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Committing to DEI Work: Are You Engaged?

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Although many IT leaders agree on the importance of DEI work, fewer are actively engaged in the work involved. Why do leaders avoid this work, and what can they do to commit in a meaningful way?

Committing to DEI Work: Are You Engaged?
Credit: Dmitry Demidovich / Shutterstock.com © 2021

In the modern discourse of racism within higher education, the role of identity features prominently. Discussion around identity is essential for developing context and understanding. Yet a consequence sometimes occurs when people like me, with an identity as a white IT leader, believe they need to signal interest but ultimately do not have agency in efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). My motivation for writing this article arose from conversations I had with colleagues who noted that whereas the EDUCAUSE CIO's Commitment on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion has been signed by 600-plus CIOs and other senior IT leaders since October 2018, there is a noticeable absence of white CIOs involved in U.S. DEI efforts related to race. Why does this gap exist, and how can we call on more IT leaders to engage and persist in DEI efforts?

Performance is a wonderful form of art, and self-performance is particularly well honed in our age of social media. Many of us spend considerable time and effort to craft and promote an image of ourselves. Unfortunately, the perception of who we are sometimes supplants our actual behaviors and the consequences of what we do (or do not do). For example, most of us can agree that IT leaders should perform DEI work. There is little downside to this agreement—shown by signing, for instance, the CIO's Commitment. Yet how many higher education CIOs and IT leaders would attest to going much further? How many strive to infuse DEI in every aspect of their leadership practice? To explore this question, perhaps we should flip it and look at five reasons IT leaders might avoid DEI practice.

Five Barriers to Doing DEI Work

First, DEI can be minimized in importance because of some version of the following reasons we might give:

  • "This isn't a cause I'm qualified to work on."
  • "I prioritize other efforts and can do only so much with the time I have."
  • "Just about everyone where I live and work is in the same demographic, so this doesn't affect us."

While IT leaders frequently seek to impress on institutional leaders that IT skills and expertise transcend technology implementation and can work in service of institutional strategy, an argument can be made that institutional strategy around DEI may not apply. Perhaps DEI strategic issues are better suited for leaders in the academic affairs, student life, and diversity offices.

We might think: "I should focus on other institutional strategic efforts."

Second, consider the risks to the internal morale of the team. Promoting diversity often faces a variety of critiques. Perhaps black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) hired or promoted don't meet the academic or work history requirements that other members of the team possess and thus see as essential. Similarly, BIPOC team members are frequently held to higher standards. Faults in performance or behavior are viewed more critically and with a unique level of emotional indignation and resentment. Promoting diversity means taking risks, not unlike the risks taken with any hire or promotion but with a much different magnifying glass applied, especially if problems occur. Leaders who resist these social pressures can be perceived as unfairly favoring or protecting individuals who are underrepresented.

We might think: "I can avoid these risks by going with the safe option of following existing organizational norms and expectations."

Third, systemic racism has created a variety of entrenched interests: structures of power and privilege that are threatened by DEI work. The performance of this DEI work, however, provides a necessary benefit to these interests. For example, using months and/or years of time to delay change is a common tool. An IT leader who engages with urgency in such work could circumvent the quiet goals of those threatened by DEI progress, causing the leader to be disinvited to positions of power. This could consequently reduce the scope and influence of the IT organization overall, rendering other IT initiatives vulnerable.

We might think: "If I have a position at the leadership table, or if I am consistently convincing others that the IT organization can help the institution with bigger challenges, the last thing I would want to do is threaten that status."

Fourth, there are structures of privilege among staff, faculty, and students. IT leaders often provide innovative solutions to each of these groups to improve their learning, teaching, and/or productivity on campus. Sometimes that means causing considerable change and creating a high level of disruption as a result of the work that the IT organization performs. Getting involved in the work of transformational change is often thankless, and generally, negative outcomes are personally accrued while positive ones have many sources of attribution over time.

We might think: "I want to limit the possibility for negative outcomes accruing to me, particularly if the DEI work I engage in could threaten significant disruption for the constituencies that are the backbone of the institution."

Fifth, DEI work means making mistakes. There often seem to be so many paths to failure and so few to success. Saying or writing the wrong thing will likely cause controversy or opposition. Attempting to increase diversity can fall far short and become tokenism. Being inclusive may give less time to those who might have more to offer. The pursuit of equity can fall into the trap of feeling too rigorous to some or unfairly easy to others. Earnestly doing this work opens leaders to a vulnerability that can be interpreted in harmful ways. The performance of DEI avoids these pitfalls almost entirely, but getting into the arena entails the great risk of coming short again and again.Footnote1

We might think: "If I try to invest in work that is so fraught and full of peril, I might make very public mistakes that could cause me to lose my job and could possibly damage my career."

Any one of these five reasons is probably a sufficient barrier to engaging in DEI work. And I'm sure there are many others worthy of further elaboration and discussion. Countering these reasons is hard work. I certainly don't have the answers, as I've made many mistakes and missed many opportunities.

Consider the following words from Malcolm X, taken from his autobiography published in 1965. Despite coming from a different historical context and social situation, his thinking and advice offers much for us to learn today:

The white people in meeting audiences would throng around me, asking me, after I had addressed them somewhere, "What can a sincere white person do?" . . . The first thing I tell them is that at least where my own particular Black Nationalist organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, is concerned, they can't join us. I have these very deep feelings that white people who want to join black organizations are really just taking the escapist way to salve their consciences. By visibly hovering near us, they are "'proving" that they are "with us." But the hard truth is this isn't helping to solve America's racist problem. The Negroes aren't the racists. Where the really sincere white people have got to do their "proving" of themselves is not among the black victims, but out on the battle lines of where America's racism really is—and that's in their own home communities; America's racism is among their own fellow whites. That's where the sincere whites who really mean to accomplish something have got to work.Footnote2

A Path Forward

To honestly and thoroughly engage in the work of DEI means first accepting and then managing the consequences listed above—and others. If you are an IT leader who is mentally and emotionally open to those consequences, then what are some ways to go about this work? While there are many ways to create a DEI culture, consider starting with two building blocks: the leadership practices of collaboration and responsibility.

Collaboration

A collaborative leader puts time and effort into contextualizing issues facing the team. Providing context offers transparency in how decisions are made. This process of disclosure provides a fertile ground of opportunity: to receive input from different voices with equal access. When a leader works to align these voices to shared goals, decision making excels to a more robust and effective level. Further, when all members of a team meaningfully participate in decision making, trust is formed. Trust is the currency of leadership: it is the mechanism through which all team members commit to goals, adapt to change, and overcome obstacles. This collaborative practice of inclusion also suffers from many drawbacks, however. It requires a considerable investment of leadership time in communication. It is also more muddled and less efficient than allowing only one voice to establish clarity and eliminate ambiguity. Transparency also has some significant dangers: anything you share can be held against you. Inviting others into decision making can give the appearance of, and possibly result in, being indecisive and changing direction too frequently or not frequently enough. Indeed, an overly collaborative process can result in groupthink in which selective social norms take over and constructive progress is impossible.

Successfully building trust through collaborative practices yields another important tool for inclusion: influence. Influence is a distinct form of power in that it does not derive from authority. While authority is a ready-made platform through which to set values, influence is a collaborative process of discovering common values that may not be officially recognized. The use of influence cultivates a sense of community and belonging to fill in gaps that leaders cannot always resolve on their own. In this way, influence serves as the most important skill for aspirant leaders to develop. This too is time-consuming work, however, and it requires considerable patience—sometimes to the detriment of needed results. The use of exclusive power from a position of authority is much easier, particularly when the stakes are high or time is short. In addition, there is little place for influence in environments of reaction and crisis. Fostering an environment of influence requires a tolerance of failure and a commitment to mentoring by helping others learn from mistakes.

Responsibility

The second building block for creating a DEI culture is the practice of leadership responsibility, which is also a complicated endeavor. Responsible leaders demonstrate consistent ownership of work no matter the circumstances. In doing this, responsible leaders practice what they expect others to follow: they ensure that the mantle of responsibility is universally accessible to any team member. This may appear counterintuitive, but leaders who shun responsibility for themselves also preclude their team members from taking responsibility. While responsibility is sometimes viewed as a mechanism of authority (e.g., the ownership of resources and control of people), the distinguishing characteristic is accepting responsibility for work performed by a team as a result of the leader's involvement. Both the responsibility taken and the accountability enforced by a leader are necessary prerequisites for an equitable environment that empowers a team to achieve. Of course, taking responsibility for the work of other team members is dangerous if they fail to meet a necessary goal. It is obviously politically safer for leaders to create a distance between themselves and responsibility, so that if something fails, they can then critique the failure and provide an objective remedy. While such practices run directly counter to an equitable environment, they are certainly more helpful for job security.

Leaders well versed in responsibility also practice deliberative delegation: the transference of responsibility and authority to a group or individual to carry out specific work. Delegation of important tasks to those with the ideas, energy, and interest to pursue them can be done only through the time-consuming effort of relationship building: getting to know the strengths, weaknesses, and aspirations of different team members. Responsible delegation creates necessary dependencies between team members; an inclusive environment is nourished when individuals can accomplish their tasks only when their teammates are also successful. Delegating without the prerequisite work, however, will often lead to failure. For example, delegating for the purposes of meeting some diversity checklist without putting in the work of understanding capabilities can exacerbate inequity. This can happen when a leader disclaims responsibility altogether and instead transfers responsibility to a given group without providing structure and support to ensure success.

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu offers helpful insight into this leadership practice:

If you want to govern the people,
you must place yourself below them.
If you want to lead the people,
you must learn how to follow them.Footnote3

The practice of leadership responsibility may sound ideal, but responsibility also means being the one who is at fault when things go wrong. Some in the organization will have a long memory of fault, and this accumulates over time, particularly when fault is coupled with transparency! Creating and nourishing an environment of responsible delegation for others means that success accrues to them and that the role of the leader is notable only for its absence. By contrast, when responsibility is reserved as a privilege bestowed on a select few, the leader is able to curate and retain credit for advancement and success. Creating an environment of scarcity without delegation provides the backdrop for leaders to disclaim knowledge of and responsibility for festering problems and to then swoop in at the time of their choosing to fix the issue as only a hero can.

A Call to Action

Where do you stand? It is well and good to agree with the idea of DEI, but what relationships will you risk? What commitment of time and effort will you make today—and every day going forward?

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are necessary and fundamental components of leadership practice. They are universal values that should be thoroughly integrated into all aspects of leadership work. As James Baldwin observed, "Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have."Footnote4 Those in positions of power and authority in higher education have no excuse for ignorance: they must wholly commit themselves to actively acknowledging and engaging in DEI work.

EDUCAUSE is looking for exemplars of DEI practice in the field. Please e-mail [email protected] if you have suggestions.

Notes

  1. As noted by former President Theodore Roosevelt in his speech "Citizenship in a Republic" (1910). Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Malcolm X, Attallah Shabazz, Alex Haley, and Ossie Davis, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965; reprint, United Kingdom: Random House Publishing Group, 1992), pp. 432, 433. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. Stephen Mitchell, Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (1988; New York: HarperCollins, 1992), chapter 66. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. James Baldwin, No Name in the Street (1972; New York: Vintage Books, 2007), p. 149. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.

Brian Basgen is Senior Associate Vice President for IT at Emerson College.

© 2022 Brian Basgen. The text of this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.