Managers are so far from the front line; how can they advance EDI?

Authentic leadership involves being clear about one’s values but taking a step back to allow others the space to develop the scope of projects, says Harriet Dunbar-Morris

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Harriet Dunbar-Morris's avatar
The University of Portsmouth
22 Jun 2022
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University senior management should employ authentic leadership to advance EDI

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As we know, many institutions lack senior leaders from minoritised ethnicities or other backgrounds that are under-represented in higher education. Yet, at the same time, it is senior leaders who need to develop and implement the strategic initiatives that will enhance equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) for our staff and students.

I am dean of learning and teaching in a modern, multidisciplinary university with a strong tradition of widening participation and of integrating research, professional practice and simulated and real-world learning into courses. I seek to use my privilege and power positively to help dismantle barriers and ensure the success of all our students, while acknowledging being a white woman from a university-educated family.

Like many who have strategic responsibility for learning and teaching in institutions across the sector, my role is to champion the student voice, deliver enhancements for the benefit of students and innovate to ensure that we continually develop what we do in our classrooms and lecture theatres.

But how can a leader, so far from the coalface, so distant from their own experience of being a student, honestly take a lead on enhancing EDI? I think the way we can do this is by being authentic leaders.

This leadership approach means being clear about one’s values but taking a deliberate step back to allow others the space to develop their voice and the scope of projects in partnership, as well as undertaking change leadership by keeping people focused on what we are trying to achieve – together.

Firstly, students are the reason we’re all here; they’re at the heart of what we do, so ensuring their inclusion in our community must be a common purpose we can all agree on. As authentic leaders we need to be clear on a common purpose like this.

The student body of today is very different to our student days, and their experiences are quite different too. So it’s important that we hear from these students. If we’re to be authentic leaders then we should solicit all views, especially those that challenge us.

How might we solicit these views? Many institutions have internal course and module surveys, but can one break down the responses by protected characteristics? Focus groups provide rich data from small numbers of students, and invitations can be pinpointed, but how representative can they be? Sometimes, changes made in response to student feedback one year result in conflicting feedback from a different cohort the following year. We need to look at the bigger picture and capture trends by considering multiple sources of data. To make objective decisions, authentic leaders use all sources of data available to them.

But if we’re interested in enhancing EDI, we want to make decisions about how to make our community more inclusive for all our students. Could these elements of authentic leadership allow us to use the scientific method: observation; reason; experiment?

As authentic leaders we would be gathering, triangulating and acting on data and, importantly, for a senior learning and teaching leader, working with students as partners. We would go beyond simply gathering student feedback and actually deploy it as a source of evidence, which would enable us to take a research-informed approach for developing and implementing practical applications to benefit the student experience.

So how might this work in practice?

At Portsmouth, we have adopted this data-driven research approach in our Student Experience Committee and its subgroups. As the scientific method implies, we observe an issue – for example, student withdrawals by certain protected characteristics – then we investigate and reason about it, and then we experiment – for example, through a project called Erase (Enhancing Retention and Student Engagement). This leads to focused work on communication with professional services and is linked to our new personal development and tutoring framework. We will then go around the loop again to observe and evaluate the outcome of what we have put in place.

A second approach in use in the sector is the “sandpit” model, which was developed by the University Alliance. Staff and student teams are brought together to design a solution to a challenge, having undertaken some pre-reading and understood the data. That challenge, for example, could be related to addressing the awarding gap between students of different ethnicities by considering changes to be made within classrooms and within the curriculum. That is how we have implemented the sandpit model (now called Charrettes) at Portsmouth and enabled staff to develop a more inclusive community.

If we are to achieve success for all students, we must make it a joint endeavour. We must be clear on what we’re trying to achieve and we must be focused on evidence. As an authentic leader, the tricky thing is ensuring that all voices are objectively heard, all ideas considered, and yet the objectives still need to be achieved – so sometimes opinions have to be managed and ideas reframed.

My advice? Or rather, my experience? Get the right people in the room, give them all the information and evidential data they need, give them time and space, listen to them carefully, bring out all the ideas and then set up some projects or initiatives that they will lead in order to implement the best, community-agreed ideas. And if that doesn’t result in enhanced equity, diversity and inclusion? Then loop, and try again!

Harriet Dunbar-Morris is dean of learning and teaching and reader in higher education at the University of Portsmouth.

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