Liberal Education

Advancing Diversity and Inclusion through Strategic Multilevel Leadership

Calls to advance diversity and inclusion on our campuses often stem from different constituencies, including presidents, faculty, and students. How do we as educational developers charged with enhancing teaching and learning at colleges and universities respond to these calls in ways that satisfy the needs of various stakeholders, ensure successful outcomes, and enact our values?1 Advancing diversity and inclusion involves working at multiple levels, from the individual faculty member to the entire institution.2 Bridging these levels of work requires managing complexity. In this article, we describe how five institutions have employed the dynamic relationship between university-wide leadership efforts (the macro level); interactions and initiatives within the school, college, or department (the meso level); and efforts by individual instructors and activists (the micro level) to create change at their institutions.

A range of disciplines, from health care to organizational development—as well as various areas of work within higher education, such as the study of teaching and learning—have generated scholarship focused on the micro, meso, and macro levels of complex systems.3 Each case described below highlights catalysts for, considerations regarding, and approaches to advancing diversity and inclusion through these levels of leadership. We have framed these cases in relation to the mandates, challenges, and possibilities within their respective contexts and have aimed to make visible the complexity of the ongoing work in each instance. While the cases show that catalysts for change can emerge at any level, they also indicate that lasting institutional change relies on strategic expansion across all levels. At the end of the article, we present a set of questions that may provide a starting point for readers to review their own institutional contexts for advancing diversity and inclusion.

The University of Michigan

The catalyst: In 2013–14, a viral Twitter campaign about being black at the University of Michigan (#BBUM) put a national spotlight on the negative experiences of students of color.4 The campaign challenged the institution to redouble efforts to address issues of climate and renew its focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Student activists repeatedly articulated a desire for faculty to be better equipped to handle microaggressions in the classroom, and improving the climate became a key factor in the university’s search for a new president, which was then underway.

Upon entering office in 2014, President Mark Schlissel elevated Vice Provost Robert Sellers to chief diversity officer. Together, they set in motion a five-year, campus-wide DEI initiative, inviting all campus units to create strategic plans tailored to their own contexts that would yield measurable progress toward three goals: (1) creating an inclusive and equitable campus; (2) recruiting, retaining, and developing a diverse community; and (3) supporting innovative and inclusive scholarship and teaching.5

Macro level: Clear and persistent leadership from the president, provost, and deans has been key to the university’s progress. The central administration quickly recognized that the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) could play a valuable role in operationalizing teaching-related elements of the initiative. Over the previous two decades, CRLT had worked closely with administrators, faculty, and other educators to address a range of diversity issues and encourage inclusive teaching, and university leadership saw that the center’s institutional reach and expertise could be significant meso-level levers for enacting change and bringing a macro-level commitment to fruition. Perceiving increasing alignment between CRLT’s priorities and those of the larger institution, CRLT consultants seized the opportunity to contribute to institutional change efforts,6 while also recognizing the challenges inherent in working across a large, decentralized university that generated forty-nine DEI plans by unit (i.e., by school, college, department, center, or office). With only twelve instructional consultants on staff, the center’s leadership (Executive Director Matthew Kaplan and the center’s coordinators for diversity and inclusive teaching, Theresa Braunschneider and Tershia Pinder-Grover) knew it would be important to think strategically about the best way of building capacity without depending largely on the center for sustainability.

At the macro level, the vice provost convened a task force with representatives from CRLT, the School of Education, and the Program on Intergroup Relations to propose a model for inclusive teaching training. Rather than creating a single experience for all instructors, the task force designed a flexible framework for new faculty that could eventually be scaled up to support all faculty.7 The task force created a matrix of inclusive teaching skills and opportunities for acquiring those skills; CRLT then applied the matrix to its existing programs, such as the teaching academy for new faculty in the largest undergraduate college.

Meso level: To build capacity at the meso level, CRLT designed two new initiatives. First, the center’s coordinators for inclusive teaching met regularly with faculty liaisons for inclusive teaching (faculty members appointed to lead professional development efforts in the schools and colleges). CRLT’s coordinators introduced these faculty liaisons to the flexible framework described above and gathered their feedback on the model. In subsequent sessions, faculty liaisons developed facility with inclusive teaching practices and gained confidence in serving as resources for colleagues.

Second, with funding from the vice provost, CRLT launched an annual Faculty Communities for Inclusive Teaching (FCIT) program awarding $1,000 grants for collective faculty projects. Each year, CRLT organizes the grant competition, convenes and consults with grantees, and hosts a poster session where each cohort shares results with the campus. FCIT projects have ranged from development of materials (e.g., non-heteronormative texts for language courses and a guide to combating Islamophobia on campus) to events like a departmental lunch series. Faculty have reported that this modest investment has jump-started their projects and widened the circle of colleagues involved in advancing diversity and inclusion.

Micro level: Although administrative leadership can spur action, lasting change depends on the ability of individual instructors to create truly inclusive classroom environments. Accordingly, CRLT has expanded its programming in three ways. First, with a range of campus partners, the center offers an Inclusive Teaching @ Michigan (IT@M) series consisting of fifteen to seventeen workshops. Drawing more than 350 faculty and teaching assistants, the series is designed to fit into the rhythm of the academic year: it occurs in May, after classes have ended but when faculty are still present and have time for professional development.

Second, many units wrote CRLT into their DEI strategic plans as a provider of customized workshops at faculty meetings and retreats. Planned jointly with department leaders, these workshops speak directly to a unit’s teaching context, often using case studies based on challenges faced by students or faculty. These unit-based programs reach faculty not drawn to campus-wide events like IT@M, allowing the center to engage with those who would not voluntarily seek out professional development in this area.

Finally, by compiling robust web-based materials and rebranding CRLT’s main phone number as an inclusive teaching hotline, the center created resources for administrators to share with faculty.8 Instructors indicate that these resources help them decide whether and how to address specific flashpoints related to hate speech, violence, or threats.

While CRLT has capitalized on macro-level opportunities by implementing its new meso- and micro-level programs, the center’s experts are keenly aware of remaining challenges, including lack of faculty time, varying levels of commitment, competing agendas, and the desire for immediate change. Internally, CRLT grapples with capacity issues and the emotional toll that DEI work takes, particularly for staff from the historically underrepresented and targeted groups whose experiences are often the topic of high-stakes discussions in diversity programs.

Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges

The catalyst: In 2006, Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges received a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to develop a Teaching and Learning Institute (TLI). During the same year, five faculty members from different departments at the two colleges expressed a desire to make their classrooms more inclusive of and responsive to student diversity. TLI opted to use the grant funding to address the challenges these faculty members had articulated.

TLI leadership met with several focus groups consisting of students who identified as people of color, members of groups underrepresented on campus, or allies. These students advised TLI to create partnerships wherein individual students would work with individual faculty members to explore how faculty could make their classrooms more inclusive and responsive to student needs and identities. During the spring 2007 semester, TLI followed the students’ advice in launching a pilot program with five students and five faculty members, laying the groundwork for what would eventually become TLI’s signature program, Students as Learners and Teachers (SaLT).

Micro level: Each week during the pilot semester, the student consultants (the name they chose for themselves) visited their faculty partners’ classrooms, took detailed notes, and met with their faculty partners to discuss what the faculty members were already doing and what more they might do to support a diversity of students in their courses. The TLI director (Alison Cook-Sather) met with the student consultants weekly to explore the meanings of “diversity” and “culture,” examine the insights generated through their particular positions and perspectives, and identify strategies for drawing on these insights to inform the efforts of the faculty partners. The director also met occasionally with faculty participants, although most support for faculty exploration and analysis took place through the faculty-student dialogues.

The student consultants offered a range of insights that contributed to the faculty partners’ efforts to make their classrooms more inclusive of and responsive to diversity. Consultants affirmed approaches that faculty were using—both consciously and unconsciously—and proposed alternatives that might improve their teaching. These forms of feedback made faculty more aware, confident, and receptive to student perspectives on pedagogical practice, and ultimately enriched faculty approaches to advancing diversity. As one faculty member explained, “Listening to and talking with [my consultant] after class widened my interpretations and often cleared the way for me to listen and see more sensitively and with expanded or adjusted context in subsequent classes.”9

Student consultants described experiencing a range of benefits as a result of this practice: improved understanding of others’ experiences in the teaching and learning process; deeper critical thinking about teaching, learning, and culture; a greater sense of comfort and confidence; and a sense of agency as students and, in some cases, as teachers. Each of these outcomes influenced their experiences as students, their relationships with other faculty, and their sense of their place and capacity within their institutions.

Meso level: Faculty interest in the pilot led TLI to create optional seminars to which all faculty could apply. These seminars connected faculty with student consultants for one-on-one, semester-long partnerships focused on developing more inclusive and responsive classrooms. Seminar participants also had access to a curated reading list, including a report that TLI created for broad use on campus based on the approaches identified during the pilot project.10

Through the seminars and the wider sharing of the report, faculty from different departments engaged in dialogue across their disciplines and gained access to input from a diverse group of students. Faculty who participated in the seminars and partnerships informed their colleagues about the benefits of this work, thereby spreading the word among individuals and influencing the wider campus.

Eventually, TLI expanded both the seminars and the partnerships, normalizing the work of advancing diversity in the process. For some stakeholders, this normalization was particularly meaningful: for example, two women of color in one faculty-student pair were able “to share the vulnerability of being a student who didn’t feel that her background and approach to study were shared by her peers, as well as annunciate [sic] the things we wish professors had spoken to us about.”11 As faculty and students develop a language and the confidence to explore these issues, they simultaneously forge and require new links between their individual experiences and institutional efforts.

Macro level: Based on feedback from early faculty participants, the provosts at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges decided that, starting in the fall 2008 semester, all new faculty should have the opportunity to work in one-on-one pedagogical partnerships with students and engage in dialogue with faculty colleagues. This ongoing institutional-level commitment to the SaLT program ensures that all incoming faculty at both colleges have the option of participating in a pedagogy seminar and a semester-long, one-on-one student-faculty partnership in exchange for a reduced teaching load in the first year. Student partners who participate in the program claim a wide variety of identities as members of equity-seeking groups, thereby both modeling diversity and ensuring a focus on its advancement in their partnerships.

The college further demonstrates its significant institutional commitment to supporting faculty by offering workshops and conversations open to all faculty during orientation week and throughout the year. All these forums regularly address how to create more inclusive and responsive classrooms through dialogue across differences.12

Columbia University

The catalyst: In 2015, Columbia University issued an institutional mandate to increase diversity across faculty ranks, establish mentorship initiatives to retain and promote underrepresented faculty, and create a more inclusive educational climate. This strong reaffirmation followed a succession of initiatives across the institution, as well as the appointment of a new vice provost for faculty diversity and inclusion in 2014. To further support these commitments, the university established a new Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) that provides a venue for collaborative dialogue among academic and administrative stakeholders and prompts the cultivation of inclusive learning climates.

Macro level: The founding CTL director (Kathy Takayama) partnered with senior administrators to support university initiatives advancing institutional goals for diversity and inclusion. One example was a career-development series sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion, through which junior faculty engaged in an integrative, learning-community-based approach that emphasized diversity and inclusion in conjunction with career success. Sessions focused on topics such as navigating the road to tenure, work-life balance, mentorship, and teaching.

As part of this initiative, the CTL led a workshop to foster introspective dialogues about teaching challenges encountered by faculty. The center also hosted a university-wide Inclusive Teaching Forum that brought together faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, staff, and administrators to cultivate inclusive learning environments. Drawing on the scholarship of intergroup dialogue,13 the collaborative forum engaged the Columbia community in articulating experiences, identifying challenges, and partnering to bring its members’ collective perspectives and expertise to bear on developing best practices and approaches for learner-centered inclusion.

Meso level: The CTL director established partnerships with several of the university’s sixteen schools to facilitate retreats where faculty could explore topics such as implicit bias, stereotype threat, and inclusive classroom climates. In some cases, these retreats led to new curricular transformation efforts.

The CTL also worked with the Office of the Executive Vice President for Research to offer grant workshops that help faculty frame their research in terms of its broader impact. For example, the CTL offered workshops prompting faculty to focus on how their research projects might offer educational pathways and training opportunities to students from groups underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These opportunities have created new avenues for tenure-track faculty to integrate inclusive approaches in their teaching and enhance the impact of their scholarship.

Micro level: CTL workshops have created pathways for the center to connect with faculty who otherwise would not prioritize this engagement. The center has provided individual faculty members with access to expertise in assessment and evaluation and has strengthened the connections among faculty research, teaching, and mentorship, with the goal of enhancing the learning environment for students from groups historically underrepresented in higher education (e.g., women and students of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The CTL also has worked with faculty and graduate students to provide spaces for discourse and action supporting the creation of inclusive classrooms. The relationships that form through these approaches have led to new partnerships between faculty and the CTL, often inspired by faculty interest in co-creating workshops that address diversity challenges within faculty’s own disciplinary contexts.

Northeastern University

The catalyst: In the 2016–17 academic year, Northeastern University launched a new academic plan, which integrates diversity and inclusivity across planned actions in support of the university’s strategic vision.14 The plan highlights the role of diversity and inclusion in cultivating agile learning networks that would further strengthen Northeastern’s work related to its signature pedagogy, experiential learning.

Micro and meso levels: Northeastern’s Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning Through Research (CATLR) embraced the new academic plan by intentionally considering questions about diversity and inclusivity, together with integrative learning, when engaging in its own program development and review processes. CATLR then initiated new partnerships and programs to support the academic plan. The center director (Kathy Takayama, who joined CATLR after leaving Columbia University) identified initial steps to engage in outreach to administrators, faculty, and graduate students at the micro and meso levels.

With a focus on experiential learning, CATLR aims to address the challenges educators face across the multiple contexts framing students’ experiences within and beyond the classroom. With this mission in mind, the center developed Teachable Moments workshops, now offered several times throughout the semester, designed to engage faculty, graduate students, and staff in exploring their experiential understandings of implicit bias and privilege and creating pedagogical frameworks that support productive dialogue.

CATLR also has collaborated with other units to integrate diversity within the curriculum by drawing on those units’ areas of expertise. For example, Teaching with Archives, a partnership between CATLR and the University Libraries, provided opportunities for faculty to embed experiential inquiry into courses. These courses enabled students to engage with diversity through Northeastern’s rich archives, which represent the diverse voices that have shaped the social and historical fabric of the Northeastern community.

Macro level: Initiatives at the micro and meso levels led to opportunities for CATLR to contribute to initiatives at the institutional level, such as a university-wide series of inclusivity and diversity workshops for faculty, staff, and administrators. The series has strengthened the center’s partnerships with the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion and the ADVANCE Office of Faculty Development.

CATLR has partnered with the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education, the Global Student Success Office, and other units to design a new, transformative orientation framework for graduate students and teaching assistants. During orientation, new graduate students create individual development plans and identify resources, programs, and other structures that support their goals and affirm their values.15 This approach validates the individual identities and experiences that each graduate student brings to Northeastern and establishes sources of support for the developmental transitions students will experience throughout their doctoral trajectories.


For educational developers, meaningful, sustainable engagement with diversity and inclusion requires an understanding of institutional cultures, a commitment to relationship building, and an ability to translate the scholarship that informs this work into professional development resources. The cases above make visible possible entry points and pathways for leaders at different levels to catalyze such engagement.

To consider potential ways of advancing a commitment to diversity on one’s own campus, one can begin by identifying and exploring the dimensions of macro-, meso-, and micro-level work that guide campus efforts. Drawing from a conceptual framework developed by Kezar and colleagues,16 one can guide the process of exploration by applying the following prompts in relation to each dimension:

1. What does change look like?

2. What are the goals and measurable outcomes?

3. How will we know if we are successful? What benchmarks will we use, and how will we document our progress and success?

4. What gaps do we need to address (e.g., leadership capacity or expertise)? What challenges do we face (e.g., internal politics, buy-in, or time constraints)?

5. What actions will we need to implement to reach our goals and vision?

6. How will we operate and learn as an organization?

Through our respective efforts, we have learned that not all initial steps need to be profound; even small steps can lead to significant outcomes. Situating our strategic decisions in relation to micro, meso, and macro levels of change has allowed us to consider whether and in what ways we can effect change in our own institutional contexts. By balancing pragmatism with a focus on our principles and values, and by situating these elements in relation to our institutional cultures and identities, we can create the systemic change needed to transform our institutions into more inclusive and equitable spaces for students, faculty, and staff.


1. “What Is Educational Development?,” accessed June 30, 2017,

2. For more on institution-wide efforts to advance diversity and inclusion, see Association of American College and Universities, Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence: A Campus Guide for Self-Study and Planning (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2015).

3. See, for example, Andrea L. Williams, Roselynn Verwoord, Theresa A. Beery, Helen Dalton, James McKinnon, Karen Strickland, Jessica Pace, and Gary Poole, “The Power of Social Networks: A Model for Weaving the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning into Institutional Culture,” Teaching and Learning Inquiry: The International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Journal 1, no. 2 (2013): 49–62.

4. Scott Jaschik, “Black Michigan Students Tweet Concerns: #BBUM,” Inside Higher Ed, November 20, 2013,

5. For more on the University of Michigan’s DEI initiative, see

6. For more on teaching center involvement in institutional change initiatives, see Nancy Van Note Chism, “Getting to the Table: Planning and Developing Institutional Initiatives,” in Coming In from the Margins: Faculty Development’s Emerging Organizational Development Role in Institutional Change, ed. Connie Schroeder (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2010), 47–59; for more on opportunism, see Constance E. Cook and Matthew Kaplan, eds., Advancing the Culture of Teaching on Campus: How a Teaching Center Can Make a Difference (Sterling, VA: Stylus Press, 2010).

7. The task force articulated this framework in a document titled “Achieving Excellence through Inclusive Teaching: A Proposed Model for Faculty Development,” available at

8. CRLT’s materials on diversity and inclusion are available at

9. Alison Cook-Sather and Praise Agu, “Students of Color and Faculty Members Working Together Toward Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy,” in To Improve the Academy: Resources for Faculty, Instructional, and Organizational Development 32, ed. James E. Groccia and Laura Cruz (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 279.

10. Alison Cook-Sather, “Toward Culturally Responsive Classrooms: A Report and Recommendations Based on Initial Efforts Supported by the Teaching and Learning Initiative to Make Bryn Mawr and Haverford College Classrooms More Responsive to Diverse Students,” unpublished report available upon request.

11. Kerstin Perez, “Striving Toward a Space for Equity and Inclusion in Physics Classrooms,” Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education 1, no. 18 (2016),

12. See Alison Cook-Sather, “Dialogue Across Differences of Position, Perspective, and Identity: Reflective Practice in/on a Student-Faculty Pedagogical Partnership Program,” Teachers College Record 117, no. 2 (2015): 2.

13. See Biren (Ratnesh) A. Nagda, Patricia Gurin, Nicholas Sorensen, and Ximena Zúñiga, “Evaluating Intergroup Dialogues: Engaging Diversity for Personal and Social Responsibility,” Diversity & Democracy 12, no. 1 (Winter 2009): 3–6.

14. “Academic Plan: Northeastern 2025,” September 30, 2016,

15. For more on values affirmation, see Nalidi Ambady, Sue K. Paik, Jennifer Steele, Ashli Owen-Smith, and Jason P. Mitchell, “Deflecting Negative Self-Relevant Stereotype Activation: The Effects of Individuation,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 40, no. 3 (May 2004): 401–8.

16. Adrianna Kezar, Sean Gehrke, and Susan Elrod, “Implicit Theories of Change as a Barrier to Change on College Campuses: An Examination of STEM Reform,” Review of Higher Education 38, no. 4 (Summer 2015): 479–506.

KATHY TAKAYAMA is director of the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning Through Research at Northeastern University and former executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and associate provost of teaching and learning at Columbia University. MATTHEW KAPLAN is executive director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan. ALISON COOK-SATHER is Mary Katharine Woodworth Professor of Education and director of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice concentration at Bryn Mawr College and director of the Teaching and Learning Institute at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges.

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