I.D.E.A.S. in Higher Education

For July’s Community Conversation on I.D.E.A.S. (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Social Justice) in Higher Education, the Inclusion NextWork community was joined by panelists representing diverse roles and institutions within academia:

  • Sophia Brown, Grants Associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Master’s student at The George Washington University Trachtenberg School of Public Policy
  • Miguel Fernandez, Professor of Spanish and Chief Diversity Officer at Middlebury College
  • Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, anthropology professor, diversity and inclusion consultant, and former president of Spelman and Bennett Colleges.


To kick off the discussion, Dr. Cole invoked the West African sankofa, a symbol that represents how looking to the past can help us to move forward. Without acknowledging the history of I.D.E.A.S. on college campuses, we will be unable to make sustainable change in the future, especially because so many of the same issues have remained apparent over time.

Knowing this, how do we continue to push for change in higher education? Our panelists were united in the perspective that collaboration and partnership is foremost. It is imperative for students, faculty, and administrators to authentically listen to each other and actively build trust. Sophia is living one example of this at GWU, where she is a part of a cohort of women of color, the Racial Equity Task Force. The task force began with a conversation between a student and professor about micro-behaviors in the classroom, and has transitioned into diversity and inclusion training for incoming students and a more acute racial equity lens in syllabi.

An important concept for institutions of higher education to acknowledge is intersectionality. The panelists summoned the work of ‎Kimberlé Crenshaw and Audre Lorde to explain how individual aspects of our identities do not exist separately from each other, but instead are woven together to form the way we live our lives and how we are seen by society. Though one element of our identity may motivate us to take action on campus, we do not leave behind other aspects of ourselves. Institutions would do well to acknowledge that serving each identity group separately is not always the right answer. Miguel cited an example from Middlebury, where the opportunity for students to attend a conference for queer people of color turned out to be of major interest, though the administration had not previously provided students with resources that acknowledged both aspects of identity simultaneously.

Speaking to the transitory nature of academic studies, one participant posed the question, “What have been effective means of archiving past work by faculty/students/staff so that students can more easily learn about the past work on a campus?” In response, the panelists identified three opportunities: repetition, oral historians, and technology. First, because so many of the issues in higher education are long-standing, and academia is a slow-moving field, it may not be a bad thing to repeat actions taken by previous classes or cohorts. Secondly, it is critical that outgoing classes intentionally transition their knowledge to the newer students, so everyone is “fully informed about the struggle.” Alumni reunions can be a powerful way to achieve this. Lastly, knowledge management technology like Google Drive can be helpful to tangibly document challenges experienced and actions taken.

The community conversation also addressed that college campuses are not immune to current affairs. Policy changes such as the ending of Obama-era affirmative action threaten to roll back advances that have been made in campus diversity. In response, Dr. Cole suggests that we must first educate, then legislate, and finally, agitate. We must educate ourselves about what these changes really mean, and then share that knowledge with the broader community. We must do what we can through law, preventing other legislation that protects underrepresented groups from being overturned. And when education and legislation are not enough, we must turn to non-violent protest. Ultimately, our agitation will be most effective when it is collaborative. We must create coalitions that unite identity groups and encourage allyship, because while we are all powerful individually, “when spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.”


About the panelists: 

Miguel Fernandez.jpeg
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Dr. Johnetta B. Cole
Principal Consultant, Cook Ross
Former President of Spelman College and Bennett College

Johnnetta Betsch Cole is a Principal Consultant with Cook Ross. Before assuming her current position, she served for eight years as the Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. After receiving a Ph.D. in anthropology with a specialization in African studies from Northwestern University, Dr. Cole held teaching and administrative positions in anthropology, women’s studies, and African American studies at several colleges and universities. She served as the president of both historically Black colleges for women in the United States, Spelman College and Bennett College, a distinction she alone holds. She has authored and edited several books and numerous articles for scholarly and general audiences.Dr. Cole was the first African American to serve as the chair of the board of the United Way of America. She formerly served on the corporate boards of Home Depot, Merck, and Nation’s Bank South, and was the first woman to serve on the board of Coca-Cola Enterprises. From 2015 to 2016, she was the president of the Association of Art Museum Directors. Dr. Cole is a Senior Consulting Fellow at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. She currently co-chairs the American Alliance of Museum’s Working Group on Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion. She is a fellow of the American Anthropological Association and a member of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Cole is currently an active board member for Martha’s Table. Johnnetta Betsch Cole has received numerous awards and is the recipient of over 60 honorary degrees. Throughout her career and in her published work, speeches and community service, she consistently addresses issues of race, gender, and other systems of inequality.

Miguel Fernández
Chief Diversity Officer
Middlebury College

Miguel Fernández is the Chief Diversity Officer, charged with promoting equity and inclusion in every aspect of the educational, residential, and professional life of the College. He works on faculty diversity initiatives (including the C3 project), serves as liaison to the Liberal Arts Diversity Officers (LADO) and the Posse Foundation, and supports the Vice President of Student Affairs on student life issues related to diversity and inclusion. Miguel has been a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese since 1995. He holds a  Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University in Hispanic Studies and both a B.A. and an M.A. in Spanish from Middlebury College. Miguel's primary field of study is 19th-century Argentine literature with a focus on the gauchesca.  He is co-director and editor for Latin American literature and cultures of Decimonónica, a journal of 19th-century Hispanic cultural production. Miguel has served as both Chair of the Department of Spanish & Portuguese and Director of Latin American Studies. His teaching and research interests include 19th- and 20th-century Latin American literature and cultures; intersections between literary, cultural, and historical discourses; literature and the environment; and Spanish language pedagogy. His latest teaching project has employed project-based learning to put on full theater productions in Spanish.

Sophia Brown
Masters Student
George Washington University

Sophia Brown is a masters student of Public Policy focusing on program evaluation at the George Washington University. She has held a variety of positions in outreach programming and direct service including serving in Peace Corps Senegal. She is passionate about improving programming for women and girls with intersecting identities and looks to continue work on policies and program frameworks centered around intersectionality, equity, and inclusion. She is a graduate of The Ohio State University with a B.A. in Women’s Studies and a minor in Economics and currently works as a Grants Associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  

Jonathan Braxton