Malaika Marable Serrano: Redefining diversity initiatives in higher education

Malaika Marable Serrano shared her insights into the challenges faced by higher education institutions, crucial strategies for fostering inclusivity, and the role of global efforts in promoting equity and inclusion within the academic sphere.

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The principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have become integral to shaping the academic experience in the ever-evolving landscape of higher education. Some institutions are grappling with the multifaceted nature of diversity, spanning from demographic representation to inclusive curriculum design. The pursuit of equitable opportunities for all students is redefining the educational paradigm.

In international higher education, strategies are essential for fostering an inclusive and equitable environment. The pursuit of a truly global and diverse academic community requires a nuanced understanding of cultural nuances, bridging gaps in access, and dismantling systemic barriers. As institutions aspire to create spaces where every student feels heard and valued, the strategies employed must not only recognize cultural diversity but actively work towards dismantling the institutional barriers that perpetuate inequality.

With a wealth of experience and expertise in driving transformative change within academic institutions, Malaika Marable Serrano, vice president for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging at Guild, emerges as a guiding force in the realm of DEI initiatives. 

In an exclusive interview with MSM Reporter, she advocated for creating environments that go beyond superficial inclusivity, bringing a strategic and insightful perspective to the ongoing discourse on reshaping higher education for a more equitable and inclusive future. 

Serrano also shared her insights into the challenges faced by higher education institutions, crucial strategies for fostering inclusivity, and the role of global efforts in promoting equity and inclusion within the academic sphere.

As a leader in promoting equity and inclusion, how do you define and envision these principles within the current higher education landscape? 

For me, social justice and inclusive pedagogy guide how I define and envision equity and inclusion in higher education. Equity is ensuring that everyone has fair opportunities to succeed, regardless of their background or identity. Inclusion involves creating a space in which everyone – regardless of their identities or lived experiences – can feel seen, heard, and respected without fear of judgment, rejection, or harassment.

 A strong institutional commitment to DEIB is demonstrated in the allocation of resources. If resources are lacking, this can hinder the implementation and effectiveness of DEIB programs and initiatives. 

What strategies do you believe are crucial for fostering an inclusive and equitable environment in international higher education? 

Fostering an inclusive and equitable environment in international higher education is essential for promoting diversity, empowering students and faculty, and enriching the overall educational experience. Here are a few strategies that have been proven to drive a more inclusive educational environment: 

  • Institutional Commitment – It’s imperative that the President/CEO and their cabinet clearly articulate the institution’s commitment – and resources – to creating an inclusive and equitable environment. 
  • Recruitment and Retention – Actively recruit faculty and staff from diverse backgrounds. Implement retention strategies that address the specific challenges faced by international students and faculty.
  • Curriculum Integration – Integrate diverse perspectives and authors into the curriculum to reflect global and multicultural understanding of the subject matter.
  • Faculty and Staff Enablement – Provide training for faculty and staff on cultural competency, unconscious bias, and inclusive teaching practices.
  • Student Support – Continuously monitor and update support services that address the unique needs of international students and demonstrate the value of a diverse student body.
  • Data Assessment and Accountability – Regularly collect and analyze data on diversity and inclusion metrics. Identify both “bright spots” and areas for improvement.
  • Psychological and Physical Safety – Implement clear procedures for reporting and addressing any incidents discrimination, harassment, and bias.
  • Promote Global Education – Foster collaborations with international institutions including joint research projects, student exchange programs, and collaborative initiatives.

What are some recurring challenges faced by higher education institutions when striving for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion, and how can they be overcome? 

Each institution has its own unique set of challenges and opportunities and context is everything. That said, there are some common themes regarding barriers to implementing diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) principles and practices:

  • Representation Matters – When senior leadership does not reflect the diversity of the student body, staff profile, and/or surrounding community, this can hinder the development and implementation of inclusive policies. Intentional recruitment efforts and leadership development programs can broaden representation across leadership ranks.
  • Recruitment and Retention – this point is directly connected to representation (or lack thereof) in leadership and management positions. In addition to focused recruitment strategies aimed at diversifying and retaining a diverse student body, faculty, and staff, additional solutions may include mentorship programs, networks that support and affirm diverse identities, and professional development opportunities.
  • A strong institutional commitment to DEIB is demonstrated in the allocation of resources. If resources are lacking, this can hinder the implementation and effectiveness of DEIB programs and initiatives. 
  • Data is fundamental to identifying and addressing disparities (or “bright spots”) in student outcomes and experiences, along with measuring faculty and staff advancement and pay parity, along demographic dimensions. This must be prioritized, along with analyzing the effectiveness of DEIB-initiated programs and policies.
  • Physical and digital infrastructures may not be fully accessible to students, faculty, and staff living with disabilities. Implementing universal design principles in the development of facilities, platforms, and resources will widen access for everyone. 
  • The campus environment may not be perceived as welcoming to students, faculty, and staff from historically marginalized communities. Creating a sense of belonging is an outcome of DEI initiatives. Psychological and physical safety are key, as well as actively actively addressing incidents of discrimination.

When considering DEI for international students, what unique challenges do you think are most pressing, and how should they be addressed? 

The dual impact of COVID-19 and global calls for racial justice, accelerated this conversation, which was long overdue! Cultural perceptions and definitions of race and gender can vary significantly, and international students may need time to unpack and navigate these concepts in a US context.

Some international students may find themselves navigating microaggressions and stereotyping based on race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, perceived immigration status, accent/language, and other dimensions of diversity.  

International educators can proactively support international students by engaging in conversations that recognize and validate intersectional identities. Staying abreast of anti-discrimination laws, campus/institutional reporting procedures, and seeking advice from campus legal or human resources departments are tactical examples to support international students. 

 Some international students may find themselves navigating microaggressions and stereotyping based on race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, perceived immigration status, accent/language, and other dimensions of diversity.  

From your experience, what quantitative and qualitative measures do you find most effective in assessing the progress and impact of DEI initiatives?

I know I’ve mentioned this a few times, but can’t emphasize enough how paramount data is, in setting DEIB priorities and strategy, along with measuring progress, celebrating successes (and replicating them!) and identifying areas of concern. Here are several examples of quantitative and qualitative measures to assess progress and impact of DEIB initiatives:

  • For Faculty/Staff
    • Begin with human capital metrics (e.g. time to hire/fill role, acceptance rate, performance evaluation, promotion, and retention). Conduct analyzes to identify and address any pay gaps based on gender, race, or other demographic factors. 
    • Evaluate your hiring processes and embed equitable practices (e.g. diverse candidate slates, diverse interview panels, assess the “health” of the hiring funnel at key stages – sourcing, initial interview, projet/presentation, campus/final interview) and put guardrails in place to slow down the process if demographic representation identified at the onset of the hiring process, is no longer proportionately reflected in key benchmarks along the interview process.
    • Examine data on promotions and leadership appointments. If equity gaps exist, introduce intervention(s) to close/eliminate disparities, set a timeline, and communicate goal(s) with the campus community, to build trust and accountability.  
  • For Students
    • Analyze recruitment, acceptance rate, retention, student satisfaction scores, and graduation rates of different demographic groups. Identify any disparities and assess whether DEIB-led initiatives are contributing to improved outcomes.
  • Campus/Institution
    • Track demographic data related to the representation of different groups within the institution, including student body, faculty, and staff. Monitor changes in diversity over time.
  • Conduct regular engagement and student satisfaction surveys, to assess the experiences of employees and students related to DEIB initiatives and drivers that indicate a sense of belonging (e.g. I feel psychologically safe to take risks in class/at work; senior leadership reflects my identities; I can be my full authentic self in class/residence hall/work). Use standardized scales and include open-ended questions to gather qualitative insights into how individuals perceive the institution’s commitment to DEIB.
  • Monitor attendance and participation rates in diversity training programs. Assess the reach and impact of these programs on staff, faculty, and students.
  • Track the number and types of diversity-related incidents reported within the institution. Analyze trends and assess the effectiveness of incident resolution processes.
  • Assess the accessibility of physical and digital infrastructure. Use metrics such as the number of accessible facilities and the compliance of online resources with accessibility standards.
  • Collect in-depth insights through open-ended survey questions and focus group discussions. Capture the lived experiences and perceptions of individuals regarding DEIB initiatives.
  • Evaluate the impact of the institution’s DEIB initiatives on the broader community. Collect qualitative data on community perceptions and engagement.

International educators contribute to the development of leaders with intercultural competence, who are capable of leading diverse teams. As a result, graduates are equipped to address global challenges, such as climate change, health crises, and social inequality, which require diverse perspectives and collaborative solutions. 

Combining both quantitative and qualitative measures provides a more nuanced understanding of the progress and impact of DEIB initiatives. 

How do you see the role of higher education institutions in promoting global equity and inclusion, and what opportunities do internationalization efforts offer in this regard? 

International educators play a crucial role in advancing global equity and inclusion. The ethos of our profession is to foster cross-cultural understanding by providing exposure to diverse perspectives, and creating inclusive learning environments. 

Incorporating global perspectives into the curriculum exposes students to a wide range of cultural, historical, and social contexts. Importantly, engaging in civil discourse promotes an inclusive mindset by emphasizing shared humanity and interconnectedness across borders. 

International educators contribute to the development of leaders with intercultural competence, who are capable of leading diverse teams. As a result, graduates are equipped to address global challenges, such as climate change, health crises, and social inequality, which require diverse perspectives and collaborative solutions. 

Jaleen Ramos

Jaleen Ramos

Jaleen Ramos has been a professional journalist for five years now. She has contributed and covered stories for premier Philippine dailies and publications, and has traveled to different parts of the country to capture and tell the most significant stories happening.

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Jaleen Ramos

Jaleen Ramos

Jaleen Ramos has been a professional journalist for five years now. She has contributed and covered stories for premier Philippine dailies and publications, and has traveled to different parts of the country to capture and tell the most significant stories happening.

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