Over the past year, Diverse: Issues In Higher Education has profiled higher ed institutions that rated well on the four Diverse Organizational Impact and Transformation (DOIT) pillars (I: Institutional Leadership and Commitment, II: Institutional Curricular & Co-Curricular Accountability, III: Institutional Climate and IV: Institutional Representation/Composition) following Coop Di Leu’s analysis.
Coe College, with a student population of approximately 1,400, is the only college or university to earn B or above on all pillars, including A grades for Pillar I, Institutional Leadership and Commitment, and Pillar III, Institutional Climate.
Dr. Paula O’Loughlin, provost, dean of faculty, interim dean of students and Title IX coordinator, joined the administration of Coe in 2016 when the college’s former president, Dr. David McInally, made DEI a cornerstone of the college’s strategic plan. She previously worked at a Native American-serving institution in Minnesota and came to Coe expecting that the commitment to DEI was genuine and would be thorough.
“We were measuring where we were and where we wanted to be in terms of benchmarks from the very beginning,” says O’Loughlin.
Many institutions put DEI in their strategic plans, but it doesn’t happen without consistent conscientious effort, O’Loughlin says. Rather than making a list and looking to check boxes, Coe leadership made DEI a priority in all areas of college operations. This includes budgets, enrollment strategies and faculty and staff recruitment as well as inclusive planning for campus events.
McInally recruited several senior staff people, including O’Loughlin, associate vice president for human resources Kris Bridges and vice president for enrollment Julie Staker, to help figure out how to bring the commitments espoused in the strategic plan to life.
“There was nothing miraculous that I or the others did, but we believed in it and knew how to make the goals happen,” says O’Loughlin. “We made it a priority on every level, from what holidays we would celebrate and why to academic planning, board agendas, etc.”
Communicating Coe’s DEI commitment became part of the organizational culture. Assembling a senior team that was wholeheartedly committed, starting with the president, brought a shift from top to bottom. In 2018 the HR department sponsored Dr. Eddie Moore’s White Privilege Symposium, Navigating Race, Privilege, Identity & Equity (Intersectionality): The Path Forward.
“The faculty and staff were raring to go; they just wanted some commitment from the college overall,” says O’Loughlin. “You can write anything you want in a strategic plan, but what mattered on our campus was showing how real our commitment was and is.
“This has meant showing up at events, sending encouraging individual messages, getting to know BIPOC students, faculty and staff personally, thinking and working to let them know we are here,” she continues. “Our underrepresented faculty, staff and students need to know they have support from the top on campus. We have to show we are truly committed to them as people.”
With regard to Pillar III, faculty and staff have changed the way they approach searches, classes and student services. They have actively engaged in professional development opportunities every academic year, learning about important things such as implicit bias, student experiences and microaggressions.
This, says O’Loughlin, helped drive changes in processes like what counts for faculty service in the tenure process. It also impacted thinking about accessibility. Faculty and staff now connect with BIPOC alumni in the greater Cedar Rapids area to seek advice and information on things like local churches.
“We work closely with organizations in our community whenever we can, and this includes folks from other institutions,” O’Loughlin says. For example, Coe students who want to access diverse fraternities and sororities can do so at the University of Iowa.
Coe College is part of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, which had a Mellon-funded grant program from 2016–20 that enabled O’Loughlin to recruit faculty for several open positions. She was part of the board of Consortium for Faculty Diversity (CFD) before she came to Coe, and had the college join, even hosting CFD’s annual conference in 2019. CFD is committed to increasing the diversity of students, faculty members and curricular offerings at liberal arts colleges.
Faculty has been added in the African American Studies program, as well as in Multi-Cultural and Asian American Studies and Latinx literature. When the Derek Chauvin verdict was about to be announced, Coe held some teach-ins with faculty to talk about how to support students.
“Some of our strongest student groups are identity groups, and they play a critical role in helping other student leaders think about their responsibilities to be continually inclusive,” says O’Loughlin. “We require all student leaders to do some programming around DEI as part of their student organization leadership orientation. We also make sure our co-curricular programming reflects all of Coe, and not just the students who are leading the organizations.”
Coe College is currently in the middle of a search for a new president. That person will need to embrace DEI because the culture now demands it in a substantive, non-performative way.
The college and its students engage with the local community, who are often invited to campus events. Approximately 11% of the Cedar Rapids population is people of color. A number of students are involved in regional criminal justice reform movements and local politics. Coe always buys several tables at the local African American History Museum of Iowa gala and BIPOC students can attend.
While Coe doesn’t get many students from the East Coast, a diverse range of students come from urban centers in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. O’Loughlin estimates that about 35% of this year’s entering class identify as BIPOC.
Among initiatives planned for this year is bystander education — giving faculty, staff and students the tools they need to respond when they witness a bias incident. Programming around AAPI, LBGTQ+, Latinx, different abilities and other needs will be broadened. Student DEI ambassadors will also be selected and trained to work with future incoming students on DEI peer education initiatives and community outreach.
“The work is never done, but the commitment doesn’t waver,” says O’Loughlin.
This article originally appeared in the September 16, 2021 edition of Diverse. Read it here.