A President's Reflections

Building an Inclusive SNHU

Posted on August 16, 2018

Following the anniversary of the deeply troubling incidents in Charlottesville a year ago, I want to update you on our efforts to build a more inclusive community here at SNHU and the considerable progress of the last two years. This is an update on our ongoing efforts and while I will focus this message largely on race, let’s start by acknowledging that inclusivity means the need to do good work at the intersection of our wide-ranging identities, to know our students and each other as individuals and not as labels.

This work is about equity, in the end. Inequity afflicts the poor, who come in all shades, where one car repair or hospital bill can derail an education, as our advisors can readily attest. It afflicts the LGBTQ+ community that has seen progress, but also renewed attacks on their human and civil rights. It afflicts parents, especially single parents, who face their own subset of struggles. It afflicts those with different religious beliefs, evidenced by a recent and ugly incident in which one of our Muslim students had her hijab pulled while out after work with her colleagues. The #MeToo movement has revealed ongoing sexual harassment and assault in workplace after workplace. Students on the autism spectrum are bullied at much higher rates than their peers and programs can be thoughtlessly designed for by full participation by only the able-bodied.

All of those injustices I’ve just mentioned also afflict people of color and then the research tells us that they face additional and often systemic barriers solely because of the color of their skin. Simply, if these things are bad for everyone, they are often even worse if you are not white. Racism remains America’s original sin. When I wrote to you all after the ugly incidents in Charlottesville a year ago, I received vile emails and even death threats. America is not as good as it needs to be right now, but I do have faith that we can be better. We have to be, for as Alexis de Tocqueville famously wrote, “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

We are at an inflection point as a society and we must do what we can in the places where we live and work with the resources we have available. Note the “we.” We are stronger together and at a time when the country seems more divided than ever, I do believe SNHU can be an inspiring counter-example. Let it start with basic kindness, a willingness to embrace and learn from the discomfort that comes with change, and a commitment to our students and our mission. With this communication, I want to share with you the diversity and inclusion work underway and the work that lies ahead, and to commit to working alongside you to make SNHU the model of a modern, diverse, inclusive, and embracing organization.

  • First, I am pleased to report that we have made strides in terms of attracting and recruiting diverse talent in our leadership ranks: appointing our first African-American and Latina trustees to our Board, bringing on board Jada Hebra, as Senior Vice President and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Adrian Haugabrook as Senior Vice President and Chief of Staff, Vanessa Gonzalez as Assistant Vice President for Diversity Outreach and Strategy, and Lauren Starks as Associate General Counsel and Director of Government Relations. Adrian and Jada join General Counsel, Yvette Clark, in bringing more diversity to the Leadership Council.
  • A year-and-a half ago, Jada embarked on a careful listening tour and has since conducted over 60 trainings, workshops, and inclusive climate events for SNHU students, faculty, and staff and also in the local Manchester community. She has also provided internal consultancy and support for dozens of university projects large and small. Her work addresses issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, veteran status, political party, religion, cognitive and physical ability, nationality, immigrant status, First Amendment rights, criminal justice, and more.
  • We just approved a new position within HR, an Associate Vice President for Talent Engagement and Inclusion, and among the responsibilities will be:
    • Drive employee engagement and ensure inclusion is embedded in all of our talent initiatives.
    • Create ongoing employee inclusivity training linked to badging.
    • Spearhead the creation of a diversity leadership development program to create and build our own internal diverse leader bench.
    • Lead the efforts to increase diversity in our talent pools through targeted outreach, manager training and awareness.
  • From a student perspective, we are serving students of color in a multitude of ways, including serving more students of color in our online programs, through partnerships with organizations like DUET, DaVinci, and Idea U (serving students in the inner cities of Boston and LA, as well as the Rio Grande Valley), our refugee work, our support of DACAmented students, and our workplace partnerships. We are actively exploring new partnerships that would expand our network to major metropolitan areas and help us serve new populations of young learners of color.
  • We continue to identify and seek to serve those who have been deeply marginalized and historically disenfranchised. For example, we are planning a December meeting at Stanford, led by our trustee Rick Banks (a noted Stanford law professor and researcher/writer on race), to look at how we might serve the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. This is a population disproportionally represented by men of color, reflective of the structural racism in our judicial system.
  • On the main campus, we see new academic programming (such as the reinvention of our First Year Seminar – -for which I am exceedingly excited), a growing number of passionate advocates, and a newly created President’s Commission for UC Diversity & Inclusion. I can’t say enough about the work of Kayla Page and Michael Reaves, especially the six new affinity groups they have created to support different student identities and the Unity Program, a pre-matriculation program for under-represented students. The creation of the Cupboard and the Legacy Leadership Fellows program confronts head on the very real challenges of poverty, an initiative of multiple offices in UC. Another multiple office initiative, partnering with Target, is the Inclusive Leadership Series.
  • We are working to build more culturally responsive programming and instruction. In our online programs we have made efforts to provide learning resources and assessments that take into consideration the diverse backgrounds of our students. One very simple example: students in Rwanda had an assessment that included mention of a coffee maker, though they had no idea what one was. Jada is working particularly with our teams in areas like criminal justice, mental health counseling, human services, and some of our general education courses to see if we can increase success by connecting more with students’ lived experiences.
  • Regarding gender, my Leadership Council is two-thirds women and the Board has committed to a 50:50 gender split in its membership, something I have found no examples of elsewhere.

Of particular note was our June Board meeting when our trustees dug into a serious and thoughtful discussion of what we mean by “access,” something we work very hard at and of which we are justifiably proud. The question was “Is access enough?” We began a discussion of equity and then social justice and picked up on the topic again on the very next day. It was probably the single best Board meeting of my 15 years at SNHU and the conversation continued over subsequent email and phone calls and meetings. My observation to the Board was that we are now ready to develop a Diversity and Inclusivity Strategic Plan, and I committed to have that plan completed and ready for their ratification at the February Board meeting. Indeed, the Board enthusiastically agreed to have that meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, the symbolic heart of the Civil Rights Movement.

Jada will lead that effort, putting together the planning team, and I will ensure that the group will get all the resources and support it needs. That may include bringing in outside organizations that have experience and track records in executing large scale diversity strategy. If the last year was about building the foundation for our efforts, this coming year is when we begin the institutional journey with a clear roadmap, well understood milestones along the way, and a recognition that there is no final destination for this work. Racism and intolerance are deeply imbedded in American culture, often systematic and now increasingly on display in every aspect of American life. This work we need to do will need to continue long after our time, I’m afraid. But we can press on now, remain determined, and never fail to hold ourselves accountable.

Why?

  • Because the ever-growing body of research makes clear that diverse, inclusive organizations perform better than those that are less so. My expectation of my executive team and our managers and supervisors is that they will step up their efforts to deepen inclusive culture and build more diverse teams. Failure at building more diverse teams and inclusive culture means that their teams are not performing as well as they might and that SNHU is not as good an organization as it should be. Healthy culture breeds talent. Innovation is amplified by inclusion and requires that all stakeholders stand as champions of diversity and inclusivity in every corner of the enterprise. In order for us to effectively harness our richest source of innovation–our people–we must develop and nurture a restorative culture–a shared “way of being” that builds community, repairs harm, and deepens a climate of belonging.
  • Because we will increasingly serve a more diverse American population –so we need to mirror that diversity, improve our cultural competency, and earn our right to be their university. I’ve had recent opportunities to be in the Rio Grande Valley, Los Angeles, New York City, and other places where our country’s diversity is on full display and I was reminded of how vibrant and entrepreneurial these communities are, a reminder that our American story was built on the foundation of immigration and optimism. Diversity is a strength, not a burden. 
  • Because this University lives its mission and is passionate about student success. Access is important. If students can’t afford us, we can’t even begin the discussion of how best to serve them. But access is not enough. We have to recognize the structural inequities that particularly impact many of our students.  We care deeply for all of our students, but we must also care differently for different student populations as they need us to if they are to be successful.

Those are the simple facts and the reasons SNHU as an organization will commit itself to this effort. No one has more claim on the work than anyone else, nor an option to opt out.

Any effort, however noble, has its challenges and this one is no exception. We’ll get it wrong sometimes, but it is incumbent on us to learn in each instance and do better. It’s easy to imagine clumsy and uncomfortable conversations and encounters. I’ve seen those most impassioned about diversity be unforgiving and judgmental about well-intentioned, but poorly framed comments from others (shutting people down instead of helping them along). I’ve seen impatient dismissal of heartfelt feelings of marginalization. I want to be careful that we do not ask our employees or students of color to bear the burden of this work – -it’s our collective responsibility. I cringe when a Latino student describes being asked for “the Latino perspective” on an issue in class, as if he or I could speak for all of those whose race, ethnicity, religion, or gender we share. In my aforementioned post-Charlottesville letter, I could have been more careful in my own language and in a subsequent meeting with self-described conservative employees, they helped me be more thoughtful. No one who has done this work would ever say it is easy. Organizations that have succeeded are so much better for having done so.

So, I’m going to ask for three things:

  • That we all show each other some patience, big heartedness, and forgiveness– qualities that already characterize SNHU when we are at our best and use as our starting point other people’s good intent, unless they prove us wrong.
  • That we keep grounding the work in our mission. We say we measure our success by the success of our students. Our students are, and will increasingly be, diverse; we need to understand who they are, the gifts and talents they bring, what they need from us, and how we can better serve them.
  • To remind ourselves that as a University, we have a special obligation to make space for competing ideas and to sometimes make ourselves and our students uncomfortable, as we and they learn to navigate complex ideas and unfamiliar intellectual territory. It’s called education.

Back in May, standing on stage at the SNHU Arena and congratulating graduate after graduate, I was thrilled to observe just how diverse is our student body. Or as a colleague said to me recently, “We serve the top 100%.” I was trying to think if there is any demographic we don’t serve and I couldn’t think of one. There were so many instances that day when I wanted to stop a graduate and say, “Tell me your story.” (We’d still be there if I had, of course). Maybe that’s where our work should begin, with that simple question rooted in curiosity and delight in what makes each of us who we are as individuals. It’s on that foundation that we move to this next, intentional chapter, in our organizational evolution from access to equity and a commitment to the success of all our students. It’s how we can finally start to realize our institutional vision statement: “Make the world a better and more just place through our work, one learner at a time.”

6 thoughts on “Building an Inclusive SNHU

  1. These comments are just another reason I am proud to be working for SNHU. I work full time for a small (3000) community college (NTCC) in Texas and also for TAMUCT as an adjunct, and neither puts forth one tenth the effort for their students as SNHU. I had no idea what I was getting into at SNHU, but after the first course I knew I had found my place. I wish I had found SNHU earlier. It is a lot of work, but the idea of “Presence” is such a great concept, and it’s also easy to the influence this model has on students. All I can say is “WOW” and thanks for all you do. Your comments above exemplify everything I also stand for.

  2. Charles Dean says:

    Very inspiring Dr. LaBlanc. Thank you. A fine, uplifting way to end the week, and to meditate on over the weekend.

  3. Dr. Angelia M Griffin says:

    Amen!!!
    Dr. A.

  4. Thank you and well said.

  5. Yolanda Williams says:

    A thoughtful, well-written article requires a thoughtful response. This is not only a great read, but should be required reading.

    Paul J. LeBlanc, President of SNHU article is thoughtful and strikes a vision that will set the course for SNHU for years to come. He recognizes the business imperative for diversity as well as the humanitarian imperative. He avoids the customary rhetoric which often causes me to roll my eyes. He cites clear examples of the work that he and his team are doing. He is formulating a diversity strategy. He is inclusive. Many are invited to contribute to the strategy which is key to a successful implementation. He clearly cares about life experiences of the individuals that he is attracting to the University. Mr. LeBlanc’s words, sentiment and charge to action is an imperative which crosses all-industries and institutions. The demographics of the United States is changing, like it or not. It is here – – no stopping it. Industry and universities that embrace this change will have a competitive advantage. We are long pass simply talking about diversity, we must act. Countless studies reveal that the Technology industry is woefully behind I attempts to diversify its ranks. I know, I live it every day.

    Diversity and Inclusion conversations are complicated, uncomfortable, messy, subtle, confusing, and sometimes threating – – but the discussion is worth having. Industry can’t bury their heads and hope that Diversity marketing photos and finessing internal reports is going to move the needle. It hasn’t and it won’t. Diversity strategy must start with those in leadership who have the power to influence and implement change. I appreciate that we must all collectively participate wherever and however we can. A thousand tiny good deeds leads to massive change.

  6. Patrick Duffy says:

    President LeBlanc–

    Paul–An inspiring message that will resonate throughout the University, and make us all proud to be a member of your team. Thank you.

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