APU Business Careers & Learning Health & Fitness Podcast Politics in the Workplace

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Task Force: Enriching Corporate Culture

Podcast featuring Dr. Linda C. Ashar, J.D., Faculty Member, School of Business 
Caroline Simpson, Assistant Provost of Student and Alumni Services, American Public University System

Awareness of social injustices further escalated in the national consciousness in 2020. As a result, it became imperative that organizations assess their approach to issues related to equity and diversity. In this episode, APU business professor Linda Ashar talks to Caroline Simpson, Assistant Provost of Student and Alumni Services, about the creation of the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Task Force. Learn about the strategic goals of this task force, its university-wide reach to staff, faculty, and students, and the work being done to ensure it will have long-term effects on the university’s organizational culture.  

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Dr. Linda Ashar: Hello, everyone. This is Linda Ashar, your host for Politics in the Workplace. On this channel, we take a broad look at current legal and socio-cultural issues that inherently impact business management, employment and workplace relationships between employees and employer, and between employees and each other.

In this sense, the notion of politics is very much about any issue that can be the subject of conflict or debate among people, as well as things that they agree about. These are issues that arise in the workplace and about the workplace. Also, people bring broader life issues to the workplace.

So in our podcast discussions, we often discuss matters relating to differences and balance of power, but we also talk about what creates workplace harmony and pride of growth and productivity.

Today, I’m especially pleased to focus on the notion of harmony. My guest is Caroline Simpson, Assistant Provost of Student and Alumni Services at American Public University System. She will be talking with us about APU’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. Caroline came to APU in 2005 with a teaching background and obtained her Master’s in Management here in 2010.

In her role as assistant provost, Caroline oversees student and alumni affairs, career services, university events, student conduct and grievances and chaplain services for the university’s student and alumni community. This gives her a broad compass with the university, with students, faculty, and staff.

In addition, she is the co-chair of the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, which we will be referring to as the task force and serves as the Title IX coordinator and leads the Student Experience Redesign Project. So Caroline, it is my pleasure to welcome you today to talk about the task force. Thank you for joining us.

Caroline Simpson: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Well, it’s an exciting topic both because of what it’s all about and for APU. So, to start us off, tell us about the task force and how it came into being.

Caroline Simpson: Sure. APUS has always had a focus on the values around diversity, inclusion, accessibility. But it was back in mid-year 2020, around June, when we decided to become much more intentional with our goals around these values.

Start a Business degree at American Public University.

We created the task force after spending some time talking about how we could organize university efforts related to diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, et cetera. And it was as a result of what was going on across the U.S., globally—the events that led up to the murder of George Floyd, the focus on standing against racism and the social justice movements.

When we decided that we wanted to lean on our mission of offering programs and learning experiences that support a diverse and global society. But also to be, as I said, much more intentional with our work around these values and how we could accomplish our goals collaboratively across the entire institution.

Dr. Linda Ashar: You mentioned the mission. I brought up the mission statement. APU is proud of its mission and it is stated on our website. “The mission of American Public University System is to provide high-quality higher education with emphasis on educating the nation’s military and public service communities by offering respected, relevant, accessible, affordable, and student-focused online programs that prepare students for service and leadership in a diverse global society.”

There’s a lot packed into that statement. Can you reflect for us on the mission statement and how the task force expands and delivers from its goals, the mission for APU and the community?

Caroline Simpson: Sure. Yeah, we are a very mission-driven organization and we center our planning and our goals around our mission. We also have a vision statement that focuses on the university’s goal to advance social, economic and environmental well-being through the transformative power of education.

And both the mission and the vision connect to the work that we’re doing with the task force because there’s an opportunity and an obligation as an institution of higher ed, to be able to pull people together. People that come from different backgrounds, experiences, locations, et cetera, to be able to talk about equity, diversity, inclusion, belonging, and other similar values and topics.

Caroline Simpson: APUS is uniquely positioned to be able to encourage productive and welcoming conversations around this work because we have a large online student body that mirrors, in many cases, the demographic makeup of the United States. It’s not exactly a match, but it’s similar. If you look at the demographics of our student population, it’s not far off from the demographics across the United States.

So, what an opportunity to bring learners together from different geographic areas, backgrounds, experiences, professions, personal experiences, and have conversations that can help people unlearn behavior and ideals that aren’t acceptable, and relearn new behavior and ideals.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Who are the members of the task force besides yourself? I think you’re a co-chair, right?

Caroline Simpson: Yes. I’m a co-chair with my partner, Dr. Marie Gould Harper, and we have a small but mighty group, this is how I describe our task force. We intentionally work to keep the group relatively small in size so that we can stay pretty nimble, and take a divide and conquer approach.

We ask that people join the group who represent all different areas of the university. So we have faculty members, we have academic leaders and deans, program directors. We have staff members from student-facing teams like advising, military outreach; we have representation from Center for Teaching and Learning, human resources. Really, we have representation from across the entire organization.

And we’ve also worked to bring in students and alumni to the group. We have a small but well-represented group. And we take that divide and conquer approach, so we’ve set up a variety of subcommittees to be able to expand our work.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Okay. So on the committees, are those just people on the task force? Or do you bring some outside people in to help on committee work?

Caroline Simpson: We’ve actually had a lot of interest from across the entire university of people who want to get involved. And  it’s nice to be able to say that one of our biggest challenges has been too many volunteers, and how to set up a structure that allows everybody to be productive.

Dr. Linda Ashar: That’s not necessarily a bad problem.

Caroline Simpson: No, it’s a good problem to have. But we have been very thoughtful about how we want to set up the subcommittee formats so that we’re pulling in the people who have expressed an interest and a willingness to get involved.

But the task force members are the closest to the strategic work that we’re doing and the goals that we’re setting. And so, in most cases, we have a task force member who is leading the subcommittee, and then we’re able to pull in others from across the institution to be subcommittee members to help get the work done.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Let me turn your thoughts to goals. That’s been a word that you’ve used several times, appropriately. I assume, having been involved in this type of work myself, that the task force has in its strategic planning set up goals that it wants to achieve. Am I right in saying that?

Caroline Simpson: Yes.

Dr. Linda Ashar: What are the goals, if you can share them, that the task force has targeted?

Caroline Simpson: So when we started organizing our work mid-year 2020, we had nine original priorities. One of our nine priorities you’ll hear was the creation of a formal strategic plan, a long term strategic plan. So, in no particular order of priority, this is what the task force first set out to accomplish when we kicked off our work:

We wanted to help coordinate training for members of the university community to include faculty and staff. Now we have training that’s offered across the institution. It’s great. We’d recently completed it at the end of 2020. And we were working to create ongoing learning and conversations that build off of that self-paced online training that we offered.

Caroline Simpson:

  1. We also want to focus on communications, and an engagement strategy. And that is work that relates to internal constituents, faculty and staff members, but also our students and alumni.
  2. We wanted to be able to host various town halls and speaker series, and we have a few that are in the works right now. But we see that as an opportunity for people to come together and have those discussions that I referenced earlier, to share ideas, discuss different topics related to equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging.
  3. We want to create some content that we can share and post on the website. And this podcast is an example of an asset that we can share internally and externally to talk about the work that we’re doing and how other people can plug in and help.
  4. We want to do some self-assessment as well. And those self-assessments focus on the curriculum, the learning and the teaching that we’re offering;
  5. focus on our co-curricular programming; and
  6. general support services;
  7. And also focuses on our policies, student-related policies, academic policies;
  8.  And then also general kind of operational practices around how we operate as an organization, how we identify talent, how we support people while they’re here;
  9. And then the ninth goal was to draft a long-term strategy and plan to be reviewed by our university leadership and more broadly circulated, so that there’s awareness and support across the board.

Dr. Linda Ashar: That is a lot to work with. And it’s all excellent. So from those nine, then, specific goals were developed. And those are what?

Caroline Simpson: So those focus specifically on completing a comprehensive review or audit of all of our curriculum using a framework or a rubric that relates to equity, diversity and inclusion values. That rubric could be something that we find externally that’s known as a standard practice, perhaps one that we build off of or even create internally. And there’s a subcommittee that’s dedicated to that work.

We also have a goal focusing on the communication and engagement components that I mentioned, being able to host events and opportunities like town halls or panel discussions to be able to talk about these topics and the work that we’re doing around them, but also to identify opportunities to partner up with other institutions or organizations that have similar goals and values.

Then the third goal is very much in line with the curriculum-review process. We want to find or create a rubric or a framework that would allow us to dig deeper into our co-curricular programming and our support services for our students. To make sure that we are supporting the diverse student needs, that we are open and inclusive in terms of being involved in our programming, and that our support practices are relevant and helpful for our students.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Would an example of that be career services?

Caroline Simpson: Yep, that is an example that would be included under that goal. We also, in terms of our co-curricular programming, have a pretty robust student life section of our institutions, student organizations, clubs, groups, honor societies, et cetera. Making sure that we are including a diverse group of students and participants, making sure that the topics that we cover relate back to our diverse curriculum, that we are able to communicate opportunities to be involved in a way that reaches our entire population, doesn’t leave anybody out. Those are some examples of the review and the auditing, the self-assessment really, that we want to do around the co-curricular area.

Then we have a goal that focuses on training workshops and ongoing development, both for our faculty and staff and considering as part of the curriculum review subcommittee. If there are opportunities for us to build out our EDI-related curriculum within our programs in our schools, as well as making sure that we are promoting learning outcomes around equity, diversity and inclusion in all classrooms.

And then finally, reviewing current systems, policies, infrastructure, administrative practices, et cetera, to make sure that we have opportunities for continuous improvement as it relates to our equity, diversity and inclusion values.

And I’ll add, having just talked about our priorities and how they’ve been shaped into these specific long-term goals, they are ambitious. And we often remind ourselves and others across the university that we are a task force and not an office at this point.

But our goal, as a task force, from the very beginning has always been to set a foundation. Build a foundation that the institution can continue to grow from in terms of these specific topics and areas, but then over time, as well creating a shared commitment across all departments to this type of work.

So that we are able to emphasize that this is who we are and it’s part of our culture, ingrained into it, as opposed to a box that we can check when we’ve accomplished a certain deliverable.

Dr. Linda Ashar: All of this dovetails into that final goal, which is long-term strategic planning, which keeps it all going.

Caroline Simpson: Right.

Dr. Linda Ashar: This isn’t a task force that has a beginning and an end. Really, it’s an ongoing feature of the university’s culture as I’m hearing it.

Caroline Simpson: That’s our goal. And we are definitely open to considering the structure format purpose of the task force over time. We may get to a point where it’s no longer as effective. But right now, it’s a productive way for us to bring a group of people together who represent the entire institution, who are able to have a voice and participate in the creation of these goals and this foundational work, and then yes, I absolutely expect that it will continue to grow and shift and change over time.

Dr. Linda Ashar: So if it’s not called a task force, it’s going to be a component of the university’s structure.

Caroline Simpson: Sure.

Dr. Linda Ashar: This effort doesn’t really and can’t, have an end to it. This is an ongoing cultural development component of an organization. Our training doesn’t ever stop, for example.

Caroline Simpson: Right.

Dr. Linda Ashar: I do course development curriculum design as well as teaching. And we have a principle called “continuous improvement.” And I’m hearing in the goals that you’ve described for the task force, a continuous improvement aspect of the goals?

Caroline Simpson: Definitely, yes. We work to call that out specifically. But I also believe that because this work is ingrained in our mission, and because we are setting up a foundation that allows all areas of the institution to be involved, and to connect back what their teams specifically do to support our students to this work.

Also, because we have this built-in formally to our ongoing strategic planning process, whether there’s a task force in place or not, this is, and will continue to become, part of our organizational structure and culture. This is just who we are and how we operate. And it’s woven into all that we do.

Dr. Linda Ashar: That’s what my thoughts are. This isn’t something that’s new to APUS, but it’s a broadening of efforts and elevating efforts to a more aggressive approach to developing our corporate culture. And I think it’s wonderful.

Caroline Simpson: Yes, thank you.

Dr. Linda Ashar: You said this started as to the task force itself in mid-2020. And you mentioned the things that brought why this was a good idea to light. You mentioned several national events. We’re approaching almost a year that the task force has been developing its work. What are the specific accomplishments that you see the task force implementing for 2021?

Caroline Simpson: So for this year, we’re going to continue to build off of the work that we started in 2020. And that includes the creation of two additional subcommittees. I mentioned that we’ve created our, what I call, divide and conquer structure where we have the task force as a whole, but then we have some spin-off groups that we call subcommittees that are led by members of the task force, but also include other volunteers from across the university. And they allow us to dig deeper into these different topic areas.

So right now we have two subcommittees that exist. One focuses on curriculum, review and development, and one focuses on external partnerships and collaboration opportunities across other higher ed institutions and organizations in general. And those two groups really have hit the ground running and there’s great progress being made in those areas.

We are in the process of standing-up two additional subcommittees. One is going to focus on training and professional development, both for faculty members and staff members. And this is that focus area of being able to take the training that we’ve all completed and been offered and build on it, allow for some smaller group facilitated conversations with somebody who we would consider a subject matter expert, able to train and coach in this area. But we need to pull a group together to be able to help us get that off the ground. So that’s one objective for 2021. And looking forward to working with that subcommittee to make it happen.

And then our other subcommittee that we’d like to stand up, focuses on communication and engagement. And this is a broad area. I could see perhaps even more subcommittees being created as a spinoff from this work.

But one of the things that we’re aiming to do is to start and have conversations, both with faculty and staff in a training and learning and development environment, but also with students and alumni and all members of our university community, even outside of our university community. So that we can help people think about things in new and different ways and really promote the value of diversity of thought and how important that is to any environment. Whether it’s a learning environment or a professional environment, social environment, et cetera.

So this communication and engagement subcommittee is going to help us continue to host and offer activities and events that focus around that goal. We have one scheduled so far this year, it’s planned in March of 2021. And we would like to be able to replicate this format. It’s going to be a panel discussion with a keynote speaker who’ll be joining us.

And we’d like to be able to replicate this multiple times throughout 2021, perhaps quarterly. There’s other venues where we can host discussions and conversations with faculty, staff, students and alumni as well, like our provost town halls or our all-staff meetings. There’s a variety of opportunities for us to do this. But we’re aiming to create a subcommittee to help us make it happen.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Tell me about the panel discussion in March. Is that something that’s public or within the university?

It’s going to be public, and we’re really excited about this event. We are working with a group right now to finalize the invitations, the information, and the outreach around this effort. But this is an example of a partnership opportunity that APUS has with another college.

We are partnering with Rio Salado Community College on a number of academic initiatives, and we’ve also been able to partner with them on our equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging work. So we’ve discussed a number of ways to do this. And one thing that we’re excited to kick off is a speaker series.

And our first topic is going to be a panel discussion that includes students from APUS and from Rio Salado coming together in a moderated discussion from a member of our university and a keynote speaker, who’s considered a subject matter expert from another institution.

 We have an hour together. We’re going to be able to bring large student communities, student and alumni communities together in an online format from across the country and talk more about diversity of thought as a value that, as I said, applies to the higher ed environment and beyond.

And then also how the importance of belonging helps to shape an environment where people feel like they can grow and thrive and share and participate.

Dr. Linda Ashar: That sounds really exciting to me. So do you have an idea of how many of these we will host in collaboration or independently in 2021?

Caroline Simpson: Yeah. Our goal with Rio Salado is to host quarterly, a quarterly speaker series. So we’re doing our first one in March. And if all goes well and according to plan, we will have at least three more that we’re able to offer throughout 2021.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Will these be recorded so they can be replayed after the event by people that can access them?

Caroline Simpson: Yes, definitely. We will be able to host a large live audience; we will also be able to record the event and share it afterwards, and we’ve even talked about perhaps inviting some of our panelists and keynote speakers after each event to continue the conversation in a podcast format.

Dr. Linda Ashar: That would be excellent. And I think it’s an extremely important to have these discussions, because, first of all, it’s something that the university is doing across the board, and not just our university, but others as you mentioned. And we have the opportunity to energize the public, communities, our student body and ourselves with new ideas, new opportunities, that are positive, productive, and have empathy.

I recently did a podcast with a CEO of a prominent enterprise in a community. The subject was how they have dealt with COVID as a business. And in discussing that, a word that he kept using that struck me was “empathy.” And everything that you’re describing that’s part of the task force work, the same word comes to my mind, that that’s an important aspect of inculcating and embracing of diversity and inclusion as a corporate culture, rather than a box that you check. Does that make sense?

Caroline Simpson: It does. Yes, we’ve worked hard to make sure that our work is authentic, and that it is true to who we are and how we operate. And that builds off of what we believe in and these values and how they’re woven into how we operate. As opposed to, as you said, just checking a box or really taking a surface-level approach but not weaving it into the core of how we operate and exist as an organization.

That’s why we’ve worked to be so intentional around the goal-creation process, the strategic planning process, being able to make sure that the work that we’re doing on this topic relates to every department across the institution, and that we’ve built in ongoing improvement and reflection time to each of the goals that we’ve established.

We are open to learning as we go too. And if we find that we need to shift gears or prioritize a different goal over what we thought was the most necessary one, we can do that, we can shift and be pretty nimble. But what I think will make this work last, is making sure that we build it into who we are as an organization, as opposed to just doing it because it seems like the right thing to do.

Dr. Linda Ashar: You have mentioned students all along and the student involvement, and certainly the students are going to be a beneficiary of everything positive the university does, because that’s our main focus. How have students that you’ve dealt with responded to this effort?

Caroline Simpson: The students and alumni who have been part of the task force or who have worked with us on different initiatives have been very positive and huge contributors to the work that we’re doing. It is so important for us to pull in the student voice to all of our efforts, whether it’s this task force or another project, making sure that we are able to include their perspectives into the work that we do, is a priority of ours. So I would say that with students, but across the board, with everybody, faculty, staff, alumni, there has been huge interest and eagerness to participate in this work.

Now, we know that we all have other full-time roles, and that our students are working adults, many are working adults, with a number of obligations. It’s also been a rough year from the COVID pandemic perspective.

So being able to create a structure that allows people to step in and participate when they can be impactful, make a difference, and then also able to juggle multiple priorities and obligations is our goal. And so that’s how we’re trying to structure the work that we’re doing, and the opportunities that we’re building, whether it’s an event or learning in the classroom, or an activity that’s occurring from our student-organization perspective.

There’s a number of examples we’re working to make sure that it’s accessible and available when it works for everybody. So in my mind, that means offering up lots of different activities and opportunities, and making sure that people are aware of what they are and when they are and how to get involved and then letting people join when they can.

Dr. Linda Ashar: A huge aspect of what our university does relates to military and our alumni who are veterans. How does that dynamic play into our task force work?

Caroline Simpson: Well, APUS has always had a large military and veteran student population. So much of who we are and what we do, is very much focused on their specific and unique needs. We work to make sure that our programs include our military and non-military learners, and we’ve taken that same approach with the task force.

We have a variety of members who, prior or even during their time with APUS, have military experience. They’re an important constituent, but we want to make sure that while they’re represented, so are all of our other constituent groups.

Dr. Linda Ashar: So those issues are part of the all-inclusion aspects that the task force is considering in all of the issues that are being covered, is my point.

Caroline Simpson: Yes, I think so. That’s another example of who we are at our core. is, We were founded as American Military University. We have always been intentional about making sure that our student experience and our learning environment, our support practices, our programs, our services overall, are appropriate for our military learners.

But we’ve also, over the years, grown our non-military student population as well. And so we attempt to make sure that we have programs, services, resources, et cetera, that support all of our student segments.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Taking a step back and looking at our five-year plan for the task force, where do you see in your crystal ball, Caroline, do you see the task force development looking like at the end of that five years?

Caroline Simpson: Well, I like the model that we have right now with the task force because it is truly a group effort. We have people on the task force who represent the different areas across the university.

I also see value in potentially establishing an office that focuses on our equity, diversity and inclusion work. But I would want to make sure that if and when we do that, we don’t just turn all of the responsibility over to the one person or the two people or however large it is, who are part of that office, that it continues to be a collaborative, shared responsibility.

And that’s one of the things that I like most about the task forces. As I said, we all have full plates, but we are making this another priority because it is important work. And to do it the right way, we need to do it together.

So at the end of our five years, I would hope and expect that if we don’t have a formal operational task force, that we have an advisory committee that helps create and set a strategy around our work. That if we have an office and a person or people who are dedicated to this as their full-time jobs, that they have the support from the entire institution. And that goals and work that’s done around those goals, all take into account the entire organization in that we’re able to create some assessment and evaluation procedures that allow us to check that we are staying true to that commitment.

Dr. Linda Ashar: So I think that it makes sense that this is an evergreen process. I think it’s a wonderful program. I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to discuss it with you, learn more about the task force. I had an awareness of it, but certainly not the depth that we’ve been able to discuss it today. And I look forward to hearing more about it as it unfolds.

What else might you add that we haven’t covered? If there’s anything that you’d like to add about the task force for people to think about and know about before we bring our podcast to an end here?

Caroline Simpson: Well, first, thank you for having me today to talk about our work. I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to set up and accomplish in a short time period. I’m particularly thankful to all of our task force members who made this work a priority on top of others and on top of already full plates.

We have amazing support from our executive team sponsors. And we have their commitment and encouragement to continue on with our efforts. And I think it’s a nice example of how doing the right thing becomes the right thing to do, despite multiple other competing priorities and needs. And I’m excited to see where we go and look forward to coming back and sharing an update with you in the future.

Dr. Linda Ashar: You know what, I would really enjoy that. I was just going to ask you if you’d be willing to come back and talk again maybe towards the end of the year on progress with the task force and some “aha” moments that will certainly happen, and more events that will likely be planned.

One thing that we can do is even just focus on talking about an event. There’s all kinds of things that we can discuss. This was a good overview, get acquainted about the task force and what’s going on with it, the whys and wherefores. I’ve been with APU a long time, and I certainly am aware that, in terms of needing a task force to make us aware of diversity, is not what we needed the task force for.

The task force is an evolution of what the university is all about, from my perspective. And it’s very exciting. The outreach part, the elevating of what we’re doing within faculty and staff is exciting. The involvement of students is exciting. It’s a timely and empathetic response to the greater community needs in our country and the world. It’s everything a university should be doing. And I’m very proud to be associated with it. So I thank you and the administration for this effort.

Caroline Simpson: Well, thank you. Thank you so much.

Dr. Linda Ashar: Thank you. We’ve been speaking today with Caroline Simpson, Assistant Provost for American Public University System about the University’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. Thank you for listening. We look forward to speaking with you again about issues for Politics in the Workplace. This is Linda Ashar.

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