Four years ago, when I began my tenure as president of the University of Southern Maine, I set nine critical goals for the university. They were goals that focused on academic excellence, student support, enrollment, retention and financial sustainability.

I am proud to say that we have made tremendous progress on these goals, and today USM is a university that is strong, growing and on the move. However, as the university has grown – and as I have grown – I have come to realize that we need to add a 10th critical goal: a goal that focuses squarely on equity and justice.

In every person’s life, we can anticipate opportunities – some of them unexpected – that lead us to go deeper in our relationships with others, forcing us to change our life circumstances, or to handle our personal challenges in new and more productive ways. Sometimes growth comes on a platter of kind and generous support, even serendipity. Other times, it derives from the humility of failure and exposure of our own shortcomings. In most cases, however, the context for growth comes with a mixture of both.

The same holds true for any institution. Our university is no exception. In the past few years, USM has made meaningful strides in the areas of diversity and inclusion: We installed new prayer and meditation rooms to accommodate our religious diversity; we instituted a series of implicit bias and diversity trainings for faculty and staff; we established new donor-funded scholarships that supported asylum seekers and students from underrepresented populations; last fall, the racial and ethnic diversity of our newly appointed and rehired full-time faculty reflected the same percentage as our student body – a first for us; and a second year of convocation events on the issues of race and participatory democracy dotted our calendars, bringing award-winning speakers to our campuses. These are just some examples of our efforts.

But we fall short. This year, disciplinary actions, hiring policies and resource allocation all exposed the shortcomings in our perspective and actions.

USM must begin a new journey that goes beyond inclusion and diversity to address issues of equity and justice. I say this, because the diversity and inclusion framework fails to go deeply enough. Some scholars have described these initiatives as the language of appeasement rather than transformation.

To uphold instead the principles of equity and justice demands a commitment of higher education to ask more profound questions about access, safety, opportunity, visibility and power. And it requires us to act upon the answers.

Dafina-Lazarus Stewart, a professor of educational leadership at Bowling Green University, helps us see the difference between ‘diversity and inclusion” and “equity and social justice” with a set of fundamental questions:

• “Diversity asks, ‘Who’s in the room?’ Equity responds, ‘Who is trying to get in the room but can’t? Whose presence in the room is under constant threat of erasure?’ ”

• “Diversity asks, ‘How many more of (pick any minoritized identity) do we have this year than last?’ Equity responds, ‘What conditions have we created that maintain certain groups as the perpetual majority here?’ ”

• “Inclusion asks, ‘Have everyone’s ideas been heard?’ Justice responds, ‘Whose ideas won’t be taken as seriously because they aren’t in the majority?’ ”

To go deeper begins, always, as an inside job. USM’s journey will not be quick or easy or comfortable. For me personally, it will challenge my own long-held, comfortable and sometimes self-righteous views, pushing me to humbly acknowledge that I should speak less and listen more; defend less and act more; avoid less and love more.

I use myself as an example because, as a symbolic representative of the institution, such a perspective must start with me. In a larger sense, however, we are all trusted servants of our public institutions and our common welfare, and no progress can occur except together. I hope that you will welcome the journey ahead and join us in our efforts.


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