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Fostering Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Amidst Polarization and a Pandemic

by Sirley Carballo · Feb 28, 2022

The words "In Your Element with Ardis + Erin" and a play button with audio frequency lines and the Element451 logo

On Episode 13 of the In Your Element podcast, Marcus R. Langford, Dean of Students at the University of Oregon, sits down with hosts Erin Newton and Ardis Kadiu to chat about the biggest challenges facing student engagement in higher education as we enter year 3 of the pandemic. Together they tackle important topics such as:

  • How the pandemic has altered student engagement forever.
  • How to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion when there’s so much polarization in the world.
  • Keeping students engaged when attention is at a premium.
  • The one key piece of technology that’s at the top of the wishlist for Student Affairs professionals.
Listen to Episode 13 of the In Your Element Podcast here.
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We need to be better about really integrating student voice and student perspective in what it is that we are trying to do. I've come to the realization that my understanding and conception of what students want, need and are looking for is oftentimes very different than students' own conceptualizations of what they want, what they need and what they are looking for.
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Full Transcript of Episode 13

Marcus Langford:
If I'm talking about academic misconduct or if I'm talking about value in community and the value in cultivating an affinity for the institution, students will hear me say that. And although I can say it in a very authentic way, students will interpret that as, well, you're the Dean of Students, that's what you're supposed to say.

Erin Newton:
Welcome to In Your Element, a podcast on the Enrollify Podcast Network, brought to you by Element451, an advanced student engagement CRM, providing higher ed institutions with a competitive advantage from recruitment to enrollment and beyond. On each show, we ask five questions about current challenges, exciting opportunities, and what's next in higher education. I'm your co-host, Erin Newton. And along with Ardis Kadiu, we welcome University of Oregon Dean of Students, Marcus Langford. Diversity, equity and inclusion have been hot topics on campuses and throughout the world in recent years. So how have higher ed institutions evolved to make sure DEI is a priority both in enrollment and throughout the education process? That's what we'll be diving into today. For Marcus, his higher education path started in a pretty unusual way with him as a Miami of Ohio freshman, thinking of dropping out or transferring.

Marcus Langford:
I tell folks all the time that I went into that with nefarious purposes. My goal in my 18-year-old mind was to be an orientation leader and I was going to be the orientation leader that kept it real. Let everybody know that this place was okay, but it wasn't the greatest. So as you can imagine what happened, I applied, was miraculously accepted and had a fantastic experience. I got connected to that institution in a way that I previously had not been connected. Got connected to the faculty, got connected to the staff, got connected to other students and it radically shifted my perspective and experience.

Erin Newton:
Marcus stayed at Miami even through graduate school. He then went on to roles at Oregon State University, Rhodes College, University of Cincinnati, and ultimately the University of Oregon where he was named Dean of Students in July of 2021. To start our conversation, we asked Marcus how COVID has impacted enrollment.

Marcus Langford:
I think, one, it has forced us to think outside of the box. It's forced us to think bigger. It's forced us to think more broadly and it's forced us to move beyond these traditional notions of we've always done it this way, or getting students involved on campus always, or has to look like X, Y, or Z. So we're trying to engage students, but what does that really mean? Are we trying to help students cultivate connections? Are we trying to help students cultivate relationships? Are we trying to help students develop an affinity for or to this institution or place? So from my perspective, again, the pandemic has forced us to really think about and articulate what we mean when we say student engagement. It's not always about this notion of getting students together and showing a movie, or it's not always about getting students together and giving free pizza or giving a free T-shirt.

Marcus Langford:
Again, it's really forced us to think about what it is that we're trying to do. Then once we zero in on that, think about ways in which we can do that, that we historically haven't done. I would also say that the pandemic has really encouraged us to think about the necessity of leveraging digital platforms in terms of engaging students. That's something that I think students have been aware of and attuned to. But I would say, I don't know if we, as faculty and staff, have been as invested in that in the way that we probably should or could have. I think the pandemic has somewhat accelerated that as well.

Ardis Kadiu:
Marcus, one of the things that we try to define is this word engagement. And when it comes to student engagement, it can mean a lot of different things to different people. What does it mean to you and what does it mean to Oregon when you talk about student engagement?

Marcus Langford:
I'm going to go with Oregon first. I would say that I think that's a conversation that we are still having in pockets of the institution. I don't know if I am at a place right now where I can say that engagement at the University of Oregon means X, Y and Z. I think elements of engagement is around helping students develop and have an affinity for the institution. I think engagement includes helping students have a sense of belonging. I think engagement also includes opportunities where students can make connections to others. So those are, from my perspective, I think I would say three of the most critical pieces of engagement.

Ardis Kadiu:
So it's all about building relationships or strengthening those relationships?

Marcus Langford:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Erin Newton:
How do you foster diversity, equity and inclusion when there's so much polarization in the world and in higher ed?

Marcus Langford:
To be honest, I think that's something that we as institutions are still wrestling with. I think one of the things that I would say is, I think there is value in being exposed to multiple perspectives. I think one of the ways in which we support the advancement of diversity, equity and inclusion is to continue to think about the voices and the experiences that we are elevating and investing. So when we think about speakers and when we think about experiences that we bring to campus, and when we think about opportunities, ensuring that we are widening the Canon, if you will. So if I can lean on my English background for a little bit, oftentimes when we think about issues related to engagement or when we think about ways to help students be involved or engaged, in my experience, we typically do that from a very limited perspective.

Marcus Langford:
Research has shown us that oftentimes when institutions define what engagement looks like or what engagement means, I'll be pretty transparent that we do that from the perspective of what's good and what white male students typically do. I think part of the way of, one, helping more students be engaged, but then also enhancing issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion is to expand our Canon a little bit. So let's expand what engagement means and looks like for different groups of students. One of the ways we can do that, again, is to expand what our conceptualizations of engagement and diversity, equity and inclusion is. That's one of the ways in which I would say that we expand diversity, equity inclusion, is we try to add different experiences and different perspectives to some of the things that we're doing and some of the things that we're offering on campus.

Ardis Kadiu:
A lot of times we talk about DEI as being something that we need to include in everything that we do. But we all know that unless there is some guardrails that we put in place or there's initiatives that we put in place, it's very hard to change culture, to change outcomes. So a lot of institutions that we see, they have included DEI officers as part of their engagement or student affairs as part of their... So I guess that's where that question was coming about. Is there a trend in how DEI is included and embedded as part of your day to day, or as part of your business of student affairs, or maybe it was always there?

Marcus Langford:
What I would say is I think moving forward, we have been, and we do need to be more intentional about expanding access to our programs and expanding the scale and scope of our programs. In terms of integrating DEI into our work, conduct and community standards, for example, one of the things that we've been doing lately is we started to walk down this road of looking at, let's be honest, or let's look at why there is a disproportionate impact or disproportionate involvement of students of color in our conduct process. So what is it about our procedures or what is it about our interpretation or what is it about our application of the conduct code that gets us to a place where students of color are being more adversely impacted by our conduct process students?

Marcus Langford:
Another example is within our crisis intervention work. We have a group of folks who work with students who are in crisis. One of the things that we know is that all students experience some form of crisis at some point in their experience. But when we look at statistics, we're finding that historically, our students from underrepresented and historically marginalized identities typically avail themselves to our crisis support services at a smaller rate. Why is that? So when we know that all students experience crisis at some point, what is it about the overall design and/or implementation of our services that make them potentially less attractive to students from historically marginalized identities that may be our support? One of the things that we are looking forward to doing as we go into this year is we're creating programs where we are going to put crisis intervention staff at places across campus, where students from those populations are.

Marcus Langford:
We are going to move to a model where our crisis staff are now going to spend time at the Black Cultural Center. We're going to move to a model where some of our crisis staff are going to spend time at the multicultural center. We're going to move forward with ensuring that our crisis staff have time to work with and have some specific conversations with our coordinator of multicultural student success and engagement, and our coordinator of LGBT education and support. So those folks can inform the work that our crisis staff are doing, and in effort, again, to expand the range of their services. So I think those are just two ways that I would point to some of the work that we and the Dean of Students office at the University of Oregon are really trying to lean into conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion and how we can be better and more intentional about bringing that work into what we're doing on a daily basis.

Ardis Kadiu:
Yeah, that's really relevant. As we see it every day on the admissions side, as those underrepresented populations are the ones who need more handholding and need a little bit more... They tend to fall off the funnel or the process a lot faster than somebody who has a little bit more support, so that additional support and finding them. And with a pandemic, what's happening also is that support system on the high school level with the counselors and essentially being there in person, it's no longer there. So it's like, how do you get to them? If they're not physically in school, how do you get to those communities and how do you push them along?

Erin Newton:
It goes back to the engagement piece too, where maybe-

Ardis Kadiu:
Exactly.

Erin Newton:
... back in the day, we'd be like, okay, we're going to have an initiative and we're going to... This is what we're doing. But now it's, okay, now let's actually see, and also involving more data and actually what's going on rather than presuming why aren't these students availing of these resources? And then actually having a plan to do something and enacting that plan.

Marcus Langford:
I think one of the things that I would say we need to be better about within higher ed is really integrating student voice and student perspective in what it is that we are trying to do. I've come to the realization that my understanding and conception of what students want, need and are looking for is oftentimes very different than students' own conceptualizations of what they want, what they need and what they are looking for. So as a result of that, I feel that we, as institutions of higher education, really need to be more mindful and intentional about identifying and cultivating and integrating student voice and perspective into what it is that we are trying to do. I know one of the questions was around comments that I've made in the past about emails and students not reading emails.

Marcus Langford:
It's not necessarily that students don't read emails. I think it's two things that are connected to that. One, is I would say that we aren't finding ways to make what we're sending to students relevant to them. And if something is delivered in a way they can't ascertain its relevance quickly, it just gets pushed to the wayside. And then the second thing connected to my email [inaudible 00:15:49] is, we send oftentimes things that are entirely too text heavy. I think sometimes there is the reluctance to figure out how to scale some of that stuff down. Because again, in my mind, in our mind, it's, well, this is all important information and we need make sure that we get this out to students.

Marcus Langford:
I get that and I understand that, but when these students get these text [inaudible 00:16:22] and these text heavy emails, they just aren't going to pay attention to it. So again, how can we figure out ways to get this information to students in ways that's attractive, appealing, and relevant to them? Part of that, again, I go back to, we have to find ways to get students to help us think about what that can and should look like.

Ardis Kadiu:
Right student, right message, right time.

Marcus Langford:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). That's it, that's the trifecta. I think if you can get those things in alignment, that is what will get us from one place to another in terms of students either not knowing or not responding to what it is that we're trying to get them to know or to respond to.

Erin Newton:
The walls of text and the emails, that reminds me of the walls of text on websites and how it's just that immediate blocker. That engagement or just communicating is just all that much more difficult. People just tune out and being aware of that.

Ardis Kadiu:
Yeah. So, Marcus, what are you doing on your campus right now at Oregon to get in front of these students? We talked about some of the DEI initiatives that you're doing, but what's your favorite engagement channel with your students?

Marcus Langford:
I can't remember how often it goes out, but there's a message that goes out to students, but they've reframed it as [inaudible 00:18:04]. So instead of an email with all of the text, heavy things, it's been reformatted to where it's almost like the Twitter feed type things. So they've refocused and it's the headline and it's a couple of salient points. If you're interested, click on it and that takes you to something else where it gives you a little bit more detail. My understanding based on a conversation that I've had with some of our communications folks is our click rates and our open rates have been off the roof.

Marcus Langford:
I think another thing I'm pretty excited about, so I'll go back to conduct again. Students really don't get asked about thinking about the conduct code and academic dishonesty and whatnot. I've recently been in a conversation with some of our conduct staff and they are in the process of hiring. They hire a student to make TikToks and videos about some of these relevant things like the academic misconduct policy and whatnot. Yes, I can go on Twitter and I can have a TikTok and I can be on Instagram, but I would say the way in which I communicate if I was trying to talk about academic dishonesty, it just wouldn't hit the same as if we, again, hire a student to do that. So I think those are some of the approaches that we're trying to figure out how to do in a really meaningful and offensive way here at UO as well.

Erin Newton:
It reminds me of, Marcus, when you were talking about your approach when you were going to be working at admissions as a student, that it would be the real authentic that that just carries through, that that was what students want. There are some fundamentals, I think, of what people relate to.

Marcus Langford:
Yeah. I would say authenticity is really important. I consider myself a very authentic person, but I think authenticity and credibility, those are things that we need to think about whenever we are figuring out how to put messages in front of students. We all know, well, I say we all know. Unfortunately, I don't think it's a known quantity, but I would say in my experience, students see other students as credible, as more credible. So again, if I'm talking about academic misconduct, or if I'm talking about value in community and the value in cultivating an affinity for the institution, students will hear me say that. And although I can say it in a very authentic way, students will interpret that as, well, you're the Dean of Students. That's what you're supposed to say.

Marcus Langford:
So while my credit ability level may have been like a two, if another student says the same thing, the credibility factor or level, and I'm somewhat making these numbers up, but the credibility factor when another student says the exact same thing, it goes up to like a seven out of 10 or an eight out of 10. As opposed to like a two out of 10 when I say it, again, because as the Dean of Students, I'm delivering the [inaudible 00:21:33]. So I think those are things that we need to be mindful of as institutions. Again, when we think about what are these messages and how are they being delivered, I go back to, can we figure out ways to integrate student voice and student perspective and even student presence, and some of the things that we're trying to communicate?

Erin Newton:
How do you ensure that students reach their goals and the institution's goals?

Marcus Langford:
I think part of persistence is about helping students cultivate a sense of belonging. Students are more likely to persist when they feel like they belong at our institutions. So for me, persistence is really connected to helping student find ways to develop and have a sense of belonging. Like, yeah, we can help students fit in and we can help students connect. But for me, this notion of sense of belonging, that's a little deeper. So for me, I think persistence is connected to being intentional about cultivating ways for students to develop and really feel and experience a sense of belonging.

Marcus Langford:
Some of that will be around cultivating relationships with other students. Some of that will be around helping them develop a connection to the academic program or what it is that they're doing. I think figuring out what are some of the many ways that we can help students cultivate a sense of belonging, in my experience, if you're able to do that, that will have an absolute impact on persistence. Again, because students will want to come back and students will want to [inaudible 00:23:40] if they feel like they belong.

Ardis Kadiu:
How do you see mental health playing a role in that belonging currently, given that we've all gone remote? And how does that translate from being on campus, being in that stadium, everybody rooting, go ducks, and then now you go online, how does that transfer?

Marcus Langford:
So one of the things that we've been talking about is this notion of an ethic of care. I would say it's become a little more common for us to operate with grace and give folks a benefit of the doubt. Ardis, getting back to your point around mental health, there's been this increased focus on recognizing that we all are in this incredibly challenging and difficult place and that we all have a lot going on, weighing on our minds. So moving forward, part of the conversations that I've had is encouraging people to be mindful of how we can continue to operate within this ethic of care, even as we come back to campus. So let's be attuned to the fact that coming back to campus is going to mean different things for different folks.

Marcus Langford:
So, recognizing that it'll be on a spectrum. Some folks are going to be really, really excited and are going to be raring to go. But there are also folks who are going to be rightfully so, a little apprehensive and it's going to take some time for them to get back in the rhythm of being in all of these one on one meetings and constantly being in and out spaces and interacting with all of these different cases. I think at least for us at [inaudible 00:25:54], again, we've been having conversations of how can we continue to operate within this ethic of care, recognizing that folks are still going to be dealing with a number of issues as we try to establish and figure out what our new normal is going to be?

Erin Newton:
That was Marcus Langford, Dean of Students at the University of Oregon, which you can find at uoregon.edu. Follow Marcus on Twitter, where he's @MarcusRLangford. Thank you for listening to In Your Element, brought to you by Element451 and part of the Enrollify Podcast Network. You can find more about the Element451 student engagement CRM at element451.com. And if you like what you heard, please give us a rating and review, and follow along on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast. I'm Erin Newton, and we'll see you next time on In Your Element.

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