A Q&A with Lisa Scott, interim dean of institutional equity and inclusion
In August Luther welcomed Lisa Scott, Luther’s first dean of institutional equity and inclusion. Scott comes most recently from Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., where she held multiple roles, including special assistant to the president and chief diversity officer, assistant provost for retention, and vice president of student engagement and success. In her short time at Luther, Scott has met with different constituents of the college, leading workshops and encouraging people to ask questions of themselves and one another about what we want the college to look like, feel like, and offer to those who come to live, work, study, and teach here.
How does a diverse, inclusive campus enhance learning?
Students who interact across differences—with those who are different from themselves in multiple ways—tend to be better able to contribute to and be more productive in a complex society. Today’s environment is filled with people who have contradicting experiences and expectations of the ways in which we perform in the workplace.
In a workshop this morning, we were talking about the recent massacre in Texas [in a church in Sutherland Springs on Nov. 5] and the level of anxiety that such events have created for people and the ways in which it’s almost normative to want to close yourself off, to hunker down. But today’s workplace calls for just the opposite. Today’s classrooms call for the opposite—they call for a willingness to hear, though not necessarily agree with, different belief systems and worldviews, during a time when there’s a call from some prominent voices for uniformity about a particular worldview.
And so that is a piece of my work and, I think, that of my colleagues: How do we intentionally encourage and intentionally engage with those who see the world differently from ourselves? How do we create spaces for the stories, experiences, and knowledge of historically marginalized voices in the curriculum, the workplace, and in the lived experience outside of the classroom at Luther College?
How would you describe diversity efforts at Luther?
I think that there has been a lot of effort. One of the questions is, to what end? What needles institutionally have been moved? Because we still have minimal faculty diversity, and there is always room to grow the diversity of the student body in all sorts of ways. Although there’s been significant growth in the diversity of the student body during the last ten years, Luther has much room for growth, including yielding and retaining greater numbers of U.S.-born students of color as well as faculty of color. Environmental issues regarding campus climate, both on campus and in the larger community, also remain. Does the curriculum reflect a rich diversity of ways of knowing, scholarship, and research? And so the question is, to what end? Who do we want to be? And then we need to align institutional resources, financial and human, toward getting there.
It’s rather like when you build a house, and you’re excited about this new house. Before you even build it, you draw it. And you draw it thinking, Okay, I want the sun to come into that room because I want to be in here and read a book. I want this to be a place for communal dinner. I want a yard where I can grow vegetables. So, you design it because there are experiences you want your family, your guests, people walking by to have. It’s something you are trying to impact them with.
What do we want to look like? What do we want to feel like? What experience do we want to offer those who live, work, teach, study here? What is the thing we’re trying to create, to draw, to innovate? What do we want the organizational culture to look like and feel like for those who have a “lesser” position and less autonomy and less power on campus? How do we provide people greater autonomy, creativity, and power to engage the work they do? That conversation is a rich though not an easy one. You kind of have to draw it and map it, and then people can find their place in it much more seamlessly.
How do we create a more inclusive environment here?
It begins with an organizational belief system. If we believe equity is important, then we will work to make it inherent across our operations. Approaches to diversity in higher education have often been additive—they’re there, but diversity initiatives often operate on the margins of an institution and don’t challenge historical core values and assumptions. Many people have not and still don’t see diversity and inclusivity as core to their work. So, leadership plays a critical role in positioning and situating inclusive excellence as a core value.
There can be a perception that since we have a dean of equity and inclusion, we’re good. We’ve checked that box, so some may think they no longer have to worry about it because the dean does that work. It’s a perspective that does not help us achieve institutional goals. Rather, all of us will need to develop innovative ways to create operational models that bear the fruit of inclusive excellence both in the operations and in the student experience as well as for the people who teach and work at Luther.
What might this process look like?
As I say to all my colleagues, if you’re going to do this work, you’re going to make mistakes. You absolutely are. I also think we ought to be as brave as we ask students to be, plain and simple. We ask students every day to engage with difference, whether they want to or not.
We ask students to come here from all parts of the country and the world, and to engage people, to have roommates who are different from themselves. We ask them to consider ideas and histories and theories and ideologies that may interrupt their own belief systems. I just think we ought to be as brave as we ask students to be. I would say that same courage and vulnerability is important for those of us who serve the college.