How striving for a DEI award keeps one senior diversity officer on track

We know we will never reach first place in some mythical University DEI Olympics. The job is ever changing, ever expanding.
Shá Duncan Smith
Shá Duncan Smith
Shá Duncan Smith is vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion at Santa Clara University.

For the past two years, Santa Clara University has won a DEI award from the publication INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine. The Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) award recognizes universities with an outstanding commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)—especially those that have made DEI part of the holistic fabric of their campus.

Winning is nice, for sure. But HEED is much more than an accolade for me, and I think it could be for anyone else committed to DEI. That’s a big club, by the way. If you search Chronicle of Higher Ed job postings, you’ll see some 26,000 that involve diversity. And as a university vice president and senior diversity officer, my phone and email inbox can also attest that senior diversity officers are in high demand.

While there are plenty of high-level support and associations for DEI professionals, I find the annual process for applying for this HEED award to be a tactical, hands-on shortcut that helps my team and I:

1. Recognize, celebrate, and reinforce what we’re doing right as a university to achieve our diversity and inclusion goals.

2. Think of areas where we can expand our view of holistic DEI.

3. Unearth questions or areas of measurement in our campus operations that we haven’t yet considered.

The very process of applying for HEED, in short, helps me smartly assess each year where Santa Clara University can do better.

DEI award digs in

When HEED asked in its questionnaire what our board survey revealed about the makeup of our boards of regents and fellows, we realized we had not been doing a survey of our regents or fellows. How do we know if we have the right voices at the table if we aren’t quantifying that? So we piloted a board survey last year of our Board of Regents, and we are encouraging surveys for each of our boards.

Similarly, when asked what we are doing to help transfer students (who are often students of color or from underrepresented groups) transition and build networks, we were able to cite our LatinX Leadership Incubator. But we also were able to think about other ways we can help our transfer students build up the social and cultural capital they missed in those first two years when they weren’t at Santa Clara University. We’re now looking at greater services to help build such pipelines and serve our talented and under-resourced students so they truly thrive at college—with scholarships and fellowships, internships, and mentorship.

HEED’s questions about graduation and retention rates made us think harder about how we are facilitating social mobility—the ROI of a college education and how college has transformed students’ earning potential, social mobility, and generational wealth. This is also something that Carnegie higher-ed classifications and others are going to start measuring to a greater degree as they rate and assess colleges and universities.

The survey has also revealed possible potholes in our DEI processes we might not have considered on our own. For instance, through this questionnaire it became more vivid how the tenure-review process can disadvantage women and faculty of color. In an era of DEI-catchup, women, faculty of color and LGBTQ faculty are asked to mentor students of color or LGBTQ students; run DEI committees; or speak at department or recruitment events, among other service commitments. But if tenure review fails to properly weight that service, these populations are at a disadvantage. Santa Clara currently has dedicated committees looking at equity in various aspects of our tenure-review process.

Or are we recognizing some hard realities regarding student evaluations of faculty—which can impact tenure or pay increases? Research proves that teacher evaluations are disproportionately more negative for women and faculty of color—reflecting long-ingrained biases in our culture. So if student reviews regularly result in women and faculty of color getting lower merit increases, how do we work to dismantle this structure that is negatively impacting generational wealth of our valued employees? How can we control for bias in our use of assessments?

The HEED process has reinforced for us the benefits of a holistic approach and helped us think about how each unit is incentivized to integrate equity and equitable practices into their work. The former provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan (which is a HEED winner too) asked during budget review what each individual unit is doing to increase DEI. Those who wanted extra funds had to speak to that priority specifically—as a result, infusing DEI into the entire system. In a similar vein, Santa Clara is adding DEI accountability and measures of success into each unit’s annual report. That establishes accountability and a blueprint to build upon.

We haven’t yet won Insight’s Diversity Champion award. Those winners have developed strategies and programs that serve as models of excellence for other institutions in areas like hiring, pipeline development, or student recruitment. But that’s the beauty of this feedback loop: it prods us to aspire to even more. We know we will never reach first place in some mythical University DEI Olympics. The job is ever-changing, ever-expanding. We will never arrive.

That’s why I am grateful for tools like this, which are like a DEI game tape: a guided reflection into what we’ve learned and how we can be more generative, innovative, and effective in the communities we are working to build. That is a gift.


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