Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education

CPE leader discusses campus progress on diversity, equity and inclusion

October 29, 2020

Dawn Offutt
Dawn Offutt

Dawn Offutt serves as the director of initiatives for diversity, equity and inclusion for the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. A native of Lexington, she first joined the Council in 2012 as director of program services for GEAR UP Kentucky and later served as a senior associate. She earned her doctorate in education from the University of Kentucky.

Let's start with some important numbers that came out earlier this year. CPE's annual progress report showed that bachelor's degrees for underrepresented minority (URM) students are up 5.3%, while credentials jumped 7.4%. What's driving those gains?

Speaking from the work we do, our statewide diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policy called for each institution to create its own five-year diversity plan with focus on three areas – opportunity, success and impact. Campuses had to develop strategies to increase enrollment of underrepresented minority students and support them through degree completion. We are now at the end of that five-year period, and we're seeing results. Campuses have monitored the data and made adjustments along the way to ensure the plans are working and that has had a direct relationship to what you see in terms of degree completion.

We also see that nearly all of Kentucky's public campuses are meeting or exceeding requirements in our statewide diversity policy. Do you feel like the policy is achieving its goals overall?

I absolutely do. I think that's because we used a combination of both quantitative and qualitative metrics to evaluate institutions as a whole. We didn't want to focus solely on the quantitative side because we know there is a story behind the stats. We also wanted to make sure campuses had an opportunity to discuss the successes along with the challenges and implement changes if things weren't going well. We are entering our third year of actually evaluating the scores, and we are definitely moving in the right direction – we are seeing the gains we wanted to see. Now that people are familiar with the process, they recognize its importance.

Campuses need to make sure they are not just talking about equity and diversity, but actually demonstrating results.

DEI has certainly remained front and center this year amid the attention on social justice issues and COVID-19. Is it creating the right momentum for significant, sustainable changes in higher education?

These issues aren't new. There have always been injustices and inequities on campuses and in other systems. However, the pandemic has highlighted these problems for many individuals who were either not aware or were not willing to acknowledge them, and that has created a unique opportunity. This is absolutely a time to capitalize on the momentum. Campuses need to make sure they are not just talking about equity and diversity, but actually demonstrating results. The individuals who are making their voices heard right now are going to hold institutions accountable for what's been said – and for what's been accomplished.

So how do campuses maintain that momentum going forward?

You have to be intentional. You have to say this is important and be intentional about addressing it. You have to look at your policies on campus. You need to look at your practices and people involved in planning and decision-making. How inclusive is your environment? You have to look at your students and see if there is that sense of belonging. And you can't do it one semester and be done; it has to be continual. You have to put a process in place so that you are accountable over the long term.

Learn more about CPE's diversity efforts: CPE's statewide diversity policy driving campuses to narrow achievement gap.

One of the ways your team has been advancing the conversation is through the Higher EDquity webinar series. What was the impetus for that, and how is it going?

When President Thompson created the DEI unit, one of our goals was to serve as a resource hub for postsecondary institutions across the state, and COVID-19 really accelerated our timeline. We spoke to diversity reps from different institutions and asked how we could help. They gave us ideas about what was happening on campus and where they needed support. Those conversations, coupled with the protocols on social distancing, led to our webinar series.

Several topics have come from institutional diversity reps or through feedback from our audiences, and they have all been well received. Faculty are especially concerned about connecting with students during the pandemic and amid the social injustices, but DEI encompasses a lot of topics. Sometimes you think people know about a particular issue, but you come to find out that people don't know as much as you thought and want to know more. We want to do our part to keep people informed and continue this conversation.

Overall, we want to increase each individual's level of self-awareness, improve their cross communication skills with others and expand their cultural worldview to be open to diverse perspectives.

You and your team are also spearheading a new certification program on cultural competency. Can you tell us about that process and how it's going?

Kentucky's statewide DEI policy calls on campuses to produce culturally competent faculty, staff and students. And even though campuses have been working toward the same goals, we've seen a great deal of variation in the approach. We thought it would be more beneficial to establish a single statewide certification process with well-defined competencies. We pulled together a group of representatives from both two- and four-year institutions to develop minimum competencies for a certification process that we expect to roll out statewide next year. It sends the message that public, postsecondary education in Kentucky is serious about the importance of cultural competence. At minimum, these are the things we want students, faculty and staff to be able to demonstrate daily in their campus environments and interactions with other people.

What are some of the key lessons and takeaways that people learn while earning this certification?

Overall, we want to increase each individual's level of self-awareness, improve their cross communication skills with others and expand their cultural worldview to be open to diverse perspectives. That's very broad, but it includes focusing on cross-cultural knowledge, listening to others, understanding the difference between equality and equity, and understanding the intersectionality of identities. In terms of an overall mission statement, we want our campus communities to recognize their own responsibility in this global society – and in a way that promotes equity and justice.

Well, it sounds like you have a lot on your plate so I appreciate your time today.

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss our work. If people want to know more about what we are doing, they can contact us via the Council's website or they can join us at this year's Higher EDquity Symposium in November.

Last Updated: 7/22/2021