Communicating Why We Work on DEI

Communication is essential at every stage of the planning and implementation process. From the first preliminary discussions to the launch of a campus-wide strategic plan and beyond, it’s important to convey the DEI Value Proposition.

Why DEI? How does it link with our institutional values and core principles? How does it benefit our community? How does it further our mission? These are some of the key questions that must be answered, reinforced and shared with campus constituents, on an ongoing basis.

The primary goal is to make DEI a fundamental value that impacts and benefits every individual and every aspect of campus life, to build it into the organization’s DNA. This can only be achieved by linking the DEI Value Proposition directly with the values and mission of the institution.

The process of communicating the importance of DEI must be continuous and consistent. As part of that effort, it’s important to:

  • Encourage university leaders to be visible and vocal in their support

  • Make the discussion of DEI both a top-down and bottom-up process, one that begins with executive leadership and becomes an integral part of campus conversation and daily life

  • Create timely, relevant and meaningful,  messages that reach all constituents

  • Employ a variety of forums and formats: speeches, educational programs, town hall meetings, roundtables, online discussions, social media, and campus wide events

  • Communicate about DEI not only at DEI functions but at numerous events and speaking engagements, including orientation programs, convocations, recognition events, graduation, etc.

The audience includes undergraduate and graduate students, junior and senior faculty, academic and executive leadership, and staff at every level. It’s also useful and important to communicate the DEI Value Proposition, both directly and indirectly, to alumni and donors as well as regents or boards of trustees and, for public institutions, State representatives.

Communication experts on campus are essential partners in developing and consistently disseminating the DEI value proposition and for addressing questions about why work on DEI is a focus of activity. Confirm the structure of your campus communications staff members and work with those in leadership roles to develop your plans.

Seeking input directly from those your plan seeks to serve and providing real-world stories about the need for and impact of DEI work helps to ensure the communications are well-grounded and authentic.

Planning

At the University of Michigan, the concept of DEI as a major campus-wide initiative was introduced and championed by executive leadership. In addition to engaging the entire campus in developing five-year Strategic Plans for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, President Schlissel took every opportunity to explicate the value of DEI and align it with the core ideals of the organization.

This executive-level communication is ongoing, and builds on a set of key concepts that correlate directly with the university’s longtime “leaders and best” tradition:

  • We cannot be excellent without being diverse in the broadest sense of that word.

  • We must create an environment in which differences are valued and celebrated.

  • Our goal is to cultivate an environment in which everyone has an equal opportunity to thrive and succeed.

  • Creating a diverse and equitable campus will strengthen our intellectual capacity and reinforce the university’s status as a world leader in research, education and service to the greater good.

These fundamental ideas were, and continue to be, reinforced by the university’s Chief Diversity Officer, who regularly engages with the campus community through faculty and student events, university media, speaking engagements on and off-campus, and one-on-one interactions with unit leaders. Likewise, all university provosts, deans and directors communicate DEI values within their departments, institutes and centers of excellence.

For this to happen, it’s important for the university’s communications and public affairs teams, as well as communications officers working on behalf of the President and Chief Diversity Officer, develop plans for when and how messages about the value and importance of DEI are communicated; both in DEI focused or special communications and as part of speeches, remarks, and statements of a broader nature, such as convocation, graduation, and other campus events.

As essential as it is, this top-down approach is—by itself—not sufficient. The DEI Value Proposition must literally permeate the organization.

Implementation

In addition to executive leaders consistently communicating the ways that DEI align with campus values and the institutional mission, Office of DEI and unit-level DEI Leads actively and consistently communicate with the campus community and with specific groups within the community. Creating opportunities for engagement is an important way to demonstrate the value and commitment to DEI, rather than just stating it.

The U-M DEI Strategic Plan Implementation has furthered connections with students, faculty and staff through a variety of venues and events such as crowdsourcing activities; discussions focused on how individuals can contribute to DEI,  a fall Diversity Summit and a winter symposium celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. We also connect with specific groups across campus through interactions with the Faculty Senate, Voices of the Staff sessions, and through ongoing contact with student government leaders, student organizations and, in residence halls, resident advisors and diversity peer educators. 

It’s important to note that the DEI Value Proposition will be effective—and accepted—only to the degree that it reflects the unique values, operating principles and vision of an institution. For a major research university, communications about DEI may focus on the ways that it strengthens leadership and excellence in teaching, research, and service.

In the case of a community college, messaging might focus on how DEI furthers the college mission and to serve the needs of the community, the region and the state. In both of these and in all types of institutions, making it clear that DEI is an essential aspect of excellence in higher education, and not an add on or a fad, positions this work as integral to our collective goals and interests.

The ongoing process of collecting, evaluating and acting on feedback is crucial to the overall DEI communications strategy. At the U-M, we solicit feedback from both formal and informal channels in order to continually assess how and if our message is being received; and we reach out to all levels of leadership as well as students, staff and faculty.

By supplementing a university-wide climate survey with focus groups, meetings, town halls and various informal venues, it’s possible to generate a big-picture view and gauge how and where we are succeeding, or failing, in our efforts to communicate the value of DEI.

When indicators demonstrate that members of the campus community regard DEI as a burden or add-on, we leverage recent feedback, target our efforts to specific issues and groups, and make our “value” messaging more effective and more convincing. 

  • Communication around DEI must be continuous and consistent, visible and vocal, relevant and riveting, and it must reach into every segment of the institution.

  • The DEI Value Proposition should be presented in a variety of forms—from speeches and educational programs to town hall meetings and roundtable discussions, and from online forums to in-person dialogue.  

  • Communicating the value of DEI should be both a top-down and bottom-up process.

  • The messaging must reach all of the university’s constituents and must speak to them in a meaningful, believable and relevant way.

  • Above all, communications around DEI must be appropriate to the institution and must connect directly with its values and mission.



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