Q&A: Deans James Hackney and Uta Poiger discuss Diversity and Inclusion Council


Dean Uta Poiger of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities and Dean James Hackney of the School of Law

The co-chairs of Northeastern’s Diversity and Inclusion Council, Dean James Hackney of the School of Law and Dean Uta Poiger of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, discussed the council’s work in addressing racism and embracing diversity over a video call with The News Tuesday.

In light of the recent unrest surrounding diversity and tackling racism nationwide, President Joseph E. Aoun made a commitment to elevate the work of his Diversity and Inclusion Council, which has been in place since 2013. This council serves as an advisory body and does not have the power to enforce or implement any changes itself.

The deans addressed efforts to improve diversity among students and faculty, collaboration with students and organizations, students’ relationship with the Northeastern University Police Department and university accountability, among other topics. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Huntington News: Who is on the Diversity and Inclusion Council?

Uta Poiger: We are right now in the process of finalizing the [list] in collaboration with the provost, chancellor and president … It is made up of faculty and staff members from across the university and across the campus network. There are some members who serve as ex-officios (members by virtue of their office position) on the council as well, [including] the heads of student government, both undergraduate and graduate.

James Hackney: The leader of the faculty senate is another ex-officio member, and there’s a few people who have institutional roles that are ex-officio members.

HN: Will there be diverse representation on the Council?

Poiger: Historically, the council has always been quite diverse, in terms of fields, gender, ethnicity, and that is certainly one of the goals in staffing the council. 

HN: How are you working to increase diversity among the student body?

Poiger: [In President Aoun’s Action Plan], the goal listed in there is that by 2025, the student body should reflect the composition of the domestic population of the United States … Right now, the number [of Black Americans] in the undergraduate student body are around 4 percent, sometimes as low as 3 percent, and it differs from college to college … That means a lot of work needs to be done in order to get to 13 percent. 

We expect that by the end of the summer and early fall, we will see more detailed articulation of goals as well as some implementation steps. We will all need to be somewhat patient because a lot of this work is a tall order, and it will take a lot of creativity and resources. We expect to know more about the ways in which the university hopes to accomplish these goals by early fall.

HN: How are you working to increase diversity among faculty and staff?

Poiger: The university has had an ADVANCE Office [of Faculty Development] and STRIDE Committee (Strategies and Tactics for Recruiting to Improve Diversity and Excellence). Both of those are explicitly charged with supporting faculty searches as well as faculty mentoring. The STRIDE Committee, for example, is composed of faculty that does trainings for members of search committees that tells them in detail about what our numbers look like and what the best practices look like and trains people to look at implicit bias, for example. 

It is about how we attract people to considering Northeastern as their destination. That is something that is important for all student, staff and faculty groups — a lot of detailed outreach is needed.

Hackney: There have been efforts to make sure we have diverse pools of faculty candidates and that each of the search committees have direct information about how you conduct searches in order to ensure that we get the most diverse pool … We also have an annual Women of Color in the Academy Conference.

HN: How is student input being incorporated into the Council’s decisions? How is the council collaborating with other student groups and organizations?

Hackney: The two of us have had at least one student town hall which had input from a variety of students. Bob Jose, whose new title is dean of cultural and spiritual life … has been doing a lot of work with students in order to hear their voices amongst the student organizations. We have a wide variety of student cultural centers so that’s another place where input comes from. In addition, we’ve been doing this in the law school. 

Poiger: In some cases, students have written to us directly, student groups have written to us directly. Of course, we do take that seriously as well. As you can imagine, getting a lot of individual messages is harder for us, so we have really appreciated when student groups have collated information, questions, as well as suggestions and brought those forward to the Council. We also look forward to continuing conversations with the student government. 

HN: What does the council plan to do to improve NUPD’s relationship with Northeastern students and the surrounding community?

Poiger: Personally, I have been very struck by how much energy there has been among faculty, staff and students around NUPD and its engagement in Boston and on campus. We look forward to better understanding how the [Community Advisory Board] is going to organize and define its mission. From my perspective, I think it’s important to collect information and concerns about NUPD. I think NUPD can only act well if it understands the concerns that exist. The board will need to work on processes that will encourage more members of our community to feel comfortable coming forward with concerns they have.

Hackney: I see the presidential council as another venue for input, with respect to concerns and suggestions regarding NUPD and a way of presenting that to senior leadership.

HN: Aoun’s Action Plan calls for the implementation of “cultural competency and anti-racism training.” What does that look like? Also, will there be any changes to NUPath requirements to enhance racial injustice awareness among students?

Poiger: Diversity and difference is an NUPath requirement for all undergraduate students. There will have to be a lot of listening … CSSH and CAMD disproportionately represent the difference and diversity requirements. In CSSH, we have 100 classes that fulfill this requirement, but that doesn’t mean those classes have high enrollment. We are looking to work with each of our majors to see how these classes fit into the required and elective classes, and look at the core classes and see how aspects of diversity and difference, specifically U.S. diversity and difference, are taken up in the course … I look forward to some of the difficult conversations that will no doubt come from that.

I think we need additional conversations about what training and requirements mean. We all want to build community and be well-educated, and yet, I think we have to have some skepticism about what requirements we will have. … In terms of awareness, there’s a strong training program for staff members that has been modeled for a number of years in student affairs. There are building blocks to build on and we need to have more conversations and input from students as to how to get this right. 

It’s frustrating to me that the Introduction to African American Studies course, which is an excellent overview of approaches to questions surrounding race and the history, is not taken by many students. We need to better understand why this is the case and how we can change it.

HN: What are future actions that you intend to take to promote diversity and inclusion given the feedback from previous town halls and letters from student organizations?

Hackney: Our role is to do two things: one, to make sure that [students’ and faculty’s concerns] are communicated to senior leadership and two, that there be some level of accountability and a method of keeping track in regard to progress so that we get tangible results. In terms of how we operationalize, that is really in the hands of the senior vice presidents, the deans, the administrators, the folks who actually have operational control. The council doesn’t have direct operational control, but it can act as an information funnel and also act as a body that really emphasizes the need for accountability and transparency with regards to progress.

Poiger: I do think town halls are important. We need to do much more locally as well. I think the high attendance shows how dire this conversation is and the necessary action. James and I are taking this very seriously. We need to inspire action in so many parts of the university, and we see the president’s statement as a very good step in that direction.