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Designing Diversity: Build Your Strategic Plan

At Georgia State University, commitment to expanding access and opportunity is so strong that campus leaders develop the institution’s diversity and strategic plans in parallel.

By Apryl Motley

"We must become a national model for diversity in higher education, where [individuals representing] all combinations of gender, race, and ethnicity succeed at high rates," said Georgia State University President Mark Becker during his April 2009 State of the University address.

Becker's commitment to continuing and expanding inclusion at GSU, Atlanta, was evident from the beginning of his tenure, which began just months before the 2009 address. One of his first orders of business was to launch a new strategic planning process, of which diversity would emerge as an integral component. To read about GSU's support for nontraditional students and the rising graduation rates for its Latino population, go to "Dawning Demographics" in July-August Business Officer.

Linda Nelson, GSU's chief diversity officer and assistant vice president for human resources, led a parallel planning effort that resulted in the creation of the university's first strategic plan focused directly on efforts to embrace many points of view and protect the free exchange of divergent opinions.

Expansive Thinking

"The overall impetus behind the plan was to really begin looking at how we approached diversity overall," Nelson says. "While we've developed programs around diversity as it relates to faculty, staff, and students, the university was going through a strategic planning initiative led by a new president and provost. We wanted to make sure our diversity programs supported GSU's overall strategic plan."

In fact, the first goal outlined in GSU's Strategic Plan 2011-2016/21 sets the tone for the interrelated plans and relates to Becker's 2009 comments: "Become a national model for undergraduate education by demonstrating that students from all backgrounds can achieve academic and career success at high rates."

One of the outcomes of this coordinated planning is the Diversity Passport, patterned after similar initiatives at the University of Michigan, the University of Richmond, and the University of Alabama.

Launched in fall 2012, the passport program invites students to participate in a learning community for diversity and inclusion. Each year, the program will focus on a different theme, with 2012–13 (the university's centennial year) being devoted to "Exploring Global Connections: Building Community Partnerships." The program's broader goal: for students to become part of a community that is participating in self-guided diversity learning opportunities in order to broaden the ability to become effective citizens of the university and the world.

Guiding Philosophies

Nelson identifies three pillars of the process that are key to building GSU's Diversity Strategic Plan from the ground up and bringing it to fruition.

Be inclusive. "The plan was written word-for-word by GSU constituents," explains Nelson. "We put together a large and representative planning committee made up of faculty, students, and staff." The group met frequently over an entire year.

"We also held town hall meetings for individuals all across campus and invited alumni to provide their input on the draft plan via a dedicated Web site," Nelson explains. The result was a plan developed through research on campus and in the community—rather than merely a plug-and-play model created in isolation.

Be comprehensive. "We're not focused on just one area," Nelson emphasizes. The graphic of a house created to visually depict the framework of the plan highlights GSU's multitiered approach to diversity.

The university's values and culture serve as the foundation upon which education and learning competencies and communications are built to support defined goals in four areas: workforce, workplace, students, and global community. Focus on these areas will ultimately lead to the "roof" or high point of "leveraging diversity to deliver clearly defined goals in support of GSU's mission."

Be committed. Once GSU's governance structure approved the plan, additional work began to ensure its successful implementation. "We've rounded out staff with people who have diversity responsibilities across the university," Nelson says. "In addition, we have a small implementation committee with representatives from faculty and student affairs that meets every other month to discuss the plan and review initiatives." Establishing evaluation metrics and putting together an advisory committee are also on the horizon.

Nelson believes it's critical to engage the whole university in this culture-changing undertaking. "Allow time to really flesh out the important issues," she advises. "If you do that, the institution will treat diversity as a business function; it will become an integral part of your policies and procedures."

From Becker's perspective: "Our most shining success is actually student diversity, with GSU being as inclusive as any institution in the country. We're still working toward similar effectiveness with staff and faculty. And the plan is another reflection of the university's commitment to doing that."

APRYL MOTLEY, Columbia, Maryland, covers higher education issues for Business Officer.