Campus News

Community comes first

As the top priority in Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good, the Build Our Community Together initiative involves us all.

Three students walk across campus near the Old Well.
Three students walk near the Old Well on UNC-Chapel Hill's campus.

Carolina’s future depends on everyone building a more inclusive University community by doing the hard work of addressing racial equity, inclusion and structural racism.

That’s a primary goal of the University’s strategic framework Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good, which will guide the University’s strategic investment and decisions with a three-year time horizon. And it’s why the first strategic initiative focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion.

The work is already happening. Led by the Build Our Community Leads and the newly formed University Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, representatives from every school and division are working in centralized, coordinated ways to move on issues of racism, equity and inclusion.

During the past year, scores of individuals across campus have collaborated on Strategic Initiative 1. This work includes bringing together strategic leads; the creation of the aforementioned Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council; engagement with schools and divisions; a race and equity survey; and virtual town halls with the UNC System. In addition, there were two new hires in January to expand the office’s work: Cloe Liparini, director of education, engagement and belonging; and Jessica Lambert-Ward, director of the Carolina Collaborative for Resilience.

For an overview of the efforts to update Carolina Next, which Provost Bob Blouin calls Carolina’s “living, breathing, evolving strategic plan,” read Updating Carolina Next, a Q&A with Blouin and Assistant Provost for Institutional Research and Assessment Lynn Williford.

The increasingly important and deep work is underway with the guidance of faculty and staff members on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council.

Just as Carolina Next will be assessed and refreshed semi-annually, Initiative 1: Build Our Community Together is a malleable guiding document with these objectives:

  • Invest in policies, systems and infrastructure that promote belonging, community and transparency throughout the University community.
  • Enhance the educational benefits of diversity, equity and inclusion through effective student retention, recruitment and enrollment.
  • Prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion in teaching, research and service as well as in hiring, evaluation, retention and promotion of under-represented faculty and staff.
Sibby Anderson-Thompkins

Sibby Anderson-Thompkins

Amy Locklear Hertel

Amy Locklear Hertel

Sixteen faculty and staff recently revised the initiative’s goals and opportunities under the direction of initiative co-captains Sibby Anderson-Thompkins, special adviser on equity and inclusion and interim chief diversity officer, and Amy Locklear Hertel, the chancellor’s chief of staff. The revisions also reflect input on making Carolina more equitable and inclusive from the Roadmap for Racial Equity, a document authored by some of Carolina’s faculty who are Black, indigenous or people of color.

The Well talked with the co-captains about their plans, work underway by faculty, staff and students and about the influence of current issues and movements.

What was behind your thinking as you revised this guiding framework called Build Our Community Together?

Anderson-Thompkins: We wanted to focus less on programs and work more on analyzing and deconstructing our policies, systems, infrastructure, even our traditions, and examine how those promote equity, a sense of belonging, community and transparency as well. Through this initiative, Amy Locklear Hertel and I have tried to hone in on what is going to lead to more significant and sustained structural change. The focus is currently on a three-to-five-year change process of building a culture of inclusive leadership and a rigorous and evolving review, all pointing to achieving deep structural and systemic institutional changes.

Locklear Hertel: Our first draft was written pre-COVID and was heavy on developing programs to address diversity, equity and inclusion. However, COVID forced us to rethink this work as our in-person community dispersed and we became a remote and virtual community. COVID and the events in our nation revealed that this initiative really is about changing structures, policies and systems and creating a framework to create lasting change. The initiative also focuses on assessing change, measuring progress and publishing that information.

Why are assessment, measurement and making information public so important?

Locklear Hertel: Well, that’s what we do in higher education. We want to take on this work with the same level of seriousness, responsibility and production as any other initiative on campus, including developing key performance indicators and measuring change.

Anderson-Thompkins: Another important component of this work is establishing best practices and models of success, then showcasing and sharing those with the campus. In the sessions on building our community together facilitated by Locklear Hertel and Jonathan Sauls [associate vice chancellor for student affairs] and subsequent listening sessions and tours that I’ve been a part of, we heard a desire to see this information, to see the data, to build a sense of trust and transparency. We hope to get it out so that people know the great things underway and what we need to work on.

Are you hoping to find existing models of success or, instead, build those models? What metrics will you use in measuring?

Anderson-Thompkins: Our emphasis is on gathering baseline data and taking the temperature of Carolina’s climate. Carolina Next highlights some — examining the educational benefits of diversity, looking at student outcomes data and tracking changes over the past several years. We will also examine policies, systems and programs for advancing faculty diversity and important metrics that help us better understand the opportunities to increase faculty diversity. The intention is to support and to track the progress, not solely for initiatives that are emerging to build our community together.

Locklear Hertel: Yes, we already have some best practices on campus, and by sharing those we’ll see what more can and should be done. I don’t think historically members of our campus community know much about the programs on campus that have been doing good work as they are just not in the public eye.

So, it really is continuing to identify those best practices and share them, learning what’s happening within schools and units that others don’t even know about. We tend to look outside our campus for best practices. That’s important, but we also have some great work here that we need to share and understand. Assessments will help us understand where we are and where we want to go, what needs to be replicated, retooled or redesigned.

How can you involve the entire campus community, especially people who either haven’t thought about it or don’t think it applies to them?

Anderson-Thompkins: We started with some conversations and planning with senior leadership, engaging them around diversity, equity and inclusion. The chancellor and provost prioritized this work by asking the deans and vice chancellors to work with their leading experts, particularly as many schools have invested significantly in creating positions such as associate dean for diversity or inclusive excellence. Others are creating positions dedicated to diversity within their schools. That itself is a huge step, where there are not just titles, but a financial investment in people with expertise. This is a way that we’re elevating this work and challenging leadership in each school so it’s core to our mission, not an add-on.

We’ve asked senior leaders to work with their representatives on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council and make these issues a focus of their work with department chairs, faculty, staff and students. They represent a collective voice to advise the chancellor and the provost on best practices for structural change. And, we are (Amy and I) finding some incredible work being done.

Locklear Hertel: Maybe this is an example that could be helpful. With the provost’s support, the most recent revisions to Carolina Next included having all other seven strategic initiative captains refresh their initiative with an eye towards diversity, equity and inclusion. It is important to us that diversity, equity and inclusion work not live in one strategic initiative alone, but that it is woven through all eight initiatives. The expectation is that everyone is responsible for this work; it applies to all of us. The desire is to embed this work and responsibility for this work as part of what’s happening in every school, unit and initiative. That is how we will make this work real and an important part of the fabric of the University.

With the pandemic keeping us from being together, how can that concept of weaving the work into everything best go forward?

Locklear Hertel: This is so important and it’s one of the things that drove us to revise Initiative 1. Because of COVID, it is more important now than ever to foster the ability for everyone to connect so we all feel like we’re part of something bigger. The ability to grieve together when things are happening across the nation that impact us mentally is so important.

Anderson-Thompkins: We have discovered that many of our colleagues are having great success, such as the work that Undergraduate Education in the College of Arts & Sciences has done with Carolina Away, supporting students who chose not to return to campus. Student Affairs made student life and student support accessible virtually. Over the summer, the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion team pivoted student success and recruitment programs quickly to virtual, and we were able to run our recruitment program, Project Uplift Plus. And we launched Achieving Carolina Excellence as a year-long program to help first-year and transfer students from underrepresented populations transition to Carolina.

How are national events and movements affecting your efforts?

Anderson-Thompkins: The death of George Floyd [in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020] was a pivotal moment, certainly not the first of its kind, but one that changed the whole climate nationally. As a community, we had to have difficult conversations around race and racism and make commitments. We are investing in this change. Senior leadership, including our deans and vice chancellors, have talked about this moment as an incredible opportunity, though filled with racial strife. The murder of Jacob Blake [in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Aug. 23, 2020] has triggered past racial trauma, which has had a real impact on the mental health and well-being for Black, indigenous and people of color. At the same time, there is a desire for change. The nation’s racial unrest has definitely prompted an awareness and commitment level that we’ve not seen before.

The University Office for Diversity and Inclusion launched a series called R3 (Race, Racism and Racial Equity) that will take on a range of different topics each month. R3 offers a historical perspective around race, racism and racial equity on different subjects. We hope to continue having these virtual sessions that bring people together, educate the community and spark some important conversations.

Locklear Hertel: Last year there were more conversations across campus and around the country about how policies, systems and structures are connected to history and race in this country. These conversations are important, and they are about more than diversity alone, right? Diversity is very important. Don’t get me wrong, but …

Anderson-Thompkins: … it’s about equity and inclusion.

Locklear Hertel: Exactly. Many of us have been talking about diversity for a while, but equity, inclusion and belonging, which underlies Initiative 1, is where cultural change will come from.

The University has tried building momentum on work around racial issues through town halls, holding community conversations and other programs. What’s different this time?

Anderson-Thompkins: Instead of creating new programs or initiatives, we are examining systems, policies, traditions and practices through an equity lens. One example is our work with the Office of University Ethics and Policy to develop and conduct an equity review of all UNC policies. It’s multilayered. Academic deans and vice chancellors are working internally with their teams to identify strategic priorities where they can focus on equity and inclusion. Divisions and schools are looking broadly at all policy under the direction of the University Policy Review Committee chaired by Jennifer DeNeal from the Office of Ethics and Policy, where Kim Strom is the director.

Our hope is that these groups and leaders are talking among themselves, working in collaboration. There are policies that cut across the entire University, so whatever the policy, we are taking an equity lens to it. I think it’s different from what has been a culture of rhetoric and talk to one of action and change.

How will the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion work with the University’s Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward and other groups?

Anderson-Thompkins: Collaborative projects like the R3 series complement or serve as a companion piece to the work of the commission. My hope is that the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion will become the hub for all things related to diversity and inclusion. Our hope is that the role of this unit expands so that we can amplify the great work that’s being done across the campus, including the Campus Safety Commission and the shared learning initiative. The University Office for Diversity and Inclusion is really the heart or the central location for resources and information about what’s going on related to diversity, equity and inclusion for our campus community.

Locklear Hertel: It’s exciting how collaborative this work is becoming on campus, and it’s not limited to work within a single unit or a program, but Initiative 1 is enabling us to connect practitioners, researchers and service providers across campus with each other as we do this work together.

What else should faculty, staff and students know about?

Anderson-Thompkins: We will roll out communication about the educational training on managing bias for faculty and staff later this semester. This online digital education training is similar to the Title IX training that we all go through. It’s great educational training that leads you through different scenarios and includes educational and engaging videos. Questions at the end will allow us to collect data to assess the educational training’s impact. The data will help us with the priority of creating a safe and welcoming space for students and colleagues.

Also, we recently hired a director of education and community engagement and belonging [Cloe Liparini], which will help us reach more broadly into the community.

Locklear Hertel: This moment is different than any other. There is such a commitment from leaders across campus and a groundswell of energy and drive in the community. There’s great synergy and momentum pushing this work forward. Campus feels different. I think we’re in a new moment. Campus leadership, in fact many faculty, students and staff, have been critical to helping us get to the point we’re at now, so look out for much more to come.

To read other stories in The Well’s ongoing series about the eight strategic initiatives visit Updating Carolina Next.