Why is Change Difficult? Implementing Change to Increase Inclusivity

by Rhonda Brown

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My first college memory dates back to middle school. My aunt Dee Dee was a resident director at Lincoln University and she had just moved into Alumni House. My parents had agreed to let me stay with her for a week during summer vacation. As I recall, Alumni House was an old Greek Revival with an expansive front porch shaded by a huge sycamore tree. My aunt loved books and she passed that joy to me; for that I will always be in her debt. While I was with her, I thought the entire campus was her backyard and I happily packed a lunch, grabbed her copy of The Hobbit and spent the days reading on grass, on benches, in trees, anywhere and everywhere. I thought she had the best job on the planet and if that was college, I couldn't wait to get there. So when that day finally came and I waved goodbye to my family, I couldn't understand why I had this overwhelming sense of abandonment.

I am reminded of that feeling at the start of each new academic year when I chat with first-generation and marginalized students, most who haven't had the privileges my aunt had bestowed to me. That feeling of uncertainty hangs in the air like a bad smell that no one wants to acknowledge. As students struggle to find and define their authentic selves, they wonder how they can be something they are not. It is our job to clear the air and to remind them of who they are and why they are here. It is our job to find ways to connect them to an institution that was not designed for them and may at times revert to bad past behaviors and appear non-supportive or in the alternative become so yielding that the student is not accountable for inappropriate actions. It is our job to help our students survive but also to get the most out of their educational experience and actually thrive.

For thirty years Occidental has run a multicultural summer institute which introduces rising first-year students to academic rigor, student support services, and Los Angeles. This year, I crafted "Occidental Lore," which is story that incorporates diversity and our students in the birth of our mascot. At face value it seems silly, but the students loved the idea that they were connected to the mascot and, by association, connected to Occidental.

One of my mentors once told me that "everybody wants change but nobody wants to change." I thought it was an odd statement especially because he was a Priest and I thought considering his connections, if he couldn't affect change, my odds were probably worse than a salmon swimming upstream. But just like salmon, chief diversity officers (CDOs) are driven by an almost innate wisdom providing direction to insure the future and we are unwilling to alter our course.

So why is change so hard to accept? We've all read the literature -- we know the advantages that a diverse student body brings. We know that those students demand faculty and administrative mentors who look like them and have life experiences similar to their own. It's hard because change requires trust. In this case, trust means individuals have to be willing to forgo the familiar to advance a greater educational good. For many in the academy it is easy to defend diversity when the hire is not in our department or subfield or when the admitted student won't be sitting in our senior seminar. It's a little harder when we are asked to consider a candidate whose degree isn't from a certain school or who hasn't published in a particular journal. When we ask you to think broader, understand it's because we want more.

As CDOs, our job is to find ways to help departments remove educational barriers that often come in the form of prerequisites, making learning more inclusive and diverse. Our job is to recognize that western civilization is simply one of many and that it should not be the only perspective taught. Our job is to help departments step outside of the box when crafting descriptions, and short-listing candidates to make an educated leap of faith. Let me say that I think every search is a leap of faith. We hope we've read the tea leaves correctly, we hope that troublesome colleague won't attend the job talk, we hope the weather holds, and we hope no one in our peer group is searching, but if we work together that leap is attainable. As I start this year, I know I will face difficulties, but I also know I will laugh and I know I will be proud because I'm lucky to work with dedicated colleagues. I know the river is lined with hungry bears and treacherous rocks and that I will have to make Olympic leaps to reach my goals but, in the end, I like my odds as a salmon.