1 Introduction

Creating a more inclusive institutional culture is not a simple matter of implementing a few new policies. It requires a deep understanding of the existing culture and how systemic bias and other forms of inequity are manifest across the organization. Any approach must be data-driven but at the same time recognize the uses and limitations of that data; it must also encourage broad participation across the institution. For this to happen, clarity and consistency of communication is key, with communication being understood as bidirectional. Addressing inclusivity is complex; it necessitates assembling groups of individuals with specific areas of expertise who then must be organized into an effective structure for sharing knowledge that will generate new organizational processes.

The initial role of teams of experts is visioning—creating a cohesive view of what the “transformed” institution will look like, what changes will be needed (and, just as importantly, what changes will not be needed), how change can be implemented, and a flexible approach to implementation. It is frustrating but true that there is no definitive roadmap to follow and the desire to discover the “correct” path may hobble or derail potentially successful programs and/or undermine core goals. Central to sustaining organizational structures is the willingness and ability to assess the impact of initiatives and abandon those that don’t work. The core vision should not be merely aspirational, but strategic, focused, and doable. Leaders of the organization must visibly participate in shaping and coordinating these efforts.

2 The Role and Importance of Leadership

Leadership can refer to those in a position of power who control resources; it can also refer to those deeply committed to institutional transformation. Both types of leadership are essential to achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Leaders of transformation can be distinct from leaders of the organization, but they must work closely together. Those leading organizations may be driven primarily by loyalty to the organization, which is not necessarily a bad thing unless transformation efforts are perceived as threatening or undermining that loyalty. For example, academic institutions are commonly thought to be meritocratic, and some members will view efforts to make the institution more inclusive—expanding the definition of merit, or defining merit in new ways, for example—as a threat to the notion of meritocracy itself. There is no necessary conflict between loyalty and equity, but it is important to be clear on this point and to nurture cooperation between those loyal to the organization as it is and those passionate about change.

2.1 Organizational Leadership

Institutional transformation efforts will fall short if not supported at all levels of administration and leadership. Efforts must bear the hallmarks of sincere commitment and not the appearance of chasing resources, championing the “cause du jour,” or wanting to seem current by copying what other organizations are doing. In addition, the commitment should have clear goals and parameters—what is to be accomplished? Is change aspirational or realistic and achievable? Moreover, the commitment of leadership needs to be visible across the community. Visibility can be underscored by allocating needed resources to accomplish goals but also by devoting time and energy—are leaders themselves willing to do the work, or, is change something merely assigned to others to address? At the same time, the labor expended by leaders who are rank-and-file faculty rather than administrators must be recognized and compensated—indeed, this is an aspect of the “needed resources” mentioned above.

Institutional leaders play a vital role in establishing goals and expectations. They serve as stewards for others involved by asking questions such as: What are we trying to do? Are our goals realistic? What are the metrics of success? What is expected of those leading the transformation? What is expected of organizational leadership? What is expected of the community? What is the plan for sustaining the efforts of all involved (especially important if the process is driven initially by external funding sources that are finite)?

Institutional leaders must understand the issues and magnitude of the task of addressing systemic bias and inequity. What should be done in the context of existing organizational culture? How do circumstances/local culture differ across the organization/campus? They need to demonstrate a clear knowledge of the issues, make the case for change, and not mandate behavioral changes they are unwilling to undertake themselves. Leaders in administrative roles will field many competing demands for resources for this or that other initiative; they must be able not only to articulate the foundational importance and benefit of achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion but also to defend its priority. They must be aware of potential conflict between those loyal to existing institutional practices and those embracing equity through change. In academic institutions, the goal is to make the meritocracy more equitable, not replace it. Messaging on this point is critical.

2.2 Assembly of Expertise

Expertise with respect to institutional transformation may or may not overlap the expertise of incumbent organizational leadership, but overlap is not essential. Developing a plan of action to address inequity may be better lead by experts in specific areas. Our own organizational structure required such targeted expertise.

First and foremost, the experts recruited must embody and embrace the vision and goals of the process and respect the expertise of others in order to forge a working team or network. Experts in the disciplines that routinely study systemic bias in the workplace (or forms of social inequality more generally) may be natural allies and/or collaborators. In our case, we worked with faculty in the social sciences (notably sociology and psychology), humanities, and education. Experts in organizational processes and culture should be involved, as should experts in data analysis and survey research. The latter, especially, can help make a data-driven case for change and assess the impact of change. Members of historically marginalized groups who have navigated organizations presumed to be meritocratic are also key participants, as they may have the clearest view of the systemic issues at stake. In the context of higher education, it is important for these experts, like other leaders, to underscore the difference between meritocracies based on exclusive (narrow) versus inclusive (expansive) criteria. The culture that has built up around most academic meritocracies is problematic, not the concept of meritocracy or accomplishment per se. Finally, the assembled experts should be broadly representative and include diverse, intersectional voices and perspectives.

3 Communication

Terms like “systemic bias”, “inequity” and “inequality” have been widely used but at the same time are poorly understood outside of the academic disciplines that specialize in studying them. Yet explanations may be steeped in inaccessible disciplinary language, making general understanding of what is needed to create a more equitable and inclusive institution murky to a more general community. At worst, terms may be misunderstood and stymie progress. Clear, consistent, and accurate communication, rooted in empirical data, is crucial for securing widespread support.

The goal of any communication strategy should be establishing trust by reaching out to the entire community and listening to questions and concerns; do not expect others to come to you to learn factual information. Making the case for change is but one step; another is to operationalize what is meant by “change” and how it will be achieved. What steps will you take and how will you know if they have the desired outcome? A plan for regular updates to the community/campus and opportunities for input should be built into any communication strategy. As well, communication strategies should appreciate the different ways in which people access information. Organizational norms governing electronic communication should be incorporated into any strategic plan for sharing information about on-going efforts. Different stakeholders are best engaged by different messaging approaches, in terms of message content, frequency, and origin-point. For example, in an academic environment, image-rich social media platforms may be most useful for reaching student stakeholders, while emails with links to relevant webpages and shared online resources may be most useful for reaching faculty.

A vital component of any communication stream is that it be open to feedback (including criticism) commentary, and differences in opinion among the target community. Communication works best as a two-way street. Criticisms deserve to be heard and should be discussed with all transformation team leaders to ensure broad transparency as well as informed, courteous, and substantive responses. In complex, hierarchical organizations such as universities, institutional transformation can only succeed if the specific concerns of stakeholders at various levels of the hierarchy, with different experiences of the organization, are heard and understood by the entire leadership transformation team. Seek information about who will and will not support change, what makes easy or hard, and where points of resistance originate. Consistent, effective messaging that actively addresses criticisms can only happen if the leadership team is appropriately diverse and includes individuals who have experience with the organizational units/cultures from which criticisms emerge.

In addition to criticisms, which may be proffered unprompted from concerned individuals and groups, general surveys of participants in trainings, workshops, symposia, and other events are invaluable in terms of defining the success of communication efforts and gathering a representative range of feedback (negative, neutral, and positive). The results of surveys should be shared with participants in a timely manner and regular updates on overall progress are important for engaging stakeholders in the on-going work of organizational transformation. Frequency of communication should be carefully considered—both too much and too little will be counterproductive to community engagement. It isn’t necessary for everyone to read every communication, but make an effort to ensure that you reach a critical mass of people in each stakeholder group, so that information can diffuse uniformly across the organization. This is one way to recognize and cultivate “local expertise” in a communication strategy.

Finally, the communication strategy should make clear who is speaking and on behalf of which initiative, constituents, or program. To establish trust, transparency, and legitimacy, individuals should be visible and named, not hidden behind unattributed messaging. There will be community members who disagree with the disciplinary experts, for a variety of reasons. For example, unconscious or implicit bias can be a challenging concept to accept, as the differences between conscious and unconscious learning and their interaction are not widely known. Likewise, many academics, especially in STEM, may not understand the differences between attitudinal, interactional, and structural inequality, believing that racism or sexism is merely a matter of attitude and/or behavior. A critical component of any transformational process is peer-to-peer learning and creating a broader knowledge and understanding of the barriers to inclusion across the community. Anyone who is content to dismiss others because “they just don’t get it” should not be part of the communication process. Public conversations and formal messaging should never dismiss alternative views, but rather welcome and discuss them in light of the overall vision for change. Prioritize constructive dialogue first and foremost in any communication plan.

4 The Importance of Organizational Structure

Addressing systemic bias through institutional transformation is a complex process. Leaders of the organization and leaders of transformation must come together as a core team and take responsibility for delegation, coordination, communication, implementation (action), and evaluation. They must identify appropriate colleagues to form working groups (subgroups, or sub-teams), of experts that can communicate strategies and outcomes to the broader community. Time is precious and must be used effectively, particularly when there are many moving parts requiring coordination, making clear timelines indispensable to a strategic plan. Since different working groups each have their own arenas of expertise, they need to learn from each other, meaning they have to be able share information and provide feedback across groups. Sub-teams also need access to data and data assessment. All this requires clear channels and processes of communication as well as transparent reporting structures. To facilitate cross-team interaction, we developed a multi-pronged organizational structure tied to the goals of the ADVANCE initiative.

4.1 The UC Davis Advance Program Components

As stated in our application: The UCD ADVANCE program is rooted in the premise that a multiplicity of perspectives derived from both gender and cultural diversity can increase our institution’s contributions to STEM research by seizing the advantages that a heterogeneous group of talented individuals can bring to problem-definition and problem-solving. More simply, this means that problems are more creatively defined, analyzed, and solved when a diversity of perspectives are sought, respected, and included. Although our focus has been on inclusion in STEM fields and professions, the approaches we took are applicable to other fields and organizations. Figure 1 shows the sub-goals of the ADVANCE program.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Goals of UC Davis ADVANCE

4.2 The ADVANCE Initiatives

As shown in Fig. 2, the ADVANCE award funded a five-year program with five interlocking initiatives: (1) Social Sciences Research, (2) Mentorship and Networking (3) Inclusive Campus Climate, (4) Policy and Practices Review, and (5) the Center for Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives on Science (CAMPOS) (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2
figure 2

Organization of the ADVANCE grant initiatives

The Social Sciences Research Initiative (SSRI) focused on analyzing the experiences of Latina scholars in academia. The SSRI team interviewed a sample of Latina STEM scholars across the U.S., including the recipients of the prestigious President’s Postdoctoral Fellowships awarded by the Office of the President of the University of California. Many of these scholars went on to highly successful careers in academia, although not without overcoming significant barriers. The aim of the SSRI was to document the women’s experiences of adversity and resilience in order to inform the other DEI initiatives (here and at other universities). Simultaneously, we launched the Mentorship and Networking and Inclusive Campus Climate initiatives, which relied heavily on known successful strategies for creating a more inclusive workplace for women in STEM. The Policy and Practices Initiative (PPRI) was formed to assess the level of existing institutionalized bias against underrepresented faculty, particularly in faculty evaluation, as tradition and inertia can solidify norms and practices that perpetuate bias.

Our boldest and most innovative initiative was the founding of CAMPOS. The vision for the Center was two-fold. We aimed first to provide a community of support for individuals from historically underrepresented groups—or “excluded identities,” as we came to think of them—and second, to showcase the role of multicultural perspectives in STEM fields. Scientists often assume that the scientific enterprise is objective and value-free, “uncontaminated” by the perspectives and experiences of its individual practitioners. This is, of course, untrue—how one views the world influences how one studies the world, including what questions get asked, the urgency attached to those questions, and in the ways the answers are valued or deemed significant. Academic Search Committees nominated CAMPOS scholars based on their potential to bring multi-cultural perspectives to STEM, their demonstrated commitment to DEI teaching, research, outreach, and their expressed desire to contribute to a diverse, equitable and inclusive research community.

The organizational structure for the initiatives engaged many people—approximately 80 (Fig. 3). It enabled both faculty and administrators to be informed of and included in all activities of ADVANCE, and this broad ownership of the program, combined with transparent communication, facilitated its success.

Fig. 3
figure 3

ADVANCE leadership organization

5 Lessons Learned

Even the best laid organizational plans have limitations and confront roadblocks. Key challenges include getting everyone on the same page with respect to the need for change and the process of change. Debate is desirable, but not to the extent that it prevents action. When bringing together sub-teams of experts, articulate a clear decision-making structure for moving ahead when there is disagreement between sub-teams in order to prevent conflicts before they arise. Organizational leaders are best-positioned to do this, because they are part of the broader effort but not embedded in a specific sub-team. Consensus, not unanimity, should precede action. Time taken to work on effective communication strategies, team building, and communal learning is time well spent. Realtime evaluation of all three interventions is also important, and will benefit from tools such as team retreats, surveys, and mandatory or expected participation. Choice of sub-team leaders matters as does the need to refresh leadership. At the same time, remember that challenges are inevitable because they arise from the work being done by human beings with different personalities, perspectives, and experiences.

5.1 Challenges of Resource Allocation

In large organizations, a perennial problem is that individuals may chase resources provided by a program without commitment to its actual goals. Further, such individuals may assume—perhaps quite vocally—that other share a similar absence of genuine commitment, which is demotivating and potentially alarming. It is vital for organizational and team leaders to monitor and counter misinformation regarding resource allocation in order to maintain morale and ensure that sub-teams can focus on project goals. Effective organizational leaders are astute communicators who provide needed resources for change without centering the transformation process on the provision of resources; rather, the emphasis is on overarching goals and outcomes—in our case, a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive institution.

5.2 Challenges of Learning

Another challenge is the need to forge a universal understanding of the barriers to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Learning opportunities for the community are important, but hard to implement on a “one process serves all” basis. Best practices for defining learning outcomes, developing materials for internal and external distribution, and building repositories of project information (e. g. websites, shared folders with various levels of stakeholder access) should be delineated by the team before sub-teams begin sharing information broadly. Because people have varying levels of understanding of, and experience with, barriers to DEI, it is critical that leaders develop (1) agreed upon terminology, (2) phrases that accurately describe institutional challenges, and (3) a common understanding of the link between project goals and activities. Aside from a shared theory of change, graphic depictions/road maps for sub-team activities and their interrelatedness are useful tools to get everyone on the same page.

Managing learning situations so that individuals without experience of (or belief in) systemic bias do not dismiss those with such experiences and beliefs is essential but challenging. Maintaining respect for different perspectives can also be challenging. Team members tasked with educating internal and external stakeholders on foundational knowledge of DEI issues, project goals, and related organizational data must navigate a myriad of responses to content and be prepared to navigate varying degrees of understanding and support. Stakeholder training workshops and public presentations should be informed by peer-reviewed literature and focus on data-driven analyses, not opinion. Even so, we have seen data-driven peer-reviewed studies dismissed as opinion by audience members who disagree with the conclusions but offer no counter empirical evidence of their own. Some terms have different meanings to different people; be aware of this when trying to secure buy-in or reach consensus. If people are misunderstanding, find another way to explain the process, situation, or phenomenon. Never dismiss someone as “unable to get it.” Approach learning from a community perspective, not from a “blame-game” perspective in which only certain individuals or groups are deemed responsible for systemic bias (or, conversely, only certain individuals or groups are capable of recognizing and “fixing” it).

5.3 Challenges of Engagement

People get bored even if the issue at hand is significant. It isn’t easy keeping a large group of people committed to change and the process of achieving it. Periodically reporting out successes is invaluable for maintaining engagement, as is seeing positive returns on investments of time. We have found that people are not seeking rewards or pats on the back so much as real progress toward goals. Having rigid timelines for progress can backfire if it looks like progress has stalled. It is important that all involved understand the nature and magnitude of institutional transformation, and that, consequently, there is no easy fix. Also, a plan to renew committees and term limits for team members can serve to “refresh the engagement” as well as broaden the base of ideas and human energy from which to draw. For those with limited time to invest, it’s challenging to maintain commitment to a difficult process. Team turnover is not necessarily a bad thing if is it factored into the organizational structure. The timing, length, and frequency of internal and external meetings/events should be frequent enough generate meaningful participation, decision making, and continuity of purpose but not so frequent that participants burn out or cannot participate due to other demands on their time. Topics must actually be tackled, and genuine progress made on the collective agenda. Since advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion is a process of collective problem-solving, focusing on one sub-issue or initiative (getting it launched or resolved, for example), can be more productive than constantly shifting priorities.

5.4 The Challenge of “Non-spokespeople”

As learning and awareness grow within the community, individuals emerge who think they “get it” and can be spokespersons for the “cause.” They are often motivated by enthusiasm for the vision and prospect of a more equitable future based on genuine equality. However, they may lack knowledge of the details of sub-team projects and activities, including their outcomes and assessments, so their messaging may “drift” from core goals or disseminate misinformation. A constant stream of accurate information should be part of any communication strategy. Misrepresentation should be corrected as quickly as possible. For example, even though the “M” in our CAMPOS initiative stood for “multicultural,” many assumed that, because the SSRI was focused on Latinas as a target population, multicultural meant “Latina.” CAMPOS scholars who were not Latina were often asked why they were affiliated with the Center. Clearly, we needed to better communicate that while ADVANCE goals began with Latinas, they expanded over time to include a range of historically underrepresented groups, identities, and perspectives.

5.5 Challenges of Leadership Integration

As we have emphasized, organizational leaders may not have the same expertise as transformation leaders, yet they must form a team and cooperate on goals, especially regarding resource allocation and management, as well as expected programmatic and initiative outcomes. Never assume that an organizational unit or specific group of stakeholders knows something or ought to know something. Communication should be ongoing, broad, dynamic, and evaluated. We periodically surveyed administrators about their knowledge of ADVANCE initiatives and objectives in order to vet and improve communication strategies. It is imperative to be clear about who has final decision-making authority for particular issues in different academic units. In a model that recognizes different spheres of influence within the organization, leadership of specific initiatives or programs will fluctuate. In such a distributed model, there are three types of roles—leaders, participants, and interested sideliners—depending on the topic or issue at hand. The people filling these roles change as the topic or issue changes, as does the salience of any given role; ensuring seamless team transitions can go a long way in advancing project goals.

5.6 Challenges of Management

In complex organizations, responsibility for addressing matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion is often distributed across units, with each local unit having its own parallel group or program. It is daunting to navigate an institutional landscape in which different “helping” programs from different layers of the campus (student clubs, departments, colleges/schools, central administration) are targeting different stakeholders (students, staff, faculty, community) using limited resources and requiring collective attention. Get everyone on the same page early on to make sure goals are fully aligned/understood in order to create a collective vision and agenda for transformation. Campus-wide strategic planning toward a common agenda can be time-consuming but worth the effort (see Fuco & Lockhart, 2018).

5.7 Challenges of Sustainability

Another major challenge of institutional transformation is how to sustain progress given the magnitude of the problem of addressing systemic bias and other barriers to inclusion. As the term clearly implies, systemic bias is systemic—it is everywhere within the institution. Yet organizational leaders have many, pressing, often competing, priorities and may ease up on or sideline the commitment to DEI as a result, intentionally or unintentionally. Since bias is systemic, efforts to address it must also become systemic and not solely dependent upon the continued focus of organizational or unit leaders. Commitment must extend from individuals to the community as a whole, with defined mechanisms of transparency and accountability for sustainability.

In the case of the UCD ADVANCE program, successfully sustaining DEI efforts has required and will continue to require significant institutional resources; it also required integrating grant-funded activities into permanent administrative units having oversight of academic affairs and DEI issues. It is essential to develop a “sustainability roadmap” for organizational leaders which clearly delineates the minimum requirements for personnel and financial resource-allocations to support project sustainability. From the outset, project managers will need to keep careful records that include “in-kind” contributions as well as “budget line item” support in order to paint an accurate picture of what is needed to sustain project momentum through leadership changes or other significant organizational restructuring.

6 Broadening This Process to Other Types of Organizations

The organizational efforts and processes used to initiate and sustain institutional transformation as described here were designed for our own community—a research-intensive university within a system of higher education. However, the logic of the organizational structure we propose is more broadly applicable. Many organizations operate as meritocracies where accomplishment and advancement are linked and where assessment of individual merit may be exclusive rather than inclusive. Although many organizations do not have disciplinary expertise on DEI issues, there are plenty of people and resources to help develop organizational vision, goals, and strategies.

Most organizations likely contain internal expertise on local culture as well as individuals who feel marginalized within the organization. Respect their experiences and perspectives. Implementing hiring practices with the sole goal of increasing diversity and assuming that diversity will automatically lead to inclusion is problematic, and the same goes for retention and promotion practices; a deeper effort to understand the forces blocking inclusivity is vital. How is “merit” being defined—of what does it consist? How is it being measured? If teamwork is expected, who assesses merit for individuals on the team? Are certain voices routinely silenced? Are certain perspectives routinely ignored? Often those within the organization deeply familiar with organizational culture will have the best suggestions for modifying it. Moreover, know that vetted processes designed to encourage broad engagement of the workforce as well as equitable hiring and promotion practices exist and can be customized for local implementation.

Having a clear and transparent communication strategy that articulates the goal of inclusiveness is as important for non-academic as for academic institutions. Maintaining commitment and focus is a substantial but not insurmountable challenge.

7 Conclusions

Institutional transformation is complex and requires an engaged leadership committed to the task. Given the magnitude of the issues being addressed, commitment to sustainability must be imbedded within the community. Communication is critical—it must be done well, often, and responsively. The vision for change must be more than an aspirational goal, but one that is achievable by the organization or institution in a timely manner.

Generic Recipe for Institutional Transformation—Inspire and build Your Team!

  1. (1)

    For organizational leaders:

    1. a.

      Understand DEI issues on a deep level/have access to accurate institutional data and its context in comparison to similar institutions

    2. b.

      Commit to the needed resource allocations and communication strategies when faced with competing priorities

    3. c.

      Be comfortable mediating conflicts that may arise between project sub-teams and organizational stakeholders.

  2. (2)

    For the transformation team composed of action-oriented subgroups led by respected colleagues:

    1. a.

      Have expertise in critical knowledge domains

      1. i.

        Institutional data collection, analysis and evaluation

      2. ii.

        Project management and strategic communications

      3. iii.

        Finance/resource allocation management

      4. iv.

        DEI disciplinary expertise (e.g., health sciences, social sciences, cultural studies)

      5. v.

        Local context and its DEI challenges/existing institutional resources.

    2. b.

      Engage representatives from key internal stakeholder groups/organizational units

      1. i.

        Internal advisory board/unit leaders (e.g., deans and department chairs)

      2. ii.

        Sub-team leaders and members (e.g., faculty and staff engaged in DEI work and/or representing organizational units).

    3. c.

      Partner with stakeholders and collaborators external to the organization

      1. i.

        External project evaluator

      2. ii.

        External advisory board composed of DEI experts

      3. iii.

        Community members (e.g., regional groups with an interest in DEI activity at the institution)

      4. iv.

        Traditional and social media

      5. v.

        Funding agencies and philanthropic groups supporting DEI efforts.

    4. d.

      Identify/collaborate with external funding agencies and philanthropic groups to achieve DEI research goals

      1. a.

        Support innovative perspectives in team science research

      2. b.

        Create projects to attract youth from underserved communities into higher education

      3. c.

        Explore minority supplements to existing funded research projects.