In late November, Sara Sanders, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Liz Mendez-Shannon, CLAS DEI director, and Liz Tovar, executive officer and associate vice president of the UI Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, gathered at Wild Bill’s Workshop in the School of Social Work to discuss unity and belonging—and how these spaces can help the college and UI make progress on DEI issues.
Below are highlights from the conversation, edited for clarity.
How do you define unity and belonging?
Tovar: At the University of Iowa, we have many different people with different perspectives on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our campaign, Journey to Unity, lets people own that space for what DEI means to them. As an institution, we need to become more unified through dialogue, allow people to be authentic, and define DEI in the broadest sense possible—to welcome more people to the table.
Mendez-Shannon: The many ways we experience unity, and how we are welcomed, are important to how we experience belonging. Unity and belonging can mean different things to different people, including in CLAS, where we have numerous departments, voices, and cultures.
Sanders: Part of what I’ve always appreciated about unity is that it is less about the national dialogue and more about how we create a community here—how we have everyone come to the table.
Mendez-Shannon: The opportunity to build trust is to meet people where they are. That is key to how we create change in inclusivity or unity.
Tovar: CLAS is examining DEI at the department level, which is critical. Competitive salaries and opportunities for advancement are important, but so is culture in retaining our faculty and staff. We need to understand what our culture needs to thrive.
Mendez-Shannon: What is our role in creating that culture? How do we take that, and hold that, and hold ourselves accountable?
What are some of the challenges we face as we pursue unity and belonging in CLAS?
Sanders: So far, much of our work in CLAS has focused on instructors and the hiring of you [Liz Mendez Shannon]. The significance of your hiring cannot be understated. In terms of challenges, we serve most of the undergraduates on campus. If we want to expand awareness and willingness to walk into a space of belonging, community, and DEI—we must meet individuals where they are. How do we recognize that while also promoting an inclusive environment? That’s difficult.
Mendez-Shannon: I feel like because our college is so large, it’s the heart of how we can model these approaches, action steps, and our accomplishments.
Sanders: Our general education curriculum is also critical as it opens the doors for students to start challenging thoughts. Representation in our college around these issues is important. DEI work also looks different across departments. How do we support a scientist vs. a dancer? It’s different.
How will CLAS use its strategic plan, data, and DEI committee to move us forward?
Sanders: Last year, CLAS collected departmental data around DEI committees, strategic plans, and mentoring programs. As an institution, we need to consider recruitment. There is a huge push to recruit students and faculty who are URM or first-gen. Does that on its own address or minimize DEI issues? It worries me when the goal is numbers vs. what it means to be inclusive.
Tovar: I agree with you. And to your point, Sara, retention is a huge issue. We see retention as our best recruiting tool. What I love about the CLAS strategic plan is that it is concise and to the point.
Mendez-Shannon: CLAS DEI Committee has three working groups focused on mentoring, a DEI toolkit for instructors, and an equity audit. We have our data and our action steps, so we can dive in. I hope I can provide guidance so everyone’s lens and experiences are at the table. This is why I’m here and I’m excited about it.
Sanders: Because CLAS is so big, we must also think about how we build belonging and community. As a leadership team, we’re honing in on this through engagements like research dinners, women's leadership meals, and our faculty and staff newsletter. We’ve restructured the Dean’s Office and are meeting with every faculty member. We want our people to know their work matters and is recognized.
Tovar: Numbers are so critical, but in the DEI space, it is hard to measure. I don’t want to take anecdotal information for granted because it’s powerful. To your point on access—a lot of people do not have access to someone in your position [Sara]. I commend that work. That’s a part of improving culture.
Mendez-Shannon: DEI metrics appear on paper as a liner process, or a checklist, or a one and done, which it is not. That is the beauty of us being able to talk about this. It is really the experience you offer, that accessibility to power and privilege, and the opportunity to feel heard. That is the key.
Sanders: Part of this is also about acknowledging concerns. There is nothing more silencing than when you’ve had an experience and it is ignored.
Tovar: There are simple things we can do that make a difference, like reaching out and calling. I know one of your strategies in the CLAS Strategic Plan is around mentoring—this is key.
Sanders: Also, when it comes to issues of DEI, sometimes risk or fear get in the way of doing the right thing. You must be willing to be bold. That boldness may ruffle a few feathers or cause people to raise eyebrows—but you must have values.
Mendez-Shannon: Some may see this as business as usual, but it’s not. It’s about being authentic and accountable for what we as individuals say and do.
Sanders: In terms of DEI, we are moving from a strengths-based perspective. It won’t happen overnight, but we must think about how we get to where we want to be thoughtfully and strategically. We don’t want to unintentionally misstep, because that can cost progress.
Tovar: I want to emphasize just how big of a deal your hiring [Liz Mendez-Shannon] is—it is huge. I appreciate your engagement with DEI leaders across the university and your willingness to partner. You both are doing a really nice job. This starts with leadership, we need the right leaders in the right places to make things happen.