Introducing the Inclusive Leadership Learning Cohort

Written by
Ina Simova
March 22, 2021
image with text (Supplied below)

Thirty-three Princeton graduate students co-created and completed the inaugural Inclusive Leadership Learning Cohort (ILLC) in Fall 2020. Princeton University’s GradFUTURES Professional Development and Access, Diversity and Inclusion teams at the Graduate School led this new initiative, partnering with graduate students to shape the program as a platform for anti-racism efforts. (A shorter version of this article has appeared on the University homepage

The cohort’s focus on Inclusive Leadership is part of Princeton University’s campus-wide campaign to confront America’s record of structural inequality and racism as well as the university’s place in that history. Graduate student participants in the inaugural cohort joined Princeton’s broader efforts to redress discrimination and marginalization. 

The cohort centers on the understanding that local action and individual commitment are paramount for achieving significant and sustainable change. As a Comparative Literature PhD Candidate, I was also inspired to participate in this initiative by the compelling arguments and forms of intervention outlined in the recent Princeton faculty letter to the university administration.

 As its mission statement suggests, the ILLC is action-oriented: it supports graduate students as they develop concrete and targeted anti-racism strategies and practices they intend to implement in their respective spheres of influence. In order to obtain the ILLC co-curricular certificate, the participants submit a series of reflections on topics addressed in each workshop and an individual action plan outlining their intended initiatives at the conclusion of the series. The ILLC’s first iteration featured ten workshops in which graduate students explored topics including strategies to identify and address unconscious bias, grant writing and representation of people of color in STEM, and the relation between diversity and innovation. 

Looking back on the inaugural ILLC, Associate Dean and Director of Professional Development Eva Kubu described the impetus behind this new initiative: "We partnered with graduate students to design this program because we see inclusive leadership training as both critical for graduate students' individual leadership development -- and essential for building a collective movement to support lasting structural change."

More than 60 graduate students from all four academic divisions attended the various sessions and 33 students completed the program requirements. “What made the ILLC special,” noted Associate Dean for Access, Diversity, and Inclusion Renita Miller, “was the combined emphasis on self-reflection and the application of strategies and practices that our graduate students were able to immediately implement in their personal, professional and scholarly endeavors.”

In the first iteration of the ILLC, nearly half of the 33 individual action plans involved changes graduate students intend to lead on campus, often in conjunction with their departments. Action plans focused on an incredibly wide array of solutions ranging from promoting inclusive and equity-minded teaching, research and citation practices; designing equitable admissions recruitment processes; addressing voter suppression across the state; to building systems to support social and environmental justice for low-income communities of color.    

The ILLC was inspired by University of Michigan’s Rackham Professional Development Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Certificate – a program with a long-standing tradition of providing training on inclusivity-related topics ranging from bystander intervention to addressing microaggressions and unconscious bias. With an average number of 251 participants and over 40 events per year, the Rackham DEI program has established a strong track-record of fostering diversity-oriented practices along all aspects of academic life – teaching, service, and research. Rackham’s DEI certificate has also a very strong focus on professionalization. 

Deborah Willis, Senior Program Lead for the Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) Certificate program and Program Manager for professional and academic development at the Rackham Graduate School, was invited to be the first speaker at Princeton’s ILLC and offered guidance and materials to assist in structuring the program. Discussing the development of the ILLC, Dr. Willis noted: “It was such a pleasure to consult with your team on the Inclusive Leadership Learning Cohort. To see the progression from then to now is truly astonishing. In a short period of time you have provided a phenomenal initiative for the Princeton community, empowering leaders with tools to take immediate action toward a more inclusive culture.” 

Princeton’s ILLC workshops and the graduate student participants adopted a similar environmental approach to Rackham’s DEI certificate of bringing awareness to normalized discriminatory behaviors and conventions in different spheres of academic and professional life. Early in the ILLC series, Dr. Tamika Curry Smith, President of The TCS Group, Inc. and former Vice President of Global Diversity & Inclusion at Nike, Inc., engaged the question of professional norms as perpetuating “the systemic, institutionalized centering of whiteness.” In her talk, she brought attention to the ways in which normative ideas regarding professional dress code, speech, work style, and timeliness discriminate against non-white and non-Western standards and models. 

Focusing on the concept of “covering,” the practice of downplaying a stigmatized part of one’s identity to avoid bias in professional and social contexts, Dr. Curry Smith foregrounded the widespread nature of this phenomenon, highlighting its disproportionate effect on minorities, women, and people of color. Another key term she introduced was “culture-add” -- the recognition that the strategic hiring of people from heterogeneous demographics and backgrounds brings diverse skillsets and problem-solving strategies that are superior to homogenous work cultures. 

Cohort participants reflected on the ways the ILLC’s topics aligned with their own experiences. Laura Bustamante, a PhD Candidate in Neuroscience, shared that Dr. Curry Smith’s discussion of the concepts of ‘covering’ and ‘culture-add’ resonated most with her: “Learning that 60% of people are covering marginalized parts of their identity,” she explained, “was really powerful and inspired me to think of small ways to ‘uncover’ myself to make space for my research group to do the same.” 

Expanding on her learning experience, Bustamante noted that the concept of  “[c]ulture-add highlights the fact that when we bring people with diverse knowledge and working style[s], and encourage them to express that in our teams, it adds to the team. A lot of hiring conversations hinge around culture fit,” Bustamante elaborated, “and people can have an affinity for others who they see as like them. Knowing these realities can help us work consciously towards diverse teams. As I continue to be a mentor, and eventually build a research group, I will certainly bring these lessons with me.”

The ILLC also connected its participants to a range of programming on campus. A highlight in that regard included Professor Anthony Jack’s conversation with Dean Cecilia Rouse, an event co-sponsored by Princeton Public Lectures and SPIA. The ILLC participants had the opportunity to engage, for instance, with Professor Jack’s arguments about the concept of “hidden curriculum,” i.e. the vital importance of mastering the unwritten rules, strategies, and skills necessary for successfully navigating the university as an institution beyond the narrow academic work. Indeed, the urgency of thinking about the practice of inclusive teaching not only within, but also beyond the confines of the curriculum was a focal point for many members of the ILLC, including Claire Willeck, a PhD student in the Department of Politics. She shared: “Participating in the cohort has increased my awareness of my assumptions that I am making about students’ previous experiences and knowledge coming into Princeton and the courses that I teach.”

Along similar lines, Professor Jack’s work has underscored the essential role of extra-curricular competence and the ability to decipher the unspoken norms that codify the “appropriate” way to look, speak and behave on campus for student outcomes and has emphasized the value of mentoring as an inroad to such competence, in particular for first-generation- and students of color. Yet, as also the recent Princeton faculty letter to the university administration suggested, this type of labor remains largely undervalued in academia.

In order to tackle such structural problems, the ILLC had a dedicated focus on the concept of inclusive leadership. This work began by moving away from a narrow definition towards a capacious and highly personalized understanding of the engagement it requires. Rather than an abstract psychological profile, the graduate students conceived of the work of inclusive leadership as a set of concrete interventions. In one of the ILLC sessions, the participants focused specifically on the examination of their levels of awareness, learned behaviors, and psychological predispositions based on an assessment tool provided by Capfinity. The goal of this work was to harness the gained insights into practicable strategies such as advocating for a strong commitment to nondiscriminatory and diversifying admissions policies and developing inclusive teaching practices. Reflecting on this shift from the abstract to the concrete, Hannah Stamler, a PhD student in History and a cohort participant, shared:  A speaker brought up the notion of performative allyship. I've been thinking a lot about that concept, and it has inspired me to want to be a better ally.”

Self-reflection leading to action was a central takeaway of the ILLC initiative. Elizaveta Mankovskaia, a PhD candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures, noted that what she valued the most about the series “was the learning community and a chance to hear fellow graduate students reflect on issues and solutions for becoming an inclusive leader” as well as the focus on “practicable and individualized strategies of advocacy and change” rooted in each participant’s “individual traits and their personal plan to build and sustain an inclusive environment.” 

This action-driven focus permeated all sessions of the ILLC. A presentation by Dr. Alveda Williams, Corporate Director for Inclusion at The Dow Chemical Company, for instance, highlighted Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives in the workplace that move toward a structural integration of DEI criteria on all levels of the production process – from diversifying the supply chain to performance management (and bonus calculation) to introducing forms of external evaluation to perform anonymous “culture audits” in order to increase transparency and accountability. 

A session led by Assistant Dean for Access, Diversity and Inclusion Rayna Truelove echoed and built upon many of these insights. The discussion featured Dr. Shauna Clark, Director of the NIH Academy at Office of Intramural Training and Education, Ravyn Miller, MBA/MDiv, Senior Director at Medtronic, and Sadhana Jackson, MD, Clinical Investigator at the National Institute of Neurological Disorder and Stroke (NINDS). Reflecting on their own career trajectories and roles as leaders, the speakers also argued for the integration of DEI metrics into other professional initiatives as well as into performance reviews. The drive behind this strategy is to move away from understanding diversity as an “add-on,” or a rubric to be instrumentalized in pursuit of professional development gains, toward a recognition of diversity as a holistic and integral part of the social fabric. Illustrating this point, the speakers underscored the crucial importance of the diversification of clinical trials, for instance, where the question of representation could mean the difference between health and adverse effects. 

Along similar lines of performing diagnostics and looking for spaces for action, Dr. Manu Platt, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, and Dr. Mary S. Harris, Founder & Principal of GrantArtisans,™ discussed grant writing and representation of people of color in the STEM fields. They underscored through personal stories the structural issues that plague the system, including the lack of clear criteria about evaluating contributions to diversity in STEM grant writing. While many institutions, including the NIH, have included a diversity rubric in their selection criteria, Professor Platt stressed the lack of clarity regarding its application, leading to a wide range of interpretations and scoring discrepancies in the grant evaluation process.

Concluding the series and bringing together many of the discussion topics that informed the ILLC program, Vice Dean for Innovation and Betty Perry Smith Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Rodney Priestley and Senior Associate Director for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion Shawn Maxam held a final session on the relation between diversity and innovation. They discussed the value of heterogeneous teams with regard to finding novel solutions to complex tasks and creating a culture that yields high-performance outcomes. The speakers highlighted the role of inclusive leadership organized around cognizance of bias, personal risk-taking, and collaboration as a paramount concern for fostering such cultures. Commenting on the approaches and issues covered in the ILLC series, Patrick Sarver, PhD student in Chemistry and ILLC participant, concluded: “The cohort has helped provide me with concrete, well-evidenced responses to individuals who are skeptical of the importance of diversity or the existence of significant barriers to access.”

The ILLC is intended to become a fixture of GradFUTURES’ programming. Learn more about ongoing programming on the ILLC website!