APU Business Leading Forward Podcast

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: Task Force versus Officer?

Podcast featuring Dr. Aikyna FinchFaculty Training Developer, Center for Teaching & Learning and
Dr. Marie Gould Harper, Dean, Wallace E. Boston School of Business and
Caroline SimpsonAssistant Provost of Student and Alumni Services, American Public University System

Developing a focus on equity, diversity and inclusion has become a priority for many organizations. But what’s the best organizational structure to implement such an initiative? In this episode, Dr. Aikyna Finch talks to APU’s Caroline Simpson and Dr. Marie Gould Harper about why the university chose to develop an EDI task force versus creating an EDI office. Learn why a task force structure currently works best for the university and the benefits of having a volunteer-based group of faculty, staff, students and alumni as part of its EDI task force.

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Aikyna Finch: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Aikyna Finch. Today, we’re going to talk about why have an equity, diversity, and inclusion task force versus an officer and how that decision can impact an organization?

My guests today are Ms. Caroline Simpson and Dr. Marie Harper, the co-chairs of the APUS Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Task Force. Ms. Caroline Simpson joined APUS in 2005. She has served in a variety of roles, each of which have focused on the design and delivery of high-quality, relevant, and supportive services and programs. Currently, she is the Assistant Provost of Student and Alumni Services, and she is also the Title IX coordinator, the co-chair of the EDI task force, and the lead of the Student Experience Redesign Project.

Dr. Marie Harper joined APUS in 2010. She has been instrument in the program managing recognition as a Society of Human Resource Management approved educational institution, as well as specialty accreditations from the Accreditation Council of Business Schools and Programs. She has led the development in the concentrations of Entrepreneurship in the Bachelor’s of Arts and Management and Master’s of Arts and Management programs. In 2019, she was promoted to the Dean of what is now the Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business. Greetings Caroline and Marie. Welcome to the podcast.

Caroline Simpson: Thank you for having me.

Marie Gould Harper: Thank you for inviting us.

Aikyna Finch: It is so amazing to have you both here and let’s start our conversation by talking about the evolution of the EDI Task Force.

Caroline Simpson: Sure. Marie, I’ll provide some of the background and then you jump in. We kicked off our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Task Force at APUS midyear 2020, June 2020. This was not necessarily a brand new focus for the university. We’ve always had an emphasis on diversity, inclusion, particularly in terms of allowing students to have access to high-quality and affordable education opportunities.

But what we did last year was become really intentional and put some specific plans around emphasizing our EDI-related work and prioritizing some key initiatives that we wanted to work on across the institution.

[Podcast: Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Task Force: Enriching Corporate Culture]

Marie Gould Harper: And some of the comments that I want to add to it, and it relates to the title of this particular podcast, why one over the other? First of all, having a task force in this type of effort of diversity, equity, and inclusion has been a first for me, but during this process, I have been at conferences where I’ve heard of other organizations going with the same concept.

It’s been interesting to see the history of DEI first, just starting off with diversity, but how it’s evolving in many different organizations, to the point we see the acceptance of both type of models. And I personally believe based on conversations with other individuals in this field that what dictates which model they go with is what’s going on with the organization and does it fit. And the task force, I think, is a good fit for APU.

Aikyna Finch: That is wonderful. Now, when you decided to do the task force, I know that at first it was just a task force and then you add subcommittees. So, tell us a little bit about the structure of the task force and the subcommittees and what roles they play.

Caroline Simpson: Sure. I agree with Marie that the taskforce model works really well for our university. I’ve been involved in a variety of other task forces or committees, and really the biggest benefit is that it brings together a group of people from across the institution to have a shared focus on a set of particular goals or tasks.

Our task force for our EDI work has a structure that’s pretty similar to other task forces that we’ve hosted at the university. We have our executive sponsors, so Marie and I work closely with our president, with our provost, with our executive leadership team, to be able to set goals, drive them through, make sure that they align with our strategic initiatives across the institution.

And then Marie and I serve as co-chairs and we have a task force that is comprised of faculty, staff, students, and alumni. It’s a fairly small group because we wanted to make sure that we were able to stay pretty nimble. We didn’t just want to get a group of people together on a recurring basis to provide updates. We want it to be active and to really make a difference, move forward with our assigned tasks and priorities.

And the way that we determined that would work best is to set up some subcommittees, as you mentioned. We have a subcommittee for each of our key current priorities, and those subcommittees allow us to take the divide and conquer approach, is what I usually call it. We have leads of those subcommittees. Those subcommittees have been able to pull in members from across the institution to be part of their subcommittee team that allows us to pull more people into our work without having to necessarily grow the initial task force.

Marie Gould Harper: And I wanted to jump in right there because when we initially started, that was one of the things that Caroline was really adamant about. Let’s keep this small. Let’s keep this small. And we really were going to just stick with just the task force members.

But as we started to share what our plans, what our visions were, there were so many people at the institution who were interested in helping out. We have expertise and interests. How can you say no to anyone that just wants to jump in and help with one of your projects?

And that’s how we developed the taskforce that we currently have. We saw a need, but instead of assigning it to taskforce members, we allow the individuals or the employees at the institution to just jump in and take over that particular role. What more can you ask for, for engagement? That’s part of why the task force model is working at our institution.

Caroline Simpson: Right. I’ll emphasize that this is a task force full of volunteers, which is really beautiful because the commitment is real. It’s there. There is a lot of interest and people are passionate about helping. And so to be able to pull them in to participate in different projects or key priorities has been wonderful. When we finish our work in one area, that subcommittee can close. We can create another one when there is an additional priority that we want to narrow in on. So far it’s worked really well and it’s allowed us to really pull in the people who want to be involved in this work.

Aikyna Finch: I love that. I love that. And the fact that you are including people that want to volunteer and want to share and want to help, that is amazing. And when we are talking about that, what are some of the things that you need to include in an EDI task force that you have noticed as this has been developing?

Caroline Simpson: Sure. I think our connection to our executive sponsors is really important. We have had their support and advocacy from the beginning, so being able to connect the work that the taskforce is doing to our institutional strategic plan and strategic goals allows our focus to remain relevant, and it keeps it at the top of the list in terms of prioritizing effort and resources. That’s a key component of how our taskforce is structured and how we need it to work.

Additionally, we worked to have taskforce representatives, though the group is fairly small, about 30 people, we worked to make sure that we would have representation from across the different departments in the university. I mentioned, we have faculty and staff. We also have members from our faculty and staff communities that represent different academic disciplines, different backgrounds, different levels of experience, different student-facing teams, teams that are not student facing, et cetera.

In terms of the subcommittees, what I think works really well is having a designated lead for that subcommittee, so there’s almost like a project manager for the specific effort or task that they’re working on. Now, the scope of some of the subcommittees varies.

We have a curriculum subcommittee that the work there could be ongoing for a long, long time. Right now they’re working on making sure that we have a way to measure and assess our EDI-related values in our courses and in our programs. But because we have a recurring cycle of creating new curriculum, reviewing it frequently, the work that this committee does, the subcommittee does, it may never end, but it will continue to evolve.

And then we have a subcommittee that’s focused on our survey strategy. We’ve noticed that there’s a lot of interest in EDI-related questioning, whether it’s asking faculty and staff or getting feedback from students and accreditors require some information related to EDI, et cetera. Instead of having multiple surveys going out to the same audience, we decided we need to get organized and pulled together a group to help us manage that entire process. That’s not necessarily going to be a subcommittee that stays up forever and ever because if we do it right the first time, we’ll be able to use this information again and again. That’s a little bit of an example of how we have the group set up.

Marie Gould Harper: And one of the other important things, Caroline started to speak to this particular topic. One of our committees is the communications committee. They’re very important. They’re probably one of the last committees that we developed, but we were able to identify how we can improve the communication process about this initiative, and by coming up with a process, it serves as a model for other things that we need to do at the university. And our president basically mentioned the need for the communication flow to go up and down and vice versa. And that it also goes out to all of our different stakeholders who may not be a part of the immediate daily operations of APU.

And as a result, we have come up with a process that can serve as a model for other efforts and projects at the university, which what Caroline alluded to, our accreditors, especially accreditors, are asking for, how do we get information out to the different stakeholders? How do we ensure that they’re part of the decision-making process, not just our sponsors and the leaders making decisions, and then telling the rest of the employees and workforce at APU. You see how we have the engagement and the process where everyone’s included, whether it’s on a regular basis or just on a special-project basis, but they have knowledge of.

Aikyna Finch: I love that, ladies. And so let’s start the conversation back up. We had a little background in the first segment, but now let’s go ahead and answer that question. Why not an officer? Why was that not on the table?

Caroline Simpson: Well, I don’t know that it’s completely off the table for APUS. When we began our task force work in June 2020, we wanted to mobilize quickly. We had an EDI initiative in place for our student affairs and co-curricular programming. And we used that as a foundation for a plan that would work for the entire institution. We grew that.

And one of the key components of that plan was to bring people together from across the university because in order to do EDI-related work well, it needs to be authentic and needs to be everybody’s responsibility. And the taskforce model has worked successfully for APUS in the past for other key priorities and initiatives.

But I don’t know that the university wouldn’t consider building out an EDI office in the future. Right now, the biggest benefit of our taskforce model, in my opinion, is that there is collective and widespread buy-in from the entire institution regarding our EDI priorities. And we are working as a collective group to drive forward our initiatives, our key efforts. We’ve created a five-year strategic plan. We align our annual projects and goals to that plan. We have this momentum and we’re not just seeing it in one area of the institution, it’s across the entire university.

Marie Gould Harper: And I want to go back to one of the statements that I made in the previous segment. And that was, I do firmly believe that you have to pick the model that makes the sense for your particular organization at that particular season. I’ve been in both roles. I believe that APU has the proper role for where we are right now. When we started, there was a lot of interest because of certain incidents that happened in society. And we had an idea of some areas that we wanted to address to basically display our position on the topics at hand, the current topics. And what we did was have those committees set up to address certain issues.

Now, in the model where you have the officer, a lot of times, depending on the role, a lot of the positions that are out there now, they will fall under usually the president, especially at universities and colleges. They have a directive.

We have a purpose and a vision that we see for the entire university. And usually when you’re an officer, you’re starting out with one specific topic or area of concern for your institution and the message that you want to get out there. I would say looking at it from a macro level and a micro level and where you want to start will determine which model you should go with. Not that one is better than the other, but where are you at that time?

Caroline Simpson: Right, and the EDI officers that I’ve worked with or had conversations with about the work that we’re doing, in many cases, I’m hearing that they’re creating their own set of subcommittees, or they have a steering committee that they’re working with. This is a collective effort and I totally agree with Marie, regardless of which way you set it up, having a direct line to university leadership, aligning your goals and your plans with the institution’s strategic planning process, and being really clear on what your resources are, what your priorities are, that’s going to happen whether you set up an entire EDI office with specific designated staff members, or if you have a group of volunteers like we do with our task force model.

Aikyna Finch: I love the fact that when y’all are speaking about this, you’re making sure that everything is aligned and that is very important to the work that we’re doing. I want to ask the question, because this is a question that I usually hear, I’ve heard in previous meetings and things. Who makes the decision for a task force? We know who the officer scenario is, but who makes the decision, that final hard decision in the task force model?

Marie Gould Harper: My first immediate response is the sponsors and that’s the senior officials because they’re tasking Caroline and I to get a function completed. They have an idea about the vision. We can do the operational part and mobilize the different committees to do different tasks, but once we have information, it’s the sponsors’ roles to say, yes, that is definitely a part of where we see ourselves going and what you mentioned, alignment, or some things have come up and we’re going to have to slightly change our direction.

They have an immediate big picture of things and they know when the different pieces move. They can always allow us to know, is that still a priority or should our priority orders change on different committees? I see it being with the sponsors.

Caroline Simpson: I agree. And the benefit for the sponsors is that they have direct access to a group with a diverse representation across the institution for their input, their ideas, their suggestions, their concerns or questions. We bring strategic concepts or initiatives to the taskforce in our meetings. We discuss, we consider, we ask for suggestions or ideas, and then once they’re vetted and approved by our sponsors, Marie and I are able to help through the taskforce members and the subcommittees that are working can help complete the task or work towards completion of the project.

Aikyna Finch: Well, ladies, this was an amazing conversation and we touched a lot of points. Is there any points that we missed in the conversation that we’ve had?

Caroline Simpson: We made this point when we were talking about why our subcommittees are a productive way to structure our volunteer interest, but I want to emphasize that I have been so pleased with the amount of volunteers, the number of people who have been raising their hands to say, how can I help? I want to be involved.

I think that speaks to how awesome APUS is and how awesome the people are that work at APUS and come to school at APUS. We have so much interest and support that, to be honest, our biggest challenge as a taskforce is that we have more people who want to help than we are ready for. It’s a good problem to have, and I’m just really impressed and have a lot of respect for our community.

Marie Gould Harper: And, in addition to what Caroline just stated, I like the fact that we do a pulse check periodically to make sure that we’re still being true to our mission. And I have something I call the three Fs. We’re constantly checking to make sure we’re very fluid, have flexibility, and have the appropriate flow for what we’re working on at any given time.

Aikyna Finch: Well, I want to thank you both. First off, I want to commend you for a wonderful first year and all the work that you do. You are appreciated here at APUS. And I want to thank you so much both of you for sharing your expertise today. And then to our listeners. I want to thank you for joining us. Be safe and be well.

Dr. Aikyna Finch is Faculty Training Developer in the Center for Teaching & Learning at American Public University. She received a Doctorate of Management, an MBA in Technology Management and an Executive MBA from Colorado Technical University. She has an M.S. in Management in Marketing, an M.S. in Information Systems in IT Project Management from Strayer University, and a B.S. in Aeronautical Technology in Industrial Electronics from the School of Engineering at Tennessee State University. She is a podcaster, social media coach and speaker. She is a member of the Forbes Coaches Council and a contributor to Huffington Post, Goalcast, Forbes and Thrive Global. She can be found at DrADFinch on all social media platforms.

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