendations to improve the culture around DEI and collaborate with overall strategic planning efforts across the university.

The DEI Steering Committee was formed by MSU President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., M.D. in December 2019 and is co-chaired by Wanda D Lipscomb PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and College of Human Medicine senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion and Luis Alonzo Garcia, director of Migrant Student Services.

The committee was charged with taking inventory of the university's efforts related to DEI across campus, identifying potential synergies, pinpointing existing gaps and establishing a framework for making MSU a national leader in DEI. The framework includes 27 recommendations categorized by four major themes; increase diversity, ensure equity, promote inclusion, and enhance outreach and engagement. 

Lipscomb and Garcia share the committee’s definitions for diversity, equity, and inclusion. And they detail the process the committee used to compile the research and recommendations in the plan. They also discuss the four key themes in detail and some of the key recommendations in the plan.

“President Stanley made it clear from the beginning of this process that he wants MSU to become a national leader in DEI,” says Garcia. “We cannot become a national leader if we just simply settle for what we historically have done.

“We cannot be a national leader if we don’t embrace different communities and bring them to the table. At the same time, we have to make sure that their voices are being heard. One of the things that was bought out of the report is that we began to look at the landscape of college aged students in Michigan; it's becoming quite flat. Where are all these state institutions in the state of Michigan going get their students? As we began to bring in new students, what will those students look like? What are their needs?

“What diverse faculty do we need to make sure the institution is providing a situation where students, faculty, and staff say ‘Wow, they understand me. I feel good here. I can see myself here.’ That's our core mission. It doesn't matter how diverse we are in the student body, though, if we don't graduate students. We looked at that, too.”

“If there is one thing MSU must do it’s that MSU must invest resources,” says Lipscomb. “We're talking financial resources, people resources, and programmatic resources. When you look at the institutions around the country who are distinguishing themselves, there is this embedding of diversity, equity, and inclusion into the day-to-day life of the university. So, if there's a take home message for us to become a national leader, it means we all have to be working towards it. It means we each have to be held accountable regardless of what your title is. It's very easy to think, oh, well, you got these diversity deans and this chief diversity officer to handle this. We're not superheroes. We're not super people. We're just people.

“Your values are demonstrated based on where you put your resources, and MSU has the potential to become a national leader. But it does mean that MSU has to be willing to realign resources and clarify the use of resources. The other issue that was very clear from the benchmarking that was done, and we talk about this in the last section of the report, we have to align leadership. We want campus to understand that this was a presidential initiative. This was something that President Stanley said he wanted to do. The establishment of the DEI steering committee and the direction to us that our work had to feed into the strategic plan we took that very seriously. The thought that we can begin to weave diversity, equity, and inclusion as a priority across all the activities of the university is how we can become a national leader.

“It won't be putting up a poster; it won't be saying, ‘Oh, this is what we're going to call this initiative.’ It will take integration across the mission areas. We think there's great opportunity because we have wonderful, bright, intelligent folks who can do this. We just need to create the avenue for the conversation. I think that is what we hope this plan does. It gives us the avenue for the conversation.”

“The one point that I want to amplify that Wanda pointed out was the issue of accountability,” Garcia adds. “The only way this plan will go forward is that the ministers and the leadership of the institution understand it, buy into it, and participate in moving it forward. Because if we simply say we're going to put a program together annually and that's it. That's not what we're talking about. If that's what you got out of this report, we did a miserable job. It's really looking at the full operations at the unit level, at the college level, and at the program level and really taking it in and digesting it. And some of it won't be fun. Let's be clear.

“If we are going to become a national leader, it's going to take effort. It's going to take resources and it's going to take some grit. If we do things right, we're going to come out in a good position.”

“This has to be a living document,” says Lipscomb. “This has to be a living process, and I think if you talk with people on the committee, I think we all learn things from each other. We certainly stumbled across lots of things as we went along and it's like Luis talks about, it's going to take some grit. It's a helpful endeavor if we have a positive attitude. In order for us to move forward, we have to take positive steps. We have to do something different tomorrow that we didn't do today and that's challenging for the university because the university is broad. Dr. Bennett talks about what he envisions with taking the report and actually going back through the recommendations, prioritizing them, and figuring out what's feasible. I've said this to the directors and in session that we're going to have to be the people who roll up our sleeves and get to work.

“It's going to have to be us. We all have to step back and ask more difficult questions than we have before. I do believe that when we start to look at the executive VPs in place now at the university, I think each of them in their own way has talked about the importance of interfacing diversity, equity, and inclusion to the lines that they're responsible for. We have challenged the president to be thoughtful about what he's responsible for. 

“You make progress because you walked a lot of feet and then you got some yards and then eventually you got a mile. And sometimes it can be daunting because you want to be at the mile marker, but great athletes get to the mile marker by the little things they do every day. And that's what MSU is going to have to. That's what I'm hopeful for.
“Some people will have positive comments. Some people will say we didn't go far enough. Well, if we can just start with what we have, we can grow and breathe life into the next stage. I think that's a responsibility that all of us have.”

“As Wanda summed it up, this is really not the end of the DEI,” continues Garcia. “The plan is a process that is going forward and that's really where the energies need to be. But as I indicated, I think we have some wonderful opportunities to rethink our institution in ways that we have never done so before and to have different voices and different languages at the table as well.”

What are some key takeaways you'd like people joining in on our conversation to take away about the plan?

“Find a place in the plan where you're ready to start and get to work wherever you are in the institution, whether you're in a department or whether you're in a large unit,” Lipscomb says. “Begin the conversation as it relates to your level and as it relates to your unit and be a part of the conversation. Be a part of the work that has to be done.”

“One of the takeaways, additionally, that is important to me is when you sit down with the people who you lead, look around,” Garcia says. “Who's missing? Who are we missing? We must begin that process. The different voices we bring in bring value to MSU. We really need to understand that. I think historically, we have not looked at it like that. That means that if we bring in other people who are different than us and who have other mindsets and other thoughts, what you're doing is bringing in new worlds to the institution.

“These are worlds perhaps we don't understand. That's where the effort's going to be for us to take the time and to learn from others. It really speaks to the commitment that the people that the president has assembled are all truly and honestly committed to where he wants to take the institution.”

“The steering committee was a large group because there were faculty members, there were administrators, there were staff, and there were students,” says Lipscomb. “Various populations were represented. Moving forward, we're going to have to do some population specific work. And we have to figure out how to do that. And it's not about this group over another group. But each of the groups needs something that may not be needed by another group. Luis throughout the whole process would challenge us to think about who is not at the table.

“MSU is just such a large institution. It is so easy to get lost. Think about all the social identity groups. Think about those groups as you create search committees and advisory committees when you're pulling people together. Almost have a checklist and say, ‘How representative are we for real?’ It's got to be representative of where we see ourselves in the future.

“Some census data has recently been released. It wasn't surprising to any of us that the populations that are growing are the populations that are growing. What does that mean for MSU? How do we maintain a competitive edge? How do we say from a land grant standpoint that we want our graduates to go out and serve? Not only the state of Michigan, but the greater United States and the globe? We can't do that if we don't have representatives of those communities as a part of our community. It is probably one of the most important things we need to always reflect on because we have the opportunity to change.

“We have the opportunity to be better, but as Luis said, if you never look at who isn't at the table, you won't ever get better. You'll just have the same people sitting there who have always been sitting there.”

“And then constantly you're expecting different results, which is really odd because historically that's the way we've done it,” Garcia adds. “If we continue to do the same thing and just say, ‘Well, we tried but we still got the same results,’ no, stop. Stop the machine. Do self-assessment. We'll probably mess up a few times and that's quite all right, but you're trying something different, it's okay. And even if you look at the future of MSU through a business model, this makes business sense at the same time. People want to sell their product to everybody. It's not an exclusionary market. And I think those who figure that out are the ones who are going to thrive as institutions.”

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