College, student, and university leaders foster a discussion around inequality, community, growth, pain, and a path toward greater diversity and inclusion.
By Grace Power Smith
In April, the Orfalea College of Business hosted its first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Townhall, which invited students, faculty, and staff to engage in a conversation about DEI within the college.
The event lasted from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Zoom and began with results from a survey put out by the newly formed OCOB DEI Action Committee. The committee was formed under OCOB’s DEI Faculty Fellow, Ahmed Deif, who is also a professor of operation and supply chain management.
As DEI Faculty Fellow, Deif motivates and directs faculty members on how to improve their knowledge about DEI issues and encourages them to implement a personal DEI development plan into their classrooms and curriculum, he said. He also chairs the OCOB DEI Action Committee and liaises with other DEI fellows and deans across the university.
“This is our college,” Deif said of his primary goals and motivations in the role. “This is our climate that we breathe in and live in and learn in and educate in, so I want to help make it a healthy, DEI-conducive climate.”
The survey invited students of all identities to share their experiences within OCOB classrooms. The survey results then helped prompt discussion during the event between students and the four panelists: OCOB academic advisor Yovani Alexander, OCOB Interim Dean Al Liddicoat, Cal Poly Interim Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Denise Isom, and OCOB Associate Dean Stern Neill. About 100 people attended the townhall.
Deif moderated questions for the panelists that included topics such as how the DEI initiatives will play a role within the OCOB community now and into the future, how people can expand their DEI knowledge, and why it’s crucial to address inequity and foster an inclusive environment.
“There is such great need for our incredible students, staff, and faculty to know that this is theirs. Every single bit of Cal Poly is theirs and Cal Poly would not be what it is and it can’t get to where it needs to be without them and without more of them and more of their voices and more of their contributions.”
Neill and Liddicoat shed light on how they are working to create a more inclusive environment within faculty and staff by implementing the personal DEI development plan and ensuring equitable hiring practices. They also shared overarching views about the importance of DEI initiatives and why it’s vital that OCOB represents the best values of society.
“I don’t know how we learn and grow as students, as faculty and staff, as all the stakeholders that are engaged if we don’t acknowledge inequity and prejudice, if we don’t humbly listen and learn from one another and the experiences of others,” Neill said.
“Hearing the stories of others brings an urgency to me in terms of wanting to do this work and willing to do it well,” added Isom of her work at the university level, echoing Neill’s point. “There is such great need for our incredible students, staff, and faculty to know that. This is theirs. Every single bit of Cal Poly is theirs and Cal Poly would not be what it is and it can’t get to where it needs to be without them and without more of them and more of their voices and more of their contributions.”
Isom also outlined how she would like to see more faculty and staff with experience and expertise in diversity, equity and inclusivity across campus but is also hearted by the university’s intentions.
“I like what the phrase inclusive excellence says about the ways in which we’re attempting to approach DEI at Cal Poly,” she said. “It’s embedded in every aspect of our movement toward our aim of being identified as an exemplary, comprehensive polytechnic. We see ourselves as a unique institution, uniquely poised to impact California and the world around us. We see ourselves as graduating students who go out and are immediately ready with the skills to change the world. And Cal Poly is invested in DEI being centrally embedded and woven into every aspect of that—it’s included in the kind of skills we want our students to leave with.”
When asked about the work that lay ahead, and how she’s tempering past disappointments with hope for the future, she reiterated the intentions of the university as a building block.
“The commitment that is clear from the institution and upper administration is why I’m willing to stay here, because if those things were not there, this would be a very different kind of scenario. That said, the list is long in what I’ve been disappointed in, and the list is vast in the things that we need and still have yet to do.”
Deif encouraged attendees to ask questions and share their stories through the chat function on Zoom. Most students chose to ask their questions anonymously. The panelists addressed each comment and made sure those who shared were heard.
Deif said he helped form the DEI committee in order to have student, faculty, and staff representation and efforts put into this work, and he acknowledged that this amount of dedication to DEI work is overdue.“Once we started to have an idea of what we’d like to do in general at OCOB, I came in and said, ‘Well let’s do this not as an individual task, but as a group of us.’ Who is the college? It’s the faculty, staff, and student, so let’s bring them together and let’s share this among a selected group,” Deif said.
The committee has been coming up with clear, actionable initiatives and policies to implement in the college, many of which will arise from the townhall, according to OCOB alumna and student committee member Eve Sumpster. “We’ll have a better sense of what students and faculty are really feeling, rather than just guessing, and from there we can come up with real solutions,” Sumpster said.
“Change occurs when people step outside their comfort zone, when they critically think through their beliefs, and most importantly when they question their institutions.”
Sumpster, business administration junior Lydia Dasari, and business administration freshman Hannah Tenney make up the student representatives within the committee. They work to share stories of other students, recommend initiatives based on what students need to succeed, and advocate for student voices, according to Sumpster.
“It’s a committee dedicated and focused on improving OCOB’s climate and making sure that all students are represented equally and empowering all underrepresented minorities,” Sumpster said.
Ahead of the townhall, the students on the committee developed and deployed the survey, prepared the results, and helped to promote and organize the event. As part of this process, Sumpster, Dasari, and Tenney wrote a collective letter about their intentions for the townhall and published the message, encouraging members of the OCOB and Cal Poly community to engage and attend.
“Transformative action must be taken on all levels for permanent change to occur,” the letter read in part. “As proud members of OCOB, we not only envision a space of diversity and inclusion but one of safety and empowerment. It is with an emphasis on community and restorative justice that we seek this change.”
Following a conversation that centered around these themes, the townhall ended with a closing remark from Dasari, who urged attendees to be “radical and innovative” with their knowledge about diversity and inequity by engaging in conversation, understanding oneself, and calling out performative activism.
“Change is not born from safety,” Dasari said. “It’s not born from sanitized conversations that are moderated by establishment. Change occurs when people step outside their comfort zone, when they critically think through their beliefs, and most importantly when they question their institutions. Change happens when privilege is recognized and utilized, not simply when books or read or events, even like this one, are attended.”