Valerie Ashby on Putting Inclusion Center Stage in Higher Education

Trinity College Dean Valerie Ashby answers questions from the audience at a meeting on diversity and inclusion. Photo by Benjamin Reese.
Trinity College Dean Valerie Ashby answers questions from the audience at a meeting on diversity and inclusion. Photo by Benjamin Reese.

Higher education faculty and staff came to Duke Dec. 1 to hear stories of how universities can put diversity and inclusion at the center of their strategic planning and academic program.  Trinity College Valerie Ashby had some success stories to tell from her experience at Duke. But she also had news of more work to do.

Ashby spoke before more than 125 faculty and staff members from eight state colleges and universities in the North Carolina Diversity and Inclusion Partnership. In her talk and in a free-ranging question-and-answer period, Ashby described a strategy based on building community and trust, promoting value-based messaging throughout the university and supporting all faculty through strong development programs.

“Diversity equals excellence,” Ashby said, speaking in the ballroom of the JB Duke Hotel. “We know that is true, we have the evidence and it has to be a central part of our messaging, from the top leadership on down. When we have the chairs buying into that message, that is where we want to be.”

No single approach to inclusion can be successful. Ashby said that diversity messaging works only if there is a healthy relationship built on trust between the faculty and administration. She outlined her efforts to build community among African-American faculty in Trinity College, using the 50th anniversary of the hiring of the first black faculty member at Duke this past year as the launching point. These efforts built gave the faculty confidence, she said, “that they felt they knew they were being heard.”

DIP members respond to Dean Valerie Ashby's presentation. Trust also comes from having a diverse administrative body, Ashby said, who noted the growth of women and underrepresented minorities in leadership posts across the university, including Trinity College. The student population is also becoming more diverse.  It’s the faculty numbers, she said, that are lagging behind.

When she came to Duke she said, there were no minority faculty members serving in the key role as department chair.

“The classroom is diverse,” she said.  “The classroom leadership is not. We have to catch up to admissions in this sense.” She added that the diversity has to come through hiring of regular rank faculty members, faculty who will have a lasting connection to Duke and “who will develop to become the university.”

Support and retention of faculty members is an additional part of the program. She added that many faculty development programs that have grown out of diversity initiatives are valuable to all faculty members.  Ashby highlighted her school’s partnership with new vice provost for faculty advancement Abbas Benmamoun in creating resources for faculty members to help them balance research and teaching and provide them with skills to be university service leaders.

The conference also included talks from staff at UNC-Chapel Hill speaking on student protests and from Christopher Simmons, associate vice president of federal relations at Duke, about the latest developments in the federal government on educational issues.

The day-long conference kicked off with a “Center Staging Diversity,” a simulation of a faculty search committee process by Theater Delta, a nationally recognized interactive theater company. It uses scripted and improvisational audience participatory theater to foster dialogue and implement solutions that result in palpable change.

NC DIP is a consortium of private and public higher educational institutions in the state to coordinate a network on issues related to equal opportunity, affirmative action, diversity and inclusion. The conference was the 10th annual conference held by the partnership and the second hosted at Duke University.

The conference was convened by Ben Reese and Inderdeep Chatrath of Duke’s Office of Institutional Equity.