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Feature

Building Equity

by Deborah Lynn Blumberg

How Senior Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Connie Porter is helping drive change at Rice Business.

As senior associate dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Connie Porter is working to advance racial equity, among a broader set of DEI-related initiatives, at a time when the nation is struggling with it. Porter, an assistant clinical professor of marketing at Rice Busines, accepted the DEI deanship last spring, taking on a role that had been created based on the recommendation of the Rice Business Task Force on Racial Equity and Social Justice following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of white police officers in Minneapolis. Since then, the drive for equity and justice has only become more urgent.

Rice Business is focusing locally to start, with an effort to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion at the business school. The task force drew up 33 initiatives across five categories — including curriculum and programs, school culture, and student, faculty and staff development — to serve as a starting point. We spoke to Porter about what Rice Business has done to make the school more equitable and inclusive, what more we need to do, and what challenges we face.

In what areas do you think Rice Business is succeeding when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion?

We’ve had an amazingly successful diversity and inclusion conference for the past five years and we’re going to continue it this year while changing the name to the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Conference. We have very high-level, prominent keynote speakers and workshops. It’s a way for us to engage not only the Rice Business community, but also the greater business community, which is invited to attend. We also have a number of diversity-related student organizations that I feel view our office as a big support mechanism for them to feel a sense of pride and belongingness in our community.

Tell us about some of the DEI work that still needs to be done.

The school has, on the full-time level, one of the most diverse populations in the country in terms of racial ethnic background. Where we still have work to do is on the inclusion and equity piece. To be a competitive institution going forward, it’s going to be insufficient to tout the fact that we have a diverse population of students. The way we will differentiate ourselves is on equity and inclusion. Until we can proudly tell the world that we’re known by our students to be the most inclusive place that we can be, that they’re treated with equity, that all students feel that way, not just underrepresented minorities, then we’re not winning yet and we still have work to do.

Inclusion means we’re aware of, understand, recognize, and value the unique identities of our students. Equity is about fairness and justice. It’s about fair process, fair outcomes, fair access to resources, and the willingness to remove systemic barriers to fairness.

What about diversity, equity and inclusion for faculty and staff?

The provost of the university wants to have greater emphasis on hiring and retaining underrepresented minority faculty members. That would be Black, Latinx and indigenous people who are historically underrepresented in higher education in business schools. There are policies around hiring staff that we probably need to take a look at. For example, looking at how job descriptions are written and at questions asked in the application process that have the potential to systematically exclude certain populations in ways that are unfair and likely not to the betterment of our institution in terms of getting the best candidate.

How can faculty and staff enhance inclusiveness?

With inclusive content and inclusive teaching pedagogy. Content means that, in the speakers we invite and in the business cases presented, are the executives and managers representative of the identities of our students broadly speaking? My vision is that students see themselves reflected in front of the classroom, in our speakers, in our content, in our faculty. It’s also about our teaching practices. Are we facilitating a climate where all voices are being heard? It’s calling someone by the name they wish to be called by, referring to them by the gender they want to be referred to by. These are signs of inclusive teaching. It takes time to rethink your content and your pedagogy, but it’s what we need to do if we’re going to make advances.

What are some of the challenges you might face as you do this work?

Number one, resourcing [in terms of budget and staff]. This is a big job and we have a lot of ground to cover. Number two, making sure that we bring everyone along on this journey with us, no matter where they’re starting. Meeting people where they are, and growing them along the journey with us is critical. It takes patience. Change takes time. Managing people’s expectations, while still harnessing and sustaining their enthusiasm is a fine line to walk, but I’m prepared to walk it.

Tell us about the new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion course that will be offered this spring.

The school will launch a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion lab course. Teams of students will go out and work on real projects at real companies solving real DEI problems. I’m totally excited about it, because it’s what I call a “threefer” in my world of trying to make an impact. One: Our students will love it and benefit from it. Two: It will engage our alumni. And three, there’s the organizations themselves. We’ll be engaging Houston-based organizations — big businesses, small businesses and everything in between.

How do you see alumni getting more involved?

We’ve already proposed to the alumni board that we engage our alumni as mentors in DEI-related project-based courses and experiential learning. We can also all take it upon ourselves to be self-aware of our preferences, biases, and how that influences interactions within the community. We can be respectful of other people, value them, and try to understand others and their differences. Alumni should also know that my office is the advocate for all stakeholders. If they feel there’s something we can do better, I would love for them to tell us.

You can reach Porter at constanceporter@rice.edu. For more information, visit the DEI office’s website: https://business.rice.edu/about/diversity-equity-and-inclusion.

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