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New University Committees Begin Work on Racial Equity Recommendations

The faculty, staff and students charged with recommending policies to address concerns about racial equity issues across the university started work this month. Their initial focus is to provide additional data from the recent Campus Climate Survey to university units, helping them understand the results and implement action plans.

Initiative leaders say they want to move quickly to take advantage of the information gained from the survey and from the numerous grassroots equity efforts occurring across the university. 

“Certain issues emerged out of the university survey that we want to address in the first year,” said Kim Hewitt, vice president for institutional equity.

“We know that the different units understand their local environment, but we are also hearing from them that they want support. Our goal is to provide them with the tools they need to work on the issues that are most pressing at the local level,” Hewitt said. 

The work is led by the Racial Equity Advisory Council (REAC) and four subcommittees, which were announced in November. Hewitt and Abbas Benmamoun, vice provost for faculty advancement, serve as co-chairs of REAC, which includes senior leadership from across the university, as well as faculty and students. 

The four subcommittees will focus on:

  • Campus Climate and Assessment
  • Education and Training
  • Communication
  • Infrastructure and Policies

These subcommittees, all of which have met at least once, will draw on expertise at Duke and outside to make evidence-based policy recommendations to REAC. REAC is responsible for advising the university’s executive leadership on implementation of the subcommittee recommendations.

“We want to use this data to change policy, but the goal isn’t just to change policy. We have to change the experiences,” said Sherilynn Black, associate vice provost for faculty advancement and co-chair of the Campus Climate and Assessment subcommittee. “All is naught if the lived experiences of people in the survey don’t get better. We want people to know that their voice has been heard.”

The subcommittee charges involve different themes, but they “work closely to make sure our efforts are aligned and in support of each other,” said Leigh-Anne Royster, assistant vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion and co-chair for the subcommittee on Education and Training.

The Campus Climate and Assessment subcommittee is already working with the organizers of the survey to understand what data will be most useful for university units and how the data is best interpreted.

This is a step that is being handled carefully with concerns about confidentiality. The survey was conducted with assurances that no response could be traced back to an individual, and in some small units, that can be a challenge.

The public release of survey data initially was broken down by a binary men-women gender categorization and by four racial groups. This excluded from the public release of information about Native and Indigenous people, people who identify as non-binary and also deeper disaggregation within the racial groups.

All of this was done to protect confidentiality, and at the November Academic Council meeting, faculty supported the decision. But the project leaders also understand that detailed information is very valuable.

“One of the questions we are discussing right now is how do we get data more disaggregated, but still ensure confidentiality,” Benmamoun said.

The Education and Training subcommittee will conduct a broad, two-part audit of ongoing anti-racism education opportunities across the university. One part will map training and education programs related to skill development and the other will focus on the academic curriculum. This audit addresses one concern raised in the survey that people wanted anti-racism training but weren’t familiar with what was available.

“We want to make sure we have a clear understanding of all the great work that has gone on and continues to effectively impact our community. From that work we will be better able to assess strengths and opportunities/gaps in the work,” Royster said.

Another project of the Infrastructure and Policy subcommittee is to develop metrics to measure progress on various issues, such as hiring, pay equity, etc., and to hold leaders accountable, including the executive leadership.

Many of these studies by the subcommittees may converge, Hewitt said, and the co-chairs will regularly meet together to ensure transparency and sharing of information,.

“We will have some means of sharing metrics from each unit, and so we can learn from one another,” Hewitt said. “What we know is right now we need an efficient system for sharing information that could be useful to others.”

Along these lines, several events are already planned for early next semester that will help exchange information, Hewitt said. In January, academic leaders will gather on Jan. 4 for a day-long retreat to discuss their school-level efforts on equity and learn about other initiatives across the university. Hewitt added that her office is working with Human Resources to organize a similar retreat for leaders of non-academic units.

REAC leaders say they have met some skepticism and confusion about the project. There’s confusion about the focus on racial equity when the survey identified concerns about broader equity issues.

“What’s driving this effort is the desire for equity,” Benmamoun said. “Everything that we do in this work on racial equity can be used to address wider equity issues. By dealing with racial equity, we will help the drive for equity overall.”

In addition, faculty and administrators have pointed to the connection between this work and the university’s stated values, goals set out in President Vincent Price’s 2020 Juneteenth statement, and its mission to advance academic excellence. These leaders pointed to the new fields of study and new perspectives on traditional fields that Duke’s efforts on inclusion have already brought to Duke scholarship.

“The result of this work will strengthen academic excellence. Improving diversity and equity will enable us to recruit and retain faculty, which in turn will make our classroom experiences richer, our research more innovative and our public engagement broader and deeper,” Benmamoun said. “Equity and diversity are social imperatives, but they are also crucial to the quality and reach of our mission as an academic institution.”

The full membership and charges for REAC and the subcommittees can be found on the Anti-Racism website.