Equity and Inclusion

Inclusive Excellence and Butterfly World

September 19, 2016

Dear President Libby (and President’s Cabinet Members):

The goals of the Many Voices, One Stetson initiative are lofty and carry with them the imperative of an inclusive community in which individuals have the space to be courageous in thinking about how they are active members of a global society. However, the activities associated with the initiative appear to be just that – events that an individual can attend to learn about others. They do not scaffold learning-to-action or grapple with the very real dichotomies that exist in a culture like ours – a highly selective private liberal learning institution striving to become an inclusive community where all feel welcome and engaged. 

In order for our community to design creative solutions to the real challenge of fostering inclusion,

  • the learning experiences need to be intentional,
  • the ideas need to be captured,
  • the institution needs innovative mechanisms for reviewing and implementing those solutions, and
  • the institutional commitment to inclusion must be true.

We visited Butterfly World recently and I thought of our University work looking at butterflies living in a huge screened-in garden. The butterflies are from everywhere and they all have different dietary requirements, breeding habits, and life spans. I wondered how the designers of Butterfly World ensured that they have habitat to support all of those species. During our Opening Faculty & Staff Meeting, you identified “talk leading to action” as an outcome of the Many Voices, One Stetson framework. At that time, I wondered if the designers of Butterfly World could recall when they moved their concept of diverse butterflies existing together from theory to practice, from talk to action. And I also wondered what scaffolds they designed and put in place in order to make a world of butterflies a reality. 

In my past work as LEAP liaison to the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), I obsessed over the seven Principles of Excellence. These principles were proposed as foundational to liberal learning and have informed the essential learning outcomes adopted by Stetson University’s General Education core. The very first Principle of Excellence, Aim High – Make Excellence Inclusive “aims to help campuses (a) establish diversity and inclusion as hallmarks of academic excellence and institutional effectiveness; (b) operationalize diversity and inclusion in all spheres and at all levels of campus functioning; and (c) create a reinvigorated 21st century educational process that has diversity and inclusion at the center, through which all students advance in cognitive, affective and interpersonal sophistication – outcomes that are vital in the workforce and in society.”

This first principle is the foundational imperative of our Strategic Map, to become “a Diverse CommunityofInclusive Excellence”.  AAC&U’s challenge to aim high demands that we put scaffolding frameworks in place for the entire educational enterprise to become through action. What then are, or could be, our mechanisms for moving from our dialogue to action? What are or could be our multi-layered resources, policies, practices, and accountability measures to build on our existing assets, sustain, reflect, ensure, evaluate, grow and celebrate equity, diversity and inclusion at Stetson? How will we honor the contributions of the community to design an institution that is responsive to its constituents and inviting to all? After visiting talks yesterday during Values Day, for example, I was very frustrated as I didn’t know where to go with my ideas for action. Hence, emails like this one.

Equity, diversity and inclusion as “hallmarks of academic excellence and institutional effectiveness” beg the question of institutional identity. Inclusive is a requisite component of excellence, so the phrase “inclusive excellence” might be just wrong.  There is no organizational excellence that is not inclusive.  Or, if there is, I cannot imagine it.  So when we talk about making our excellence more inclusive, I wonder, “What Excellence is that?”  I also think that perhaps one reason I have fretted over recent attempts in higher education to make inclusive excellence a strategic priority — with the typical strategies, tactics, and outcomes– is that we do not see it as something that can be either strategic or a priority. 

In other words, a culture is fundamentally inclusive, or it is not. Few, if any, cultures are actually inclusive in fact, and those that strive to be inclusive while maintaining their historic identities are like people striving to be tall while maintaining their shortness.  We cannot, for instance, be an exclusive University that is inclusive.  

And we have not gone, nor do we seem willing to go, deep enough into our institutional history, culture, and identity to ask the real question: Are we this or are we that?  Are we inclusive or are we something else?  

We cannot be both.  

If we ask this question seriously, then we will need to articulate the answer, and then we will have to make a choice.  Almost every institution wants to be both.  But until we are willing to create a prevailing culture that is at its core inclusive, we cannot become inclusive—or excellent.  We can certainly have representation (diversity)—a butterfly from every country—but we cannot BE inclusive until we are willing to CLAIM inclusion as who and what we are—and to be fully inclusive first and foremost. That would be taking the concept of Universal Design to its logical conclusion.

We know from research that organizations tend to point to different strategies to answer the question of who it wants to become. In Making Diversity Work on Campus: A Research-Based Perspective (2005), the authors argue persuasively for a conception of diversity and inclusion as a “process toward better learning” rather than as an outcome to be checked off a list. They, and others, also provide numerous suggestions for how to “engage” diversity in the service of learning to reflect and support goals for inclusion and excellence.

As such, it strikes me that Dr. Noel Painter’s process of developing a value proposition, constructed to extract the essence of Stetson’s identity and what we offer, provides a unique opportunity for the entire institution to evaluate who we are and who we want to become through an iterative process of backward design.

We know that inclusion is not only a social justice issue. Rather, inclusion also situates our University in a position of sophisticated business advantage.  In the process of striving to be inclusive, Stetson University could become a Butterfly World, where the eye gets tired of so much gorgeousness but one cannot help returning for more of what is being offered. As such, I am excited about the unique opportunity we have to embark on ambitious, transformative work as we aim high, to Be a Community of Inclusive Excellence.

I bring these issues to light because I am invested in Stetson University and want to help make our institution a stronger one. It is within this context that I define this communication as a courageous space to provoke and invite dialogue and action critical to the health and viability of our University, now and in the future.


Rosalie A. Richards, Ph.D.

Associate Provost for Faculty Development 

Professor of Chemistry and Education