Facilitating DEI

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Members of the EDUCAUSE Enterprise IT Program Advisory Committee share their advice on how enterprise IT leaders can further institutional goals for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

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Credit: Vitalii Vodolazskyi / © 2020

A current focus for EDUCAUSE is diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), as demonstrated by the CIO's Commitment on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. By engaging IT staff to closely align the IT department's efforts with the DEI goals and strategies of the institution, enterprise IT leaders can accelerate and support campus-wide DEI efforts.

Here we will reflect on five of the six actions listed in the CIO's Commitment and provide information on what is happening at our institutions to further these actions.

#1. Raise my personal awareness about challenges and opportunities related to DEI in the technology field, and work to raise awareness departmentally and institutionally

Dan Harder: Over the past several months, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center IT leadership made a conscious effort to dig in and really take a look at DEI within our own team. As a start, we partnered with our HR and Office of Equity and Diversity groups to have discussions centered on the impact of language and terminology used within the technology field. The focus of these discussions has been to raise awareness of what we, as IT professionals, say and of how historical and "normal" terminology may be viewed differently by people of color.

We not only have thought through terms like "white-list" and "black-list" but also have moved on to deeper and richer topics surrounding staff recruiting and retention, with the overall goal of making our work environment a more inclusive space. We intentionally created safe and nonjudgmental zones for our conversations and dialogues, allowing for open and honest conversations with all participants.

These types of conversations greatly raised our awareness and helped unearth some of the unconscious bias that many of us (myself included) didn't realize we had. I was incredibly proud of our leadership team and of the empathy that we showed to one another as our discussions progressed.

While this approach may not be earth-shattering, I believe it is a start for our team, as we evolve our emotional intelligence and our practice of cultural humility to a higher level.

#2. Work to increase opportunities for women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and individuals with disabilities to be information technology professionals and leaders

Jane Livingston: Building more diverse teams drives innovation, strengthens solutions, and improves outcomes. As CIO, I emphasize three key activities related to building inclusivity and opportunity across my organization: recruiting successfully, providing individual opportunities, and creating an inclusive culture. Building a culture that promotes inclusivity is the most challenging but, I believe, the most important of the three. Cultures are sticky things. They are difficult to change or even nudge and are made up of myriad organizational habits and daily practices. Culture change comes from an explicit focus on improving even small habits and practices. For example, compelling research demonstrates that successful innovation and organizational cohesion depend on creating team environments of psychological safety for all participants, especially those from marginalized groups. In the past, I have sponsored staff programs about how teams can behave to make sure that everyone feels safe to take risks that can lead to innovation and individual success. Similarly, at Florida State University, we are working to model inclusive behaviors in meetings, with a special focus on remote meetings given the current (COVID-19) environment.

#4. Become aware of institutional and/or regional demographic trends and work toward creating an institutional and/or regional technology workforce that keeps up with demographic trends

Livingston: I am writing from the perspective of a new CIO—new both to the role in the last 18 months and to Florida State. I am focusing on getting started on the "becoming aware" part of this commitment. For me, as a new CIO, I have approached this by developing a clear, shared understanding of where our organization is, demographically and culturally. This act of discovery can be surprisingly challenging, especially at a new institution. Seemingly simple questions such as "How many people are in my organization?" turn out to be challenging to answer. Creating a shared understanding of "this is who we are now" is a necessary first step to creating goals for improvement. We are building a consensus that respects our uniqueness and is comparable to external benchmarks, since external benchmarks are key to honest evaluation and accountability. For us, overall university demographics is one benchmark we use to help us take into account the regional population of north Florida, but we are also focusing on the CUPA-HR report Diversity in Higher Education Information Technology.1 Intentionally considering multiple benchmarks allows us to create a more nuanced view of our progress. My leadership team is reviewing all the data we've collected: our IT organization's demographics, our geographic and institutional context, the larger context of IT in the industry, and IT in higher ed. Our next step is to establish our goals—not all of which are metrics for demographics. To drive recruiting and retention, we believe that fostering a culture of inclusion is the most important piece to improve.

#5. Partner with institutional colleagues to create/advance programs that aim to expand opportunities and eliminate the barriers for students from underrepresented populations interested in computer science, data sciences, other technology-related fields, both in undergraduate education and post-graduation programs

Steve Burrell: In the vast and remote areas of the southwestern United States, Northern Arizona University (NAU) is partnering with other higher education institutions, philanthropic partners, and tribal nation leaders to create opportunities for America's indigenous peoples. Often overlooked in conversations about DEI, Native Americans struggle to participate equally as 21st-century citizens.

And as the world grows more reliant on technology, the DEI gaps for younger Native Americans and their communities grow wider. Many lack access to affordable and reliable communication services, leading to educational voids and a lost voice in governance. Many young people thus leave their communities in order to escape the harsh realities and scarce opportunities on the reservations. Yet even for those who find their way to higher learning institutions like NAU, indigenous students are not likely to use their voice to bring attention to these conditions but instead remain silent out of embarrassment or adherence to tribal cultural values.

The COVID-19 pandemic is further stressing Native American communities, and the lack of access to technology is creating additional difficulties for students who moved back home during the pandemic. As we surveyed and engaged students, we learned about their fears and challenges. One student walked six miles to gain access to Wi-Fi services so that she could continue participating in her college courses. Another drove two hours to the Flagstaff campus so that she could get access to the internet and other education services, but to do so, she had to give up her part-time job. She and other students who face similar financial setbacks and debt fear that they may not be able to re-enroll. Moreover, students who were already considered disadvantaged are facing unprecedented challenges, and many have been deeply traumatized by the loss of friends and family. All of these circumstances can contribute to low grades, which could affect access to scholarships, further widening DEI gaps and creating unsurmountable obstacles that will persist well beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

To expand opportunities and help eliminate the barriers facing Native American students, the Information Technology Services (ITS) staff at NAU took action on several fronts:

  • Collaborated with Coconino Community College to provide technical training to coal mine workers displaced by the shutdown of a coal-fired power plant on Navajo lands and coal mines on Hopi lands
  • Created Wi-Fi parking lots in 13 locations in tribal communities in collaboration with tribal schools and the University of Arizona agricultural extension. We showed tribal utility authorities how this could be done with surplus equipment at NAU (purchased by NAU employees). Private telecom providers followed our lead, and there are now more than 30 access locations on tribal lands in northern Arizona.
  • Worked with enrollment management and the budget office to modify systems and extend deadlines for scholarship funds for Native American students
  • In collaboration with Dell, provided laptops to Native American students who were using their phones or very antiquated desktop computers—many without internet service
  • Built solar-powered "suitcases" and provided them to K-12 schools to power Wi-Fi-enabled buses parked in convenient rural locations and to individuals so that they could charge their laptops and phones because their homes lacked reliable power
  • Provided unlimited free voice services for students who had only rotary-dial phone communications
  • Partnered with leaders in our Native American Cultural Center to help infuse technology and create a safe place where students can access and experiment with technology to solve problems for school and their communities
  • Participated in weekly strategy meetings as an anchor institution and active participant in facilitating National Science Foundation grants that connect tribal schools to affordable and robust networks as a basis for STEM education and research

These activities are central to NAU's mission and address important issues related to DEI and Native Americans. The impact on people's lives is not fully known to us, but these actions connect us as individuals and as an IT organization to what's important. Technology has allowed us to embrace our humanity in ways that we could not have imagined.

We know that there is still so much we can and will do to create equity through educational access, to advocate for inclusiveness, and to embrace diversity through our authentic engagement with Native American students. In doing so, we not only create opportunities for individuals but uplift entire communities and strengthen a region around the diverse voices and culture of our first Americans. While sports teams may be changing their names to show sensitivity, the small acts of individuals acknowledging, engaging, and helping others are what truly advance DEI.

#6. Advocate for DEI practices, help develop appropriate DEI practices, resources, and tools, and mentor colleagues seeking to contribute to DEI efforts

Burrell: In 2015, I conducted a research study of 13 women CIOs at higher education institutions.2 This study found that men—as mentors, as allies, and as advocates—play an important role in advancing women's careers. The study found that men who do advocate for women may require additional reinforcement and support. Through awareness and open dialogue, men may be able to overcome potential ridicule and their own bias. All leaders can improve the conditions, culture, and climate of IT organizations to minimize unconscious bias and, in turn, create an environment that is conducive to the advancement of women in IT careers. Recognizing gender biases and other forms of prejudiced behaviors can lead to more productive and effective teams that positively affect our higher education institutions.

There are numerous actions that men can take to promote gender equity and fairness. The following ideas are based on a synthesis of primary and secondary research and are informed by the thoughts and perspectives of the participants in the 2015 study.

  1. Listen to, believe in, and be accountable to women and their stories.
  2. Overcome fear of potential ridicule by discussing gender equity and bias issues openly and honestly with women.
  3. Discuss with other men in your organization your commitment to creating a workplace that is gender-inclusive, and invite them to join you.
  4. Extend the conversation to the front lines of the IT organization to build a culture of openness and inclusiveness.
  5. Identify your own biases and those in your organization, make plans, and then take specific action to address those biases.
  6. Create and promote diversity focus groups, training, and awareness events.
  7. Examine and rewrite current organizational policies and practices that may introduce bias.
  8. Utilize metrics about the diversity of the organization and teams to create equitable representation in the organization and give voice to minority viewpoints
  9. Mentor young professionals, and advocate for women who aspire to leadership roles.
  10. Promote and model leadership development of women.
  11. Actively recruit women to IT roles, and support them throughout the application and interviewing process.
  12. Share your success stories, and gather feedback for improvement.

Using these ideas at NAU, we have been able to increase the percentage of women in the IT organization by 7% while also increasing the ethnic diversity by 7% in recent years. We have also increased the percentage of women in leadership roles in the IT organization from 25% to 38%.

While far from desirable ratios, we are heading in the right direction, and with an active group of women leaders supported by male advocates, we are modeling DEI principles within and beyond the IT organization. Changing the culture is hard work, requiring new rituals and a persistence in practice before you may notice or be able to measure true changes in organizational behaviors.


  1. Adam Pritchard, Keith McIntosh, and Jasper McChesney, Diversity in Higher Education Information Technology: From Today's Workforce to Tomorrow's Leaders, research report (Knoxville, TN: College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, July 2019).
  2. Steven C. Burrell, "CIO Strategies for Overcoming Gender Bias Obstacles in IT Organizations and Guidance for Men Who Want to Remove Them," unpublished manuscript [2017].

Steve Burrell is Vice President for IT and CIO at Northern Arizona University.

Dan Harder is Vice Chancellor for IT and CIO at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Jane Livingston is Associate Vice President and CIO at Florida State University.

© 2020 Steve Burrell, Dan Harder, and Jane Livingston. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.