Chapter 6: The Inclusive Campus: Leading from Within

by MaryAnn Baenninger, Ph.D.

Posted on March 06, 2017

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A salient influence during my time at Drew University has been the crescendo-reaching national conversation on race and inclusion. Campuses are engaging in conversations about race, ethnicity, discrimination, religious intolerance, LGBTQ acceptance and rights, and sanctuary.

Students see constant national media evidence of a flawed society, and they ache to make it better. Here I invite colleagues to lead from within, to reflect on our own likely limited experiences leading in inclusive communities, and to authentically seek others to lead with us. I believe these are the first leadership steps to an inclusive learning environment.

At Drew University, we start from a solid foundation. Students are attracted to Drew's inclusivity and diversity. In Princeton Review, Drew ranks in the top 10 nationally for "lots of race and class interaction," and the top 20 nationally for "LGBTQ-friendliness." Our undergraduate college is diverse, with incoming classes approaching 40% American Students of Color, and our Theological School has no racial or ethnic majority. Our faculty members have considerable scholarly expertise on issues of diversity and show unbounded support for our students. We have a rich history and mission of inclusion.

Our undergraduate college is diverse, with incoming classes approaching 40% American Students of Color, and our Theological School has no racial or ethnic majority.  

Accordingly, we strive to be a model, but we are not perfect. As on other campuses, community members have voiced concerns: differential treatment by campus safety, micro-aggressions, inattention to dietary observance needs of religiously diverse students, different perspectives on celebrating Martin Luther King Day, and navigating dilemmas of free and hate speech.

During 13 years leading two institutions, I've followed presidential leadership in reaction to issues like these. We often rush to action with open forums, new structures like task forces, adopting a "public intellectual" stance, and resolving micro-aggressions like dietary options. These positive actions may be reactions to demands or acute distress. We may feel compelled to let community members know we share political values or to relieve tensions quickly.

But sometimes even these well-intentioned approaches go awry or fizzle. Students and community members know that bias runs more deeply than any structure, forum, or policy can fix. They need to be at the planning table from the start, and they need to see leaders admit their failings and inadequacies. As leaders, we may need help making even the most basic of institutional decisions about inclusion because we are likely unable to internalize the feelings of those who feel marginalized on campus. Community members can see through our leadership if we claim personal authority that we don't possess.

So I'll admit that I'm not completely comfortable writing this piece because I am not an expert on the topic of inclusive community building. But that is exactly my point. As a leader who comes from a perspective of privilege, I need more wisdom and guidance from the community on this topic than I might on others, and I must know when to follow.

I'll model this by stating my own limitations. I am a white woman, born into white privilege. I can rationalize and even delude myself by listing ways in which I was disadvantaged. But white privilege transcends those disadvantages. It helped me attain the other acquired privileges I have now—educational, economic, and cultural. "Checking my privilege" can help me lead, and it requires an introspection and self-knowledge that other leadership endeavors do not.

As a leader I face other, related limitations. First, I think of myself as an enlightened progressive. I grew up in a diverse environment, in a progressive household, with black and white close friends, and my family is transracial through adoption. But enlightenment is not a substitute for experience. Second, for most of my career, much of the academy was living with the illusion of a post-race environment. As a leader, I wasn't forced to face issues of race and inclusivity head on. My primary focus was on increasing diversity by recruiting students of color, which is only one foundation for an inclusive community.

I began to wake up when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in 2012. Even then, my primary emotions were profound sadness and fear for my own black grandson's safety. But I didn't know how to make a difference, nor did I understand that higher education would again become a focal venue for change. So I left a decade-long presidency 2014, barely tested in my ability to lead an activist campus on issues of race and inclusion. In fact, a was feeling relieved that in moving back home to a diverse east coast institution, I no longer had to "work on" making my institution more diverse; I could rest easy, knowing that the ideals of diversity that I valued were already manifested at Drew University.

As a higher education leader, I can no longer look away. I am committed to ensuring that our students learn in an environment that supports them in making sense of these events and translating them into learning and action.  

But there was no resting easy. I began my presidency at Drew in late July 2014, a few short weeks before Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. I finished writing this chapter on Martin Luther King Day 2017, a few short days before the presidential inauguration, after a campaign characterized by dramatically increased racial and ethnic tensions throughout the country. The shooting of Michael Brown and the divisive presidential campaign form the metaphoric bookends of my presidency so far. As a higher education leader, I can no longer look away. I am committed to ensuring that our students learn in an environment that supports them in making sense of these events and translating them into learning and action.

During my early months at Drew, my leadership team was in flux, and my cabinet colleagues were only beginning to work as a team. Issues related to inclusion, particularly about race and the Black Lives Matter movement, were arising regularly on campus. Our students and faculty were raising their voices in concert with others across the nation and were becoming more attentive to the environment on our own campus. My academic affairs colleagues were all new to their positions, but most were not new to Drew. They understood campus culture and values, and that helped. Our campus life and student affairs colleagues were strong and experienced but were also coping with newly-acquired responsibilities in areas that impacted inclusion on campus. For example, I had recently moved both the divisions of public safety and dining to report to the student affairs vice president.

I would sum up our leadership that first year as reactive, not proactive. Most important was that we developed a pattern of authenticity, consultation, listening, and, I hope, humility, thus forming the basis of the organic but more organized efforts that exemplify Drew today.

A learning event that stands out during those early days was a student led "die in," prayer service and march to protest police violence against black males. Students asked me to participate, which I did, by reading the names of the dead; I opted not to lie on the ground. At the last minute, I was notified that the students would also "March on Madison," our hometown. I quickly called the mayor, whom I barely knew at the time, to give him some advance notice. I described the passion and commitment and peacefulness of our students. By the time our group arrived at Borough Hall, the mayor was there to greet them, and he had worked with his law enforcement colleagues to create a safe route for the marchers. Since then, we have partnered with the town and local clergy on a similar event, and another event including higher education partners is planned.

Finding my authentic self took some reflection. I took a personal risk, with a new board of trustees and as a new member of a community, but participating was what I needed to do. My first reaction was to think about the box I would be put in. Would my board object to my participation? Would certain donors or alumni object? If I didn't participate, would students misinterpret that as non-support? How would our public safety officers, who were new to me, respond to a Black Lives Matter event? Would the University get negative publicity? Would the trolls attack us? Would our relationship with the town suffer?

I forced myself to put these questions aside and look into my own heart. What did I believe, and how could I support students in their learning? I didn't ignore the considerations above; instead, I discussed them openly with students and faculty, and I revealed the dilemmas that leaders face. For example, after a discussion with students, I decided to remain standing for the "die-in." I was concerned that press accounts would focus on images of me, rather than on the values that the students were expressing peacefully. Students understood and supported my decision; they came up with the solution that I read the names of the dead.

That event helped me understand that I could be proactive in my reflection and in acknowledging my limitations and even my fears. Other presidents were acting, writing editorials, responding to demands, and some colleagues on other campuses were getting themselves into trouble. I thought that my being open could help us focus on our shared community goals, but I struggled with how to make that happen. The only two things I was certain of were that I would not lie low hoping for no demands, and that I didn't personally have the answers as to how our campus would further grow into a proactive, engaged, inclusive community.

So I took a chance and wrote a letter to the community in early December 2015 about racial tensions nationwide and on campus. I reflected on those tensions and how our community was not immune to them. But my main goal was asking for the wisdom of our community with a simple sentence: "I welcome suggestions and wisdom on how we might begin our new semester in January discussing, listening, and studying ourselves and our community and how we can be the best we can be."

My message didn't announce a structure, create a task force, or add a diversity position. I hoped that ideas like those would come from the community. My team and I waited, and at first nothing happened. Later, after winter break, there was still no real response. Then in late January, six weeks after my message, I received a carefully crafted letter from the student government offering several recommendations. Our student leaders took the time to have their own serious conversations, already knowing that "the administration" welcomed their leadership and wanted to partner.

My message didn't announce a structure, create a task force, or add a diversity position. I hoped that ideas like those would come from the community.  

Their suggestions were not surprising—a forum, a task force, modified academic programming—but they were theirs, not mine, and they were presented in the form of suggestions, not demands. I accepted every suggestion and encouraged the students to take a strong leadership role, which they did. My colleagues and I enlisted what I would call a mentoring resource team of faculty to support the students. The watershed event was a student-led and faculty/staff-facilitated forum on race, with nearly 300 attendees, whom we divided into small groups. They talked directly to each other from the heart.

From that forum on race grew a plan, a subsequent forum on religious diversity, a task force, and a commitment to hire a director of diversity and inclusion for whom a search is currently underway. Since the student government generated their list of suggestions, we've had countless opportunities to face issues of inclusion positively and proactively, and occasionally in response to campus issues that arise unexpectedly like student-booked controversial speakers. Authentic pathways to communication have developed between students, faculty, and staff and created a sense of trust and a willingness to seek wisdom and advice from each other.

There are times when we disagree and prod each other to do better, but we do it with respect. Faculty members respond generously to requests for advice, and I believe they know that even unsolicited advice will be heard.

There are times when we disagree and prod each other to do better, but we do it with respect.  

We continue to grow as a community, and we are organically developing structures and coalitions that are similar to those I might have mandated. But they are all the better for having been initiated by students and mentored by faculty. More often than not, I participate as a learner, not a leader, and I appreciate that opportunity. I am finishing this chapter just after participating in the first of eight "Freedom School" learning events that will be offered throughout the semester to the campus and the surrounding community. We will learn to be active for social justice.

These are the learnings that I hope to build on as I mature my leadership:

  • Check my own privilege, and encourage team members to do the same.
  • Create an environment where concerns are voiced; the absence of overt tension, complaint, or protest is not in and of itself indicative of a healthy, inclusive community.
  • Seek broad participation in systemic change; don't expect structures to induce change without authentic interpersonal intentionality and interaction.
  • Remember that the local community beyond the University is a laboratory for learning, and that open and strong partnerships are essential.
  • Faculty mentoring is essential, and faculty scholarly and creative talents need to be at the heart of inclusive communities.
  • This is ongoing learning that must be organic and shared.

I write in gratitude for students and faculty who have already taught me so much and a group of administrative colleagues who are willing to learn and lead along with me. I hope I have offered you as the reader cause for reflection.