Honest conversation. Constructive dialogue.

These terms are used often with regard to diversity and inclusion initiatives. But without constructive dialogue and an atmosphere in which that dialogue is enabled and encouraged, diversity efforts can be viewed as fleeting, rather than a constant force that shapes and moves a college community forward.

Clemson University’s 35th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, January 12-19, highlights a variety of opportunities for faculty, students and the community at large to engage in conversations about race, community and civil rights activism. Book talks, guest speakers and dramatic interpretations are just a few of the offerings at this year’s celebration.

But the other 51 weeks of the year, Clemson’s strategic, long-term planning guide, ClemsonForward, is working to encourage this kind of open dialogue among faculty, staff and students. Ellen Granberg, associate provost for faculty affairs and one of the architects of ClemsonForward, says open talks should and will continue well into Clemson’s future.

“One of the goals of ClemsonForward is for the University to foster thoughtful conversation about diversity as a part of building our capacity to enact inclusive excellence,” Granberg said. “Opportunites for individuals to interact person to person are an important part of building an inclusive community.”

Granberg said building capacity for dialogue means not concentrating on the short term. It requires outreach to all audiences. But it also requires making resources available for faculty to encourage ongoing development, so that these issues can be handled more effectively in the hallway, faculty office or lecture hall.

“Building this capacity takes real skill as dialogue can be handled [either] poorly or very well, and a great deal of that is knowing our audience,” Granberg said. “It’s important to consider where the participants are located – are they employees or students? If they are students, are they freshmen, seniors or graduate students?”

Speaking up

Lee Gill, Clemson’s chief diversity officer and special assistant to the president for inclusive excellence, has made diversity and inclusive excellence a top priority since his arrival in April 2016. The next initiative on which Lee plans to focus is the founding of the Institute for Leadership and Inclusive Excellence next month, which will be the driving educational and training arm for the entire campus community regarding diversity and inclusion.

The institute will provide training and workshops for Clemson leadership, faculty, Greek organizations, student organizations and any other audience wishing to improve the campus climate. A major component of that training will involve best practices for initiating productive dialogue related to these issues, according to Gill.

“This will be a permanent resource for the campus that will be available whenever and wherever needed,” Gill said. “[The institute] is a large part of a sustained strategy that will ultimately affect culture in a positive way.”

Granberg supports this strategy because issues related to diversity bubbled up from every group polled during the building of ClemsonForward. That process made clear that recruitment and retention of students from underrepresented populations, female faculty and faculty of color needed to improve. However, Granberg said, the dialogue that emerged from strategic planning sessions and meetings spurred by the sit-ins at Sikes Hall in April were also important for moving the discussion forward.

Students on the steps of Sikes Hall work on computers and phones during a peaceful protest.

Sit-ins on the steps of Sikes Hall in April 2016 opened the door to important conversations about race and inclusion, with some faculty holding classes there.
Image Credit: Clemson University

“What I saw was that the discussions after the sit-in last April brought many of us to a different level in thinking about inclusion,” Granberg said. “For me personally, it highlighted how important it is to remember that diversity and inclusion are both significant institutional considerations and highly personal lived experiences. Part of what good dialog can do is allow us to keep both of these factors in mind as we think about these issues.”

Jumah Taweh, lecturer in Clemson’s communication department, tries to instill a sense of empathy in each of her students, and the Sikes sit-ins proved to be the ultimate teaching moment for her. Taweh didn’t just use the sit-ins as a topic in class; she gave her students the opportunity to engage in class on the steps of Sikes in order to illustrate differences between public speaking and protest.

The sit-ins were a pivotal moment in Clemson’s history, Taweh said, so failing to address it with her students would have been doing them a disservice. She said she genuinely cares about their growth, and she would feel like she was shorting them if she bypassed a watershed moment on campus and limited that growth to the classroom.

“We ask students to come to us multiple times a week, so we can go to them,” Taweh explained of swapping her classroom for the steps of Sikes. “If our goal is to nurture and develop students to be the best they can be, then we have to be willing to step outside of our bubble and talk about real issues.”

A study on bias   

Robin Phelps-Ward, assistant professor of higher education and student affairs in Clemson’s College of Education, and Jeff Kenney, educational leadership doctoral candidate, have already initiated a diversity curriculum and pedagogy lab that seeks to influence generations of students through the future educators who attend the labs. The labs allow students to actively discuss diversity issues openly and honestly while exploring how these issues might best be tackled in a classroom setting.

Lab topics include concepts related to the body and identity, social justice, and diversity and inclusion in the digital age. According to Phelps-Ward, the labs have allowed educators-in-training to reflect on social and media construction of race, class, gender and sexuality. They shared ideas with one another regarding how they would take specific actions to expand their “filter bubbles,” the social media networks through which they consume news about the world around them. Feedback sessions used to close out the labs saw students brainstorming topics for future labs and ways to reach a broader audience, and the facilitators plan to continue them in 2017.

A large group of students sits at long tables where they are in discussion.

Clemson College of Education students pursuing a degree in student affairs met in August 2016 for a social justice “pretreat,” which acted as a planning session for the diversity curriculum and pedagogy labs facilitated by Robin Phelps-Ward and Jeff Kenney. The event helped students become oriented to concepts of social justice, multiculturalism and diversity.
Image Credit: Clemson University

“The lab participants really took the time to think about why they think, speak and act in the way they do,” Phelps-Ward said. “There was real growth in the participants’ consciousness of their day-to-day actions and how they influence and contribute to the beliefs and values they have related to their roles as scholarly student affairs practitioners.”

Gender diversity is the primary focus of Tiger Advocates, a program that is part of the $3.4 million grant from a National Science Foundation program called ADVANCE: Increasing Participation and Advancement of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Careers. Tiger Advocates will equip faculty members with the tools to tactfully and constructively broach topics related to gender diversity in order to effect positive change in the University culture.

Melissa Vogel, associate professor in Clemson’s sociology and anthropology department, was tapped by members of the ADVANCE team to lead the Tiger Advocates program. She said male faculty members will receive training on the use and impact of covert and institutional bias toward women in higher education and its effects. Vogel said the program will help not only to change the conversation on gender diversity at Clemson, but also how that conversation takes place.

“The program will give male faculty members the tools to identify bias and strategies to effectively address it,” Vogel said. “But more than anything, it will inform them how to do that in a constructive way so that people are receptive to new ideas. That’s how you make lasting changes to a culture.”

Tackling the tough stuff

Like the pedagogy labs emerging from the College of Education, as well as ClemsonForward’s focus on capacity for dialogue and multiple aspects of other ADVANCE programs, Tiger Advocates has been built to last at Clemson University. Vogel said trainees will become trainers so that dialogue related to gender diversity can continue and extend to all faculty, staff and even students.

According to Granberg, issues related to diversity have taken center stage in recent years in part because of the growth in the University’s national reputation. The higher an institution’s profile in the world of higher education, the more powerful the microscope everyone inside and out uses to examine it. One option to deal with that attention is to shrink away from it, but Granberg sees this as an opportunity to face it head on.

“I believe Clemson is uniquely positioned to lead the nation in this conversation because we have a diversity of perspectives among our students, faculty and staff, and we are all in the middle of an important board of trustee-led process that will help us tell the full history of Clemson University,” Granberg said. “One of the most powerful ways we can capitalize on these strengths is to encourage widespread discussion and interaction around these important issues.”