How Do We Lead on Equity? Hint: Avoid a Routine Approach and Focus on Building Trust

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests against racism, students have returned to campuses, virtually and in person, with a renewed commitment to social justice, racial equity, and institutional accountability. This mindset provides an opportunity for colleges and universities to partner with students to advance progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

While campuses vary in their progress, few have achieved an equitable environment. In addressing racial issues, administrative leaders often use a routinized approach—setting up a task force, collecting data, and developing a report with recommendations. We do not encourage leaders to start this way! Rarely do routinized efforts create change; in fact, they can be destructive to campus communities that need authentic engagement in which leaders listen to and work on the ground with faculty, staff, and students. Leaders should focus on building trust and cultivating respect if they seek authentic engagement. What does that look like? Our case study research at the University of Missouri has identified two key frameworks that allow for authentic engagement—the collective trauma recovery and weaver-leader frameworks.

Collective trauma recovery framework

The collective trauma recovery framework acknowledges that our campuses have created environments that are traumatizing to non-White students. Dismantling such environments requires active listening, speaking from the heart, and “acting with.”

Active listening is a structured form of listening and responding that focuses the attention on the speaker—instead of on one’s own perspectives—and improves mutual understanding without debate or judgment. It is a powerful method of responding to stressful and traumatic situations and events. It allows students to share problems and struggles, engage with difficult feelings, gain perspective on the experience, take ownership of the situation, rebuild relationships, find their own solutions, and build self-esteem and resilience.

In times of racial crisis, forums are often held to hear from faculty, staff, students, and community stakeholders. However, most of us have generally poor listening skills, preventing us from benefiting from these kinds of sessions. Many times, administrators and faculty think that they are engaged in active listening when they are not. Campuses should train key individuals to expand capacity for active listening. In forums, for instance, leaders need to be open and not defensive. They need to make governance structures more inclusive, creating more two-way communication channels with students by proactively reaching out to them for recommendations. Administrators should invite a wide range of students beyond student leaders to increase representation. A common refrain from faculty, staff, student, and community stakeholders is that they attend events, forums, and meetings but do not feel heard as administrators act in ways that violate what was shared.

Speaking from the heart means invoking and responding to emotions. It involves honest verbal and written communication from administrators, free from political spin and staff editing or polishing. Too often it is the impulse of leaders to use prepared comments after a tragedy so they do not say anything “wrong” that might further offend students. When leaders speak from the heart, they build the trust needed to overcome fear and fatigue.

Current social justice issues have led more leaders—including college presidents, mayors, governors, and medical professionals—to speak from the heart. This might entail leaders describing their own experiences with discrimination or the experiences of someone close to them. For leaders in higher education, this also means owning their institution’s history of racism and creating dialogues on racial healing that focus on all students, particularly those who have been most affected by systemic racism. Administrators should recognize and celebrate those who are courageously leading equity efforts. Students are often overlooked as key players, and leaders should invite them to voice concerns and exchange ideas about dismantling racist policies and practices.

“Acting with” suggests that leaders need to move forward by directly engaging with community members, especially members most affected by traumatic racial events. Too often, leaders rush ahead to “solve” the problem and do not engage with the community, negatively affecting collective recovery from the trauma. “Acting with” requires leaders to move in a measured way that deeply connects with community members and allows them to inform the strategy going forward. Leaders need to work to exhibit a democratic leadership style and seek feedback; create broad planning mechanisms that include all stakeholders; model difficult discussions; seek out professional development on how to speak about race and power; create collective modes of accountability, such as detailed metrics for each department or division; reward those who support racial healing and an inclusive climate through annual reviews and merit processes; and highlight grassroots community work in speeches and other communications and provide resources for such work.

Weaver-leader framework

Because many campuses have made little progress on racial equity, there will be students who are cynical about the possibility of creating lasting change. Many tensions exist on campus, such as differing expectations about progress on diversity and inclusion work and differing views on which priorities to focus on first. Racial-equity leaders need to be weaver-leaders to help bridge differences and bring people together into a shared vision and set of expectations. The weaver-leader framework connects several foundational leadership activities, including communicating thoughtfully, setting expectations, and building relationships, all in the service of creating a common ground on which to move forward. This work is particularly salient for developing a shared vision around racial equity work.

Communicate thoughtfully: Weaver-leaders take up the mantle to communicate the progress being made, address the approach taken, and draw on personalized forms of communication. Leaders must enhance channels of communication in ways that are public, proactive, personal, caring, and transparent. The campus can, for instance, provide multiple opportunities for students to meet in smaller groups to share concerns. Deans can give their cellphone numbers to newly hired faculty of color so that they have direct access to them. They can also provide their cell numbers to students to create access and informal communications that convey an ethic of care.

Thoughtful communication is important because it builds relationships and trust. Right now, as campuses struggle with the challenges of educating students during the continuing pandemic, too many students, faculty, and staff are being left out of key communication channels. Massive, impersonal email blasts serve a purpose; however, they are not the most effective approach when handling a situation like teaching and learning during COVID-19. Leaders must consider ways to send personal and individualized messages like text messages with key updates, in addition to sending longer emails and phone messages and scheduling Zoom meetings when possible.

Set expectations: Expectations influence the pattern or design that the weaver is envisioning to create a full tapestry. While patterns might change as progress is made, they are still useful in setting the overall course and direction. Students, staff, and faculty will likely give varied and potentially conflicting advice about ways forward with reopening and racial equity work.

Some campuses may be able to create an agenda for large-scale changes in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement (dismantling campus policing, for example). Other campuses may be struggling with financial or safety issues that prevent them from immediately working to make changes. Leaders need to be upfront about limitations that might prevent them from addressing demands for change but also set out a timeline for engaging in these changes in the future. Leaders must be aware of the fragmented views about needed progress and help share these perspectives across campus so that various groups can set expectations together. Everyone is disappointed when compromises are made and the rationale for decisions is not explained. For instance, if leaders decide to move courses to flex format (both in-person and online) after faculty have noted that this format causes too many teaching difficulties, faculty will feel that their concerns have been ignored.

Build relationships: Relationship building is a significant aspect of negotiating campus stakeholders’ demands around racial justice, such as improving the climate and outcomes for students. When communities are fractured and feel uninformed about budget, policy, and other decisions, it is even more imperative that senior-level administrators connect with the community through informal conversations. In this way, community members can know who their leaders are, feel comfortable offering them feedback, share their perceptions and experiences, and offer their insights on how the campus can make progress. Faculty, staff, and students have significant expertise about the campus, but too often leaders do not tap it. And many times, students and faculty do not share insights because they are scared to speak up, given the lack of relationships with leadership. Relationship building is particularly challenging during the pandemic. But campuses have been creative in creating forums using virtual technologies. For example, some campus leaders have open (virtual) office hours without agendas to allow people to drop in and talk about issues.

As campuses continue to move forward toward racial equity and justice, leaders must work with students, faculty, and staff to improve policies and practices. The collective trauma recovery and weaver-leader frameworks can help leaders take inclusive action, ensure open communication, and actively listen to make sure that everyone in the campus community has the chance to voice concerns and contribute to meaningful progress.

Check out the authors’ full reports:

Speaking Truth and Acting with Integrity: Confronting Challenges of Campus Racial Climate acenet.edu/Documents/Speaking-Truth-and-Acting-with-Integrity.pdf

Leading After a Racial Crisis: Weaving a Campus Tapestry of Diversity and Inclusion acenet.edu/Documents/Leading-After-a-Racial-Crisis.pdf


Adrianna Kezar is the Wilbur-Kieffer Endowed Professor and Rossier Dean’s Professor in Higher Education Leadership at the University of Southern California. Sharon Fries-Britt is a professor of higher education at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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