March 2, 2022

Unpacking Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the University of Virginia

A conversation with Kevin McDonald, Vice President for DEI and Community Partnerships at UVA, on the specifics of the school’s DEI efforts.

What does diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) look like in higher education spaces? It’s a question ascending the ladder of priorities in recent years for district administrators, institutional leaders and designers who create learning spaces. Students, faculty and community members are demanding colleges and universities go beyond making public statements and do the real work to create spaces of belonging for diverse communities.

Kevin McDonald, vice president of diversity, equity, inclusion and community partnerships at the University of Virginia (UVA), is approaching this formidable task with passion, vision and intention. As the state’s flagship university with a history of being embroiled in the tensions of racially segregated education, the journey to reshape the school’s culture has been long and arduous. Today, UVA is following a comprehensive framework to ensure the campus and surrounding community members feel welcome on campus and in spaces where the institution’s reach is prominent.

We had the honor of welcoming Mr. McDonald to join our discussion on diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education, and we’ve taken a deeper dive into the insight he shared.

View the full recording of our DEI in Higher Education webinar here >


What is UVA doing to address DEI? What’s important in your process?

We’ve made a strong push to develop a common narrative that’s rooted in our strategic framework and shared it across our academic and administrative units. It’s been beautiful to see this movement go beyond the institutional walls to the local community and across the state. Our current governor has adopted our strategic framework for the entire state of Virginia, and everything from school districts to retirement communities are interested in utilizing it now. The framework helps bring our community and networks together and that’s been great.

Another focus has been on data. We’ve gone beyond the standard diversity dashboards to create racial equity dashboards, including analytics that measure feelings of belonging for faculty, staff and students. Many institutions don’t diversify their own dashboards to really find deeper meaning, specifically, as it relates to racial equity.

How is UVA creating equitable spaces for diverse students and staff who are already part of the community?

We’ve taken a hard look at our policies through an equity lens, particularly our 10-year promotion policy for faculty, and any policies that may have potentially disparaging effects on our diverse communities. We’ve surveyed our students, particularly as it relates to belonging, to better understand how students from different identities feel they belong at UVA.

We’re also establishing Inclusive Essence Grants built out of our framework. Student organizations apply for these grants—and it’s significant funding, not just a small amount of money—to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion. The grants have the opportunity to be truly transformational, with the caveat that students can only access those funds if they’re working with another student organization different from their own. Empowering that cross-collaboration from an organizational standpoint is key.

Lastly, we know as diversity officers doing this work, we can’t do it all on our own. So, we’ve created faculty fellows, student fellows and undergraduate and graduate fellows to advance DEI. One example is the work the faculty fellows are doing to retain our faculty of color. We’ve created a way for them to be part of the solution, so they’ve identified some great programs to better unite faculty and create a stronger sense of belonging in ways we hope will increase retention.

How is UVA prioritizing executive accountability towards DEI advancement? What does accountability look like at UVA?

It starts at the top. We have a very committed President who touts DEI and justice as a shared responsibility. He’s directed us to develop a racial equity leadership development series. He’s asked for an equity-minded decision-making tool kit for our leadership and other colleagues across the institution. He’s created a culture of expectation of participation in our strategic DEI planning efforts and implementation of our strategic framework (the Inclusive Excellence Framework). Establishing that expectation has been valuable in creating participation and buy-in.

I’m incredibly grateful for his presence and dedication—he approaches it in a way that models the type of behavior that’s infectious among other leaders. He’s humble, he’s modest, he doesn’t over-promise and under-deliver. He’s incredibly engaged and visible with all our faculty, staff, students and alumni.

And another thing, he wants to shift the culture—he’s leaned into the notion of community partnerships. Some institutions talk about community relations and community engagement, but he wanted to be more co-creative. He created a president’s council on community partnership in areas like jobs, wages, health, education and affordable housing. One of the outcomes of that ongoing group has been the creation of more than 1,000 affordable housing units for the community—not for faulty or students, but for the community. That’s been a game-changer. It’s really started to shift the narrative in the community from one of distrust to more trusting.

What initiatives are occurring in response to the racial injustice that has come to light in recent years?

UVA was really rocked to its core in 2017. I joined in 2019 and came from the University of Missouri, which had its own opportunity to respond to protests ignited by Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. Our alums, students and the local community demanded the university do better and that was exasperated by the deaths that happened in 2020. So, the university reflected and created a racial equity task force that combined over 50 years’ worth of past protests, demands and recommendations for the institution around racial equity that hadn’t been fully embraced and dealt with.

It was amazing to see that within two months they made recommendations our Board and president endorsed. It was everything from anti-racist education to changing names of buildings, removing statues, presenting motions to examine policies and focusing on doubling the faculty of color in the next 10 years. The president told us to go big or go home, so we made these bold recommendations, and it was an awesome thing to see how the community and leadership came together.

We have a dashboard on our website—because we didn’t want to have these recommendations on a shelf somewhere—so, in a very transparent way, the dashboard keeps the community abreast of where we are in our implementation efforts so there are no questions about what happened to those recommendations. There is definitely a deep feeling of gratitude to the alum, students, faculty and staff who came together to push us to be better.

How does UVA get student feedback on your DEI goals?

We use surveys, focus groups and in-person town halls. Since the pandemic, we’ve shifted to virtual town halls that have been incredibly effective for collecting data and feedback and creating an interactive opportunity not just with our students, faculty, and staff but with the parents, alumni, and local community members. We can ask and answer some of the important questions. We’ve found that to be helpful and we haven’t missed a beat in being able to engage them in that way.

How does the physical environment at UVA support or hinder progress on DEI?

We heard a lot from our students about the traumatizing impact of the landscape—how it was affecting their performance in the classroom and sense of belonging. Hearing those firsthand accounts was important. Thinking about cultural centers and the counter-narrative they give to students, I was pleased UVA took a hard look at elevating our cultural centers from their current locations to more prominent places and spaces at the request of our students. It was done in ways that were co-created and co-constructed with our students—ways they appreciate. Also, leveraging what we can do in the virtual space by leaning into what our students best respond to, especially diverse learners, can’t be overlooked.

What is one issue you hope will be solved in the DEI space in higher education in five years?

At UVA we’ve been leaning into engraining spaces for our descendants of those who were enslaved. We now have a community called the descendants of the slaved community. We’re working on an MOU with that group, so I hope we’ve established an MOU that will govern how we identify those specific intersections of opportunity for those community members. Also, there is a bill in our state asking for the development of scholarships for descendants of the enslaved, so five years from now, I hope we have some graduates who were recipients of that.