Liberal Education

Rallies, Protests, and Institutional Change: How Consultants Can Address Campus Climate

Student-led rallies and protests continue to gain attention nationwide, due in part to the use of social media. Debates over free speech, acts of protest during the national anthem, and mascot choices or building names reflecting racist histories all illustrate the tensions present on many college campuses.1 Lack of faculty and staff expertise in engaging with a student body that is increasingly diverse across race, gender, and other social identity groups has prompted students to demand mandatory trainings for college employees.2 In response, some higher education institutions are hiring external consultants to help address their ongoing campus climate issues.

As a sociologist with expertise in race, gender, and social justice education, and as a trained intergroup dialogue facilitator,3 I consult widely with colleges and universities across the United States. Over the last six years, I have worked with approximately twenty higher education institutions and delivered over forty workshops on teaching and learning as well as diversity, inclusivity, and social justice. Each year, the demand for workshops focused on inclusive classrooms or intergroup dialogue increases, with requests coming from schools that vary across a range of factors, including geographic location, size, institutional type, and constituencies’ demographic background.

In this article, I draw on my experience as a consultant to synthesize common themes and elaborate on the challenges and opportunities associated with diversity-focused work within higher education. More concretely, I discuss (1) the role of a consultant, (2) common faculty and staff challenges related to teaching across different social identity categories, and (3) a case study of one institution that is proactively dealing with these challenges.

The role of a consultant

According to Harkins, Ray, and Davis, “consultants, who have been invited into the system to address diversity issues, have an [sic] unique opportunity and a special role (translator) to implement strategies that restore social justice for long-term systemic change.”4 But what can consultants responsibly promise to deliver?

Typically, hosts invite me to their institutions to address one of two topics: (1) teaching in an inclusive classroom or (2) intergroup dialogue pedagogies. In both cases, an initial phone meeting helps me form an understanding of the institutional context, the precipitating factors leading to the request, the intended audience, the short- and long-terms goals, and the time frame for the proposed workshop. During this conversation, I often find disconnects between these various elements; for example, my hosts may be constrained by scarce financial resources and competing time commitments, and therefore may emphasize efficiency. It is not uncommon for hosts to ask me to train a large group of faculty and staff in all the skills necessary to address diversity and conflict within the classroom via a single two-hour workshop. Similarly, my hosts might ask me to condense an intergroup dialogue training—a slow, intentional process typically spanning two to four days—into a half-day session. When I receive these requests, my first task is to clarify what the hosts hope to achieve, set realistic expectations, and convey what I am (or am not) able to deliver given their various constraints. Ideally, this process prompts hosts to reevaluate and reframe their needs within more attainable parameters. Occasionally, however, I decline requests if the goals and time frame seem misaligned.

In my practice, it is important for me to continually ask: What can I responsibly deliver within the stated time frame? And who is the best person to help the hosts achieve their goals? I pose these questions to myself in light of what I know about when and why consultants are typically invited to visit an institution. In my experience, many institutions invest in external expertise even when comparable internal capacity exists for a range of reasons: (1) consultants are often differently respected for their expertise, authority, and voice; (2) the tenure and promotion process does not recognize this kind of work; (3) social justice work can be politically fraught, especially for untenured faculty or faculty from marginalized social identity groups (e.g., people of color, women, and LBGTQI individuals); and (4) professionals not affiliated with the institution can challenge the group without fearing backlash from their close colleagues.

While there are clear advantages to seeking external guidance, there are also disadvantages to relying—or over-relying—on consultants. Too often, institutions call on consultants only after a major campus climate incident has occurred; reactive requests like these can limit the effectiveness of the work. In these cases, institutions may be focused primarily on managing their image and may seek a quick fix to persistent, embedded racism (or other -isms) for the sake of appeasing students or controlling social media messaging. In short, for some, consultations are a short-term solution, a Band-Aid approach that fails to address ongoing systemic issues.

Moreover, many institutions do not have a plan for follow-up or ongoing implementation after a consultant leaves campus. These institutions are the least successful in realizing their goals. While I usually visit a campus at least twice and remain available via phone or email afterward, I am not embedded within the institution on a day-to-day basis. Therefore, part of my role is to help colleges and universities determine next steps in my absence: how will they maintain momentum after I leave campus? A train-the-trainer model is one way of building internal expertise and ensuring that the work extends beyond the length of the initial workshop. However, this model requires a serious investment of time and resources, and institutions contemplating it should ask: Who are the internal point people or leaders moving forward? How are we incentivizing their work (e.g., through stipends, course releases, or value added in the tenure and review process)? What institutional structures (e.g., established programs or offices, administrative supports, student workers, budget lines) can help advance these leaders’ efforts?

Institutions should consider these and other questions when seeking consultants to lead workshops on inclusive classrooms or intergroup dialogue. In the next section, I discuss the common challenges that faculty and staff encounter in these workshops.

Common faculty and staff challenges

By and large, faculty and staff who attend workshops on creating inclusive classrooms are well-intentioned educators trying to learn (or relearn) best inclusive practices as their institutions become more diverse. They report being afraid of saying the “wrong” thing or unknowingly committing microaggressions, being unsure of how to intervene when students make inappropriate comments in the classroom, and feeling unprepared to facilitate conversations about conflictual topics. Many enter these workshops wanting a specific toolkit to apply to various classroom situations. They ask questions like, “If XYZ happens, what do I do?” They want a clear-cut rubric or template for navigating any and all situations that might emerge. Part of my work, then, is to reframe these expectations. Since there are many ways to be an effective educator around diversity-related issues, and it is impossible to anticipate every possible scenario, I focus on building content knowledge (e.g., a current social justice vocabulary), instructor self-reflexivity (e.g., the ability to ask who one is and how one’s social identities affect one’s work with students), mindfulness of group dynamics (e.g., awareness of who has voice within the classroom and how one can disrupt dominant narratives), and humility (e.g., a capacity for learning from one’s inevitable mistakes).

While building capacity in these areas may seem like a straightforward task, some faculty and staff, often those who occupy privileged positions within the academy, resist self-reflexive learning through strategies like humor, intellectualization, or disengagement. These educators may want the answer, and they may assume that our pedagogical approaches to inclusive teaching can be disconnected from our own subjectivities and our positionalities.5 This approach allows them to avoid the feelings of vulnerability that might accompany discussions of their missteps or gaps in knowledge. As educators, we have built our careers on knowing—on becoming experts in a particular field and educating others. So, what is at stake if we admit that we are unsure, unaware, or even ignorant about particular topics? What will that realization cost us both personally and professionally?

In my workshops, I model the idea that we are all fallible by sharing this story: After three years of working with a female-identified student, I learned from this student, whom I will call Dan, that he is transgender and now uses male gender pronouns. While I consciously knew that Dan identified as a trans man, my unconscious mind took longer to catch up. One day in class, I caught myself referring to Dan as “she.” I quickly corrected myself, but the damage was already done. Afterwards, I accepted responsibility for my error and apologized to Dan privately. He was very understanding, indicating that many faculty had made the same mistake that week—as the transition was recent—but that I was the only person who had reached out to him afterwards. I do not share this story for the purposes of self-congratulation, but instead to reveal an instance where I had to negotiate ever-changing diversity-related issues. It is a daunting task, and one that educators’ advanced degree programs rarely prepare them for.

To assist faculty and staff in addressing common challenges, I also tell workshop participants about the postconsultation practices of one institution that took a proactive, long-term approach to change, building on work done with an external consultant. I describe this case study below.

A case study for institutional change

The Northwestern University Change Makers, led by Alecia Wartowski and Njoki Kamau at the university’s Women’s Center, have created a sustained, long-term model of faculty and staff development. Every October, beginning in 2013, they have offered a two-day kick-off workshop for faculty and staff, which I lead in collaboration with Charles Behling, former codirector of the Intergroup Relations program at the University of Michigan. They ask participants to commit to monthly follow-up meetings that focus on goal setting, personal self-reflective work, content knowledge (e.g., stereotype threat, microaggressions, and change-management theory), skill building (e.g., role playing), and empowerment. Through readings, related events, and ongoing dialogue, participants learn to focus on the small incremental changes that they can make within their spheres of influence to promote more inclusive communities on campus and beyond.6

As consultants, Charles and I provide a strong foundation that the Change Maker cohort builds upon throughout the rest of the academic year. Although the follow-up work is organized and sustained in-house, we remain in communication with Change Maker leaders, providing feedback on group dynamics, offering additional resources and exercises, and answering emergent questions. This approach maintains momentum for and expands upon our work as external consultants.

Ongoing assessment of the Change Maker effort has revealed promising outcomes. For instance, evaluations of the 2014–15 cohort revealed that

  •  “100% of respondents felt confident or very confident about their ability to educate themselves about how diversity issues impact people in the workplace”;
  •  “96% of respondents felt confident or very confident about their ability to challenge the biases that affect their own thinking”;
  •   “96% of respondents agreed with the statement, ‘I am more hopeful about my ability to help Northwestern become more inclusive’”;
  •   “91% are engaging in new or different conversations about privilege and inclusion on a daily, weekly or monthly basis”; and
  •   “82% of surveyed participants believe that they have acted differently around issues of privilege or inclusion on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.”7

Preliminary data from 2015–16 indicate similar attitudinal and behavioral changes related to four central themes: “connecting with others, comfort with dialogue skills, heightened awareness of social identities, and taking action.”8 As two participants stated:

I am a different person because of my Change Makers (CM) experience. I thought I understood social justice issues and I certainly believed I was no racist. Through Change Makers I came to understand, deeply, how another human being’s experience of the world can be impacted by their social identity/ties. Before CM, I was a nice white lady who tried not to stir the pot. Now, I am determined to be an agent for change. I speak up. I engage in difficult conversations that I would have previously avoided. I look for ways to create equity. A few years ago, my husband and I went to hear Ta-Nehisi Coates speak at Loyola University. It was shortly after he wrote his piece, “The Case for Reparations.” He said something at the time that really has stuck with me and with my husband. He said that his eyes are open, and because they are open, he can no longer live in the lie. I no longer live in the lie that this is a country with equality and justice for all. I didn’t know how uncomfortable I was living in that lie until I was free of it. Now, I am free to work for change.

We all have biases and stereotypes about other people. By educating ourselves and committing to change from within, we can then implement change University-wide.9

As these quotations suggest, change must begin within; from there, it can expand to the places where—and the people with whom—one works. At Northwestern, participants’ workplace actions have included “initiating conversations about diversity in the classroom, becoming a mentor for marginalized students, advocating for diversity on hiring committees, and pursuing opportunities to learn more about equity.”10

Even with an approach to diversity and inclusion work as comprehensive as Northwestern’s, however, challenges are inevitable. The Change Makers program still struggles to get institutional buy-in for self-reflective work, which means that participation in the program does not count in faculty members’ tenure and promotion files. In addition, busy faculty and staff may struggle to commit the intellectual and emotional time necessary to realize their social justice goals. Change Maker leader Wartowski nonetheless remains optimistic about the possibilities of the sustained consultant model. In a 2016 article on the program, she is quoted as saying: “As we have more people that go through the program, my hope is that we eventually reach a critical mass or tipping point where this is who we are and what we do.”11


As US colleges and universities continue to figure out the best way of responding to rallies, protests, and student concerns, consultants are playing a pivotal role in helping educators think deeply about how to achieve inclusive and just learning environments. Central to this work are faculty and staff who are directly and indirectly educating students about diversity-related institutional values and practices through their words, actions, and inactions. Therefore, it is crucial that faculty, staff, and students forge partnerships that can help transform the educational experience for all members of the collegiate community. Used effectively, external expertise can serve to further these efforts. In the end, however, the most difficult work with the highest potential yield must begin and end with faculty and staff members’ ongoing commitment to change.


1. For more on recent campus incidents, see Philip Bump, “Why College Student Protesters are Battling Free Speech, in 1 Graph,” Washington Post, November 21, 2015,; Jack Dickey, “The Revolution on America’s Campuses,” Time, May 31, 2016,; Dan Frosch and Tamara Audi, “Tolerance, Free Speech Collide on Campus,” Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2015,; and Anemona Hartocollis, “College Students Protest, Alumni’s Fondness Fades and Checks Shrink,” New York Times, August 4, 2016,

2. See Leah Libresco, “Here Are the Demands from Students Protesting Racism at 51 Colleges,” FiveThirty-Eight, December 3, 2015,

3. Intergroup dialogue is defined as a facilitated, face-to-face encounter that aims to cultivate meaningful engagement between members of two or more social identity groups that have a history of conflict, according to Ximena Zúñiga, Biren (Ratnesh) A. Nagda, Mark Chesler, and Adena Cytron-Walker, “Intergroup Dialogue in Higher Education: Meaningful Learning about Social Justice,” special issue, ASHE Higher Education Report Series 32, no. 4 (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, March 2007).

4. Debra A. Harkins, Sukanya Ray, and Terri M. Davis, “Diversity Consulting and Teaching from a Social Justice Perspective,” Tamara: Journal for Critical Organization Inquiry 8, no. 4 (2010): 153.

5. Ibid., 135–56, for a discussion of faculty resistance to self-reflexive learning.

6. For more on making small changes within one’s sphere of influence, see Diane Goodman and Steven Schapiro, “Sexism Curriculum Design,” in Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: A Sourcebook, ed. Maurianne Adams, Lee Anne Bell, and Pat Griffin (New York: Routledge, 1997), 89–113; for more on promoting an inclusive community on and beyond campus, see Northwestern Women’s Center, “Change Makers,” accessed June 13, 2017,, and Alecia Wartowski, “Change Makers Create Cultural Change on Campus: A Northwestern University Case Study,” Huffington Post, June 25, 2014,

7. Northwestern Women’s Center, “Change Makers,” accessed June 13, 2017,

8. Alecia Wartowski, “Change Makers Research Paper,” unpublished document.

9. Northwestern Women’s Center, “Change Makers.”

10. Wartowski, “Change Makers Research Paper.”

11. Julie Fishbach, “NU Change Makers Receives Positive Feedback in Improving Inclusion, Diversity Efforts,” Daily Northwestern, February 10, 2016,

KRISTIE A. FORD is professor of sociology; director of the Center for Leadership, Teaching, and Learning; and former director of the Intergroup Relations Minor at Skidmore College.

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