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Sunday, June 23, 2024
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Full transcript: Burwell sits down with The Eagle to talk diversity and inclusion plan

Burwell: “The plan is part of a journey and a part of action”

Just one month after someone hung bananas from string tied like nooses across campus, Sylvia Burwell took the helm of the University as its 14th president. Now, the school is releasing a comprehensive plan for diversity, equity and inclusion, spearheaded by Burwell since she assumed her role in June.

On Monday, The Eagle sat down with Burwell to discuss AU’s Plan for Inclusive Excellence and her message to students. The conversation below is lightly edited for length and clarity. Our full story can be found here. For highlights of the strategy’s specifics without reading the 25-page document, go here.

What makes this plan different from other statements or plans that the University has put out on diversity and inclusion, and how are you going to convince students that this isn’t more of the same?

I think it’s important to recognize that the plan is part of a journey and a part of action -- action that was going on and things that were happening before I arrived and things that have been going on since I arrived. 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 to a better place with regard to the issues of diversity, inclusion and equity. We’ve been piloting and working on the curriculum for the [AU Experience courses] over a period of time. We’ve done changes to the bias reporting this summer … Hopefully you’ve seen changes in communication.

The plan is important and a distinct thing because the plan follows an approach called “inclusive excellence.” And “inclusive excellence” has two very important parts to it. The first is it is across all part and pieces of the University. You work across the areas of education and learning, in terms of what people often call training. You are working across curriculum, you are working across policies and procedures, you’re working across culture communications and you’re working across composition. Often when folks approach these, they focus on one of those instead of all of those.

The second thing about “inclusive excellence” in this plan that I think is particularly important for us as a university is that “inclusive excellence” talks about the “why” we do the work as well as the “how.” The “how” is working across all areas and having everyone be a part of the effort. The “why” is we do this work not simply because it is important and right and reflects our values, we do this work because it makes us excellent. Because if we do not focus on the issues of inclusion and 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. And it is also the strength that we need our students to have when they leave here, because that is the society today and that is what is what employers want, in terms of those that are going to work for them, and it is actually who will be the best in the ability to function in today’s society. Understanding that differing ideas, identities, points of view, help you with the highest and best problem solving.

The other thing that I think is important about the plan is analytically based. I think you saw in the plan, we have made clear that a group of our students do not feel like they belong here. We put the percentages out, we put the numbers out, because part of the elements of the plan are based on data and analytics. It’s why we’re reviewing and continuing to take input on the curriculum for AUx1 and AUx2. And it’s clear that the plan lays out the accountabilities in the senior leadership of the University for pieces and parts.

What would you say to the students of color, specifically, on this campus who don’t feel like they belong here?

What I would say is I think we’re working towards that. 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. I think, probably, the fact that you and I are sitting here talking about it and talking about a plan is a reflection of the importance of this to our campus. Our “inclusive excellence” approach, I think, is hopefully something that will help these students understand that we are working on an approach that makes sure everyone understands this is about us being a great university.I hope that every member of the community will read the plan and figure out where you as an individual want to contribute because that’s a part of making us great.

What was your role in the development of the plan? What steps did you take once you assumed office?

I think there have been a number of steps that have been taken in terms of the specifics that we’ve talked about, so I won’t repeat a number of those. Certainly it was happening before, but I was fortunate to welcome that new faculty where 44 percent of faculty, in terms of tenure and tenure line, are people of color.

The work that we’ve done on communications, whether that’s around the incidents that have occurred under my tenure to the communication that we’ve done about this plan and this approach. I did a single communication on diversity and inclusion that was separate and apart from my other communication. So working on a number of things, bringing the consultant [Makeba Clay] on from outside to work with us as a team to make sure that we were understanding what best practices are across the country as well as having someone have independent conversations within our community and make sure that we’re getting a plan that is right for our community. So, those are some of the steps that through this time and process that we have done.

I’ve been engaged personally. My conversations on both our strategy and these issues, I talked to over 1,000 members of our community in varying forms, our faculty, our faculty senate, our, our students. I think we did 19 separate student gatherings that were about broad issues but always included a portion and part of these issues continued to be a part of the conversation. We’ve had conversations with alumni, have had conversations with our staff to get the input in this plan. I met with the consultant regularly and the Board [Board of Trustees].

I’ve been actively engaged both with the consultant and Dr. Aw, who has been a very important part of it, as well as a few of the other senior leadership have been consistently engaged as well as the president’s council and the president’s cabinet have also been engaged in the issue. The PCDI [President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion] have also, so I’ve spent time with PCDI as well.

The plans mentions that “majorities of students of all races said that AU was not responsive to students concerns when responding to troubling situations around discrimination or bias.” How does your administration plan to better communicate the University’s response to acts of racism and hatred, like what happened last week with anti-immigration posters?

Well, I think that hopefully you’ve seen that whether it’s been the [Confederate flag] incident on the 26th or the incident that occurred last week in terms of both the speed of communication and the type of communication that we’re doing. I think the other thing that has been an important part in terms of communication is having people know about what was happening.

In my last newsletter that I sent out, in terms of communicating with the community, ‘we’re on a path, here’s what we’re doing. We’re in the stages of this report being in a near final place,’ giving people the opportunity to communicate their thoughts and express their points of view about it. So, I think it’s both about the input to the product, and it’s also about when we have the incidents in terms of that communication. And I think what we’ve worked to do is implement that both in the form of the communication around the incidents and the communication around the planning.

One of the things that came out of the incidents that occured on Sept. 26 were concerns about safety. We’ve had sessions with faculty, staff and students about that. We’ve then gone the next step of taking the action that the community felt that they wanted and needed with regard to Mary Graydon. And in MGC, we’ve communicated broadly and widely as we did that, whether that’s the signs on the door, or using the students and the community who were a part of shaping that policy to communicate more broadly. Those are some of the examples of the types of things that we’re doing to try and shift that feeling that our students have.

And I think it’s important -- you’re The Eagle reporting to students, but you’re the campus-wide newspaper, and it is students, faculty and staff as we think about all these issues. 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. Students feel that acutely, because we are your home while you’re away, but our staff and faculty feel those issues as well.

How does this plan address student and faculty concerns that AU faculty lacks diversity?

I think that’s one of the elements as you saw in the plan, the compositional part … It’s also really related though, if you look under the education and training and learning portions, making sure that the people who will be doing our work to recruit and hire and retain have appropriate education [and] training. But that is an important part of making sure that we get that diversity. I think we’re pleased with the 44 percent number from last year. I think that’s an incredible number, but it’s on a base that’s already here and recognizing that. That’s important progress. 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.

Do you think this plan will bring noticeable changes to student life and campus climate? What will those improvements be specifically? What will people notice first?

I can answer that but … I’m going to turn to [Dr. Fanta Aw] because [she] is most close to that. I think we’re going to have changes in culture. Some of those key questions that we see will start to hopefully overtime, it will take time, to have those changes. But, I think we even saw it in the reaction and response to the Sept. 26 incident where the community came together in unity. You know there are people who are trying to divide us, but that’s not what happened. 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, how do we work in terms of unity and we’re starting to see that.

Do you think the University is dedicating enough financial resources to diversity and inclusion, and why?

We’re talking about $121 million over a two year period. I think the question of, ‘Is it enough?’ I think part of what we want to do is do measurement and analysis and figure out the answer to that. I think we have analyzed what we’re doing and the work that we believe we need to do as a university and that’s what we’re budgeting against.

I think part of why we have a two-year plan -- with one of the elements of the plan being producing the plan for years three, four and five -- is because we need to learn and iterate. And as we go into our two year budget cycle, my first one will be starting next year, we’ll examine that question and try and understand. We wanted to make sure it was clear the resources that are committed to this, and we’re specific about that. But as we think about the future, that’s a question we’re asking ourselves and it will have to do with the progress we think we’re making.

As the semester comes to an end and one of the founding members leaves American University, Section 202 has decided to take a trip down memory lane. For our fans, old and new, who are wondering how Section 202 came to be, this episode is a must. Listen along as hosts Connor Sturniolo and Liah Argiropoulos reminisce about the beginning of Section 202 and how it got to where it is now.

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