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‘Step in the journey’: Burwell presents comprehensive plan for diversity, inclusion

Burwell sits down with The Eagle to examine the school’s two-year strategy

‘Step in the journey’: Burwell presents comprehensive plan for diversity, inclusion

Students in a spring 2018 American University Experience (AUx) class discuss bias and discrimination. 

Almost exactly one year after she was first announced as AU’s next leader, University President Sylvia Burwell has released her administration’s diversity and inclusion strategy - what she’s calling AU’s plan for “inclusive excellence.”

The 25-page-document includes a two year action plan detailing how the University will tackle issues of diversity in curriculum, policies and campus climate. The Eagle spoke with Burwell about her vision for the plan and how it will serve as the University’s next steps following several racist incidents on campus over the past year, including a widely publicized hate crime last May, the discovery of Confederate flag posters in September and anti-immigration flyers found on campus last week.

“The plan has important elements to it, but I think it is important to recognize that this is a step in the journey that we are on to get a better place with regard to the issues of diversity, inclusion and equity,” Burwell told The Eagle.

Read the full transcript of The Eagle’s interview with Burwell.

The plan, which administrators say will receive $121 million in funding over the course of two years, aims to achieve diversity goals in the following five areas:

  • Training, learning and development
  • Campus climate, culture and community
  • Systems, policies and procedures
  • Access and equity in hiring and promoting faculty and staff
  • Curriculum and instruction

For Burwell, “inclusive excellence” has two parts to it: a why and a how, she said. The “how” is working with everyone in the campus community to “be a part of the effort.” The “why” is because dedication to diversity makes the University excellent and reflects its values, Burwell said.

“Having a campus that reflects the inclusion of everyone on our campus with different identities, different points of view, bringing different things -- that’s the strength of an academic institution,” Burwell said.

But a large number of AU students currently report that they do not feel included in the AU community. Only 33 percent of African-American students reported feeling included in a campus climate survey conducted last spring. The difference is striking when compared to the 71 percent of white students who report feeling included on campus, or the 60 percent of Hispanic, Asian and international students who say the same.

Burwell hopes that her administration’s plan, crafted with the help of the President’s Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, can change the sense of belonging -- or lack thereof -- that black students feel at AU.

“I think we’re working towards [inclusion],” Burwell said. “I think one of the things is recognizing where we are falling short in terms of that. We’ve talked about it as a priority.”

Creating conversations about diversity through AUx

One of the central tenets of the plan revolves around the full implementation of the AU Experience courses, which will be mandatory for first-year students starting this fall. According to Andrea Brenner, the director of the program known as AUx, the two courses -- offered in the fall and spring -- will provide freshmen with the skills and resources to transition into college life life while facilitating open discussions about diversity and inclusion.

“A huge part of American University is learning to live with a very diverse group of people,” Brenner said. “Many of our students come from homogenous backgrounds where they really haven’t dealt with diverse populations before, and so this was a way to respond to a demographically changing student body and have students learn to communicate with one another.”

The 3-credit AUx hybrid course is split into two mandatory classes taken over the course of a student’s freshman year. AUx1, the fall course, will be a traditional college transition course to guide students as they find on-campus resources, connect with mentors, and transition positively into a new college environment.

In the spring, students in AUx2 will engage in in-depth discussions about social identities such as race, gender and sexual orientation in a non-traditional class setting. This fall, AUx will have 95 sections for approximately 1700 incoming freshmen, Brenner said.

Brenner believes that the course will have a lasting impact on AU’s future students.

“Over time, longitudinally we can change the culture of this place,” Brenner said.

Burwell says communication around racist incidents has improved

Burwell has been at work on changing AU’s culture. She has been “engaged personally” in her conversations with over 1,000 students, faculty and staff during her tenure, which began in June. She also pointed to progress in faculty diversity -- 44 percent of new faculty members in fall 2017 identified as people of color.

“That’s important progress,” Burwell said. “We want to continue that kind of progress but we know that it will take time in terms of an entire faculty to make the changes and move to the direction that we want to move.”

Burwell also said her administration has improved its speed of communication with students regarding the development of the plan and responding to racist incidents -- ranging from the Confederate flag posters in September to the anti-immigration posters found last week.

“That’s an important part of ‘inclusive excellence,’ that we need to focus on all of those pieces and elements because that’s an important part of the overarching culture of our campus,” Burwell said. “Students feel that acutely, because we are your home while you’re away, but our staff and faculty feel those issues as well.”

Not all students agree, however. Latinx student leaders expressed frustration with the University’s response to anti-immigration flyers posted on campus last week.

“The school sent out an email, but I don’t think it was sufficient enough because no resources were provided for those students who were affected,” sophomore Erika Soto said.

The University will have invested a total of $60 million in diversity and inclusion initiatives by the end of the 2017-2018 academic year, the first year it’s implemented. Around $53 million of those funds will go to institutional scholarships like Pell grants, the Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholars program and scholarships for veterans and graduate students. The other $7 million will fund initiatives like the AUx program and academic centers, among others.

Burwell said the University is directing significant resources and measuring what the plan needs, meaning resources for the plan might change after the three, four and five year mark if necessary. The plan will cost another $61 million during the 2018-2019 academic year.

“We wanted to make sure it was clear the resources that are committed to this, and we’re specific about that,” Burwell said. “But as we think about the future, that’s a question we’re asking ourselves [about increased funding] and it will have to do with the progress we think we’re making.”

The plan will measure success in a number of ways, including increases in diversity among faculty, students, staff and administrators; increased retention and graduation rates for underrepresented students; and an improved campus climate where more students of color feel a sense of belonging.

Fanta Aw, vice president of campus life, said the University will have a “systematic approach” to diversity and inclusion so that students can see the impact of the diversity and inclusion plan in their daily lives.

“How do you move from the diversity to the inclusion? It has to be very intentional and it has to be a systematic way of approaching it,” Aw told The Eagle. “So if you ask me, where would we start to see a difference [in campus climate]? It’s already in the day-to-day interactions between our students.”

Burwell said she has already seen a stronger sense of unity among students, staff and faculty during the community’s response to racist incidents.

“You know there are people who are trying to divide us, but that’s not what happened,” Burwell said. “We saw it in the postering incident most recently. There are people who came on to our campus and are trying to divide us but, we [are doing] work in terms of unity and we’re starting to see that.”

mcarrasco@theeagleonline.com


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