Project Inclusion: A Conversation With The President

July 9, 2018
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Last year WPI initiated Project Inclusion, a three-year process of examining how the university approaches diversity, inclusion, and equity, and how it is incorporating those ideals into its strategic plan. Project Inclusion examines what the university is doing and how it can improve, and ensures that the proper initiatives are established so changes result in long-lasting impact. President Laurie Leshin and Michelle Jones-Johnson, vice president for talent & inclusion and chief diversity officer, recently spoke about Project Inclusion’s goals and how each member of the WPI community plays an essential role in its success.

LL Michelle, let’s talk about a subject that’s very near and dear to my heart—diversity and inclusion—and the enormous undertaking we’re calling Project Inclusion.

To fill our readers in, Project Inclusion is all about making WPI a place where everyone can thrive. Of course, everybody knows we’ve been working hard on our gender parity numbers. We had the most women ever in the recent first-year class, and we’ve been hiring excellent and diverse faculty. However, Project Inclusion is about something bigger than just the numbers. What can you tell us about it?

MJJ It is absolutely more than just the numbers. Project Inclusion is a three-year initiative to bring together our community stakeholders to help us assess where we are as a community in terms of diversity, inclusion, and equity.

The beauty of Product Inclusion is that it isn’t just someone from the top saying, “Here’s our plan.” It’s how WPI will move toward the impactful and meaningful goal of a more inclusive community.

LL Tell us about the work involved in Project Inclusion.

MJJ Our first step was working with external facilitators to understand where we are as a community on these issues and to help us determine that we were indeed ready to engage in this work as a community. Next, we put together a great steering committee, which includes [HUA professor] Peter Hansen and [internal liaison for diversity and inclusion] Bonnie Walker. The extended committee was then able to come together and really think about the six dimensions of this effort: WPI’s philosophy and mission; faculty and student support; staff engagement and involvement; work around curriculum and research; administration; and leadership.

LL What has the steering committee been working on? I know the first part is the assessment phase, but that’s not the problem-solving phase, right? It’s hard because we always want to jump in and fix it right now.

MJJ Exactly. We’re using the data we have in each of those dimensions and a rubric that outlines the criteria to assess where we are on that continuum. But, the process takes time. Individual steering committees for each dimension have formed and have looked at data related to that particular rubric. And we’ve just finished our mid-year updates.

The thing I love about Project Inclusion is how truly inclusive the process is—it really does speak to people across the entire campus. But it’s challenging. Sometimes we learn things that are difficult to hear, but that need to be said. In addition, I’ve been very impressed with the group and how they’ve taken this on as a huge opportunity for our community. They’re asking, “How do you feel about what’s going on?” and “Where are we headed?” Those are such important questions to ask.

The beauty of the approach we’re taking is that there’s a lot of discussion, a lot of understanding, and a lot of influence on how we think through things. Even disagreements within a committee means we have meaningful conversations with each other around making sure people are heard. We ask, “How do we make sure we keep moving forward? How do we deal with dynamics that may be occurring in those groups and still stay committed to the goal?”

I think it’s going really well. We’ve brought together a group of people who are passionate about this issue and passionate about making cultural and structural change in the institution.

This process is so valuable because we are the ones holding up a mirror to ourselves. Ultimately, the changes we need to make us as inclusive a community as we can be are up to all of us. We have to take the time to do this right. Like any complex organization, our challenges took a long time to create, and they’re going to take time, and dedication, to solve.

LL So each of us in our community now has the opportunity and accountability for making sure this work gets done. And the committee will continue to work on Project Inclusion’s goals that are so important for the university.  After so much thoughtful work, it’s going to be great for WPI.

MJJ I think so too!

Conversation with the President - Summer 2018

First published in WPI Journal, Summer 2018 edition

 

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