Navigating Leadership With an Eye Toward Equity

Understanding My Practice and Experience As an Educational Administrator
EquityDiversityLeadershipAssociate DeanInclusionLived Experience
As an associate dean, I strive to lead in ways that reflect my values for diversity, equity, and inclusion. In this self-study, I sought to learn about and improve my own practice as well as capture the lived experience of leading with these values. Through analysis of the generated data, I describe it as an experience in many – many steps, many efforts, many priorities, many tensions. After explaining this, I provide a focused excerpt that illustrates the nuanced complexity in the act of deciding to send an email. These two items provide windows into the everyday, lived experience of an associate dean trying to lead with an eye towards equity. I found that the focus of the self-study helped me stay attuned to matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion across the many facets of my responsibilities. I posit that the focus and structure of engaging in a self-study can help an academic dean learn from their experience, refine their reflective practice, gain knowledge of themself as a leader, and develop skills as a leader, areas that Gmelch, Hopkins, and Damico (2011) argue need to be well-developed to become a strong academic leader.

Situating the Study

I am a White, cisgender woman who, as a social studies teacher educator, tried to model my commitments to democracy and diversity in her teaching. After 14 years at a large predominantly White public university in the Midwest region of the United States, I accepted the role of associate dean of undergraduate education in my college. I envisioned myself as a leader whose actions would reflect the values I held as a teacher educator. As I began my new role, I learned that the office I would lead was engaging in a multi-year, office-wide professional development series, with programming to deepen our capacity to work with diverse others. The series included workshops around microaggressions, religion, sexuality, gender violence, and ethical decision making. I saw this as aligned with my values of equity and diversity and thought I was on my way to being the leader I imagined myself to be.

Gmelch, Hopkins, and Damico (2011) describe the life of the dean in four seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter. Spring, they explain, typically includes the first three years and is the time of getting started, setting agendas, building teams, and planting seeds. In those first three years, I felt good about what I was doing; I was confident in my work. I would have pointed to our professional development series and my role in the creation of a bridge program for students from underserved populations as evidence of my commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Summer is from years four to seven. It is a time when a dean should be “hitting [their] stride” (p. 29) and I would say I was hitting my stride in 2019, my fourth year. I was beginning to question whether my actions and practices were focused enough on diversity, equity, and inclusion. My growing unease with whether I was living my values seemed an opportunity I shouldn’t let pass. I wanted to be a leader who noticed inequity and actively worked to make change. I wanted to be a leader who encouraged and supported others to be advocates who see and make change themselves. I was not there yet. I was not being as proactive as I wanted; I needed to do more. I was not sensitized to noticing at the level I expected from a leader (Mason, 2002) and had yet to truly learn how to lead others to consider questions of equity in our shared work at the university. I needed to be more deliberate about the work I was engaging in and understand more about the experience of becoming more deliberate and explicit in my equity work. In 2020, I began more earnestly to push myself to be the leader I wanted to be.

As a self-study researcher, I read self-study work of administrators before and after becoming an associate dean. I knew the role was fraught with tensions and complexity. Clift (2015) wrote specifically about being an associate dean. Her title, “at your service,” resonated with me and my experiences thus far in the role. She found that her schedule involved collaborating with many others in and outside of the college. She wrote of being both proactive and reactive and I saw many connections between what I had experienced so far and what she described. I wanted to add to these descriptions for others in this role. Manke (2004) provided an early review of self-study research related to aspects of administration in teacher education contexts. At that time, she found themes across these studies around issues of power, community, and social justice. I had also seen these issues in my daily work in this role. Manke wrote that research related to administrative matters, “provides an unusual perspective on issues of leadership, styles of interaction, and the ways that the demands of administration affect individuals” (p. 1368). I agreed and I wanted to delve into the role of associate dean more. Allison and Ramirez (2020) revisited the literature since Manke’s review. In their review of literature, they found that more recent studies explored how we, as administrators, came into our roles, how we learned in our roles, and the value of critical friends in our roles. My hope was that through self-study, I could both learn from and about my practice while providing an example of the lived experience of an associate dean leading with an eye on equity.

Study Aim

Taylor and Diamond (2020) asked, “How do we help to push ourselves as self-study researchers to move from talking about these commitments theoretically to taking them up and enacting them in our teacher education practices and research?” (p. 511). I wondered this too. I began this self-study wanting to examine my practice as I tried to be an inclusive, equitable, and anti-racist leader. This larger examination began, near the beginning of 2020. For this paper, I sought to capture the essence of the lived experience as I worked to live my values as a leader who values diversity, equity, and inclusion. I wanted to learn about and improve my own practice while also providing access to these experiences to others so they might consider their own practice and experience as an administrator. I considered these questions as guides to the inquiry: Who am I as an associate dean who wants to engage in inclusive, equitable, and anti-racist practices as a leader? What do I do as a leader? How do I experience this process?


Our college includes education, health, and human service majors for graduate and undergraduate students. We serve about 2600 undergraduate students; about half intend to become teachers. As associate dean, I am responsible for providing leadership around multiple aspects of undergraduate education including advising, curriculum, recruitment and retention, and student success. I am charged with leading our college’s office of student services, a team of nearly 30 people (20-22 full-time staff, 3-6 graduate assistants, and 2-3 undergraduate student workers). The office includes areas such as advising, clinical experiences, data management and programming, the director of teacher education, educator licensure, recruitment and retention, and student success. Though I see diversity, equity, and inclusion as integral to my role, these are not explicitly named in any of my roles and responsibilities.


My wondering began in early 2020 and coalesced in our summer months (July/August). I did some initial documenting and meetings with a critical friend from August through December before settling on systematically documenting my experiences for three months, mid-February – mid-May 2021. I hoped to capture and then convey the lived experience of an administrator trying to lead with a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (Van Manen, 1990, 2014). To generate data,

Analysis was inspired by Van Manen’s (2014) description of thematic analysis in his work on phenomenology of practice (e.g., wholistic, selective, and detailed readings). I approached the texts as a whole, reading each item to gain an overall sense and naming an overall theme from that text. In a selective reading approach, I read the text multiple times discerning the statement that seems most revealing about the experience. With detailed readings, I read each line and asked what that portion said about my experience. This multi-leveled reading and analysis process brought me to consider my experience in a multitude of ways that I share below.

Understanding the Experience

Entering this endeavor, I wondered: Who am I as an associate dean who wants to engage in inclusive, equitable, and anti-racist practices as a leader? What do I do as a leader? How do I experience this process? Before documenting my experiences for three months, I sat to write a succinct statement of my commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion as an administrator in higher education. I wrote, I have a: “commitment to cultivating a just, equitable, and excellent educational experience for all. This commitment is fundamental to nurturing and supporting a more democratic society. … Higher education has a responsibility to the communities we serve. We must be active partners with them and work together for a more just society.” I considered what I do as associate dean:

As a leader, I must look at barriers to access and inclusion, work towards eliminating barriers, and strive to cultivate a larger institutional culture where all members are  respected and valued. For example, when making decisions I must work to ensure that  diverse voices and perspectives are present in the process. But, I cannot stop there. I need  to find ways to ensure that all voices and perspectives are valued, respected, and  included. I should ask myself who might not feel safe to contribute and then how to work  to change the climate so they do contribute. Ensuring that diverse perspectives are present  and that the processes are as inclusive as possible is not enough. I also need to consider if  the decision made will be equitable for different people with different histories and  identities. Will the specific policy, practice, or procedure we are deciding [on] be  equitable for all?  

After writing this, I finished the semester and connected with a critical friend to begin planning for data collection.

I realized, through this study, that I had expected that leading with an eye on equity and living my commitments, would have a coherent, coordinated, and systematic nature. However, the lived experience of my vision was not at all tidy. During the focused data collection period, I wondered more than once, “Am I doing anything to lead? Is there anything at all remotely tied to my values involved in what I am doing? Am I really working towards diversity, equity, and inclusion?” After the analysis, I can say yes, the data includes evidence of a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Across the period, I can point to examples of collaboration with our equity and inclusion team as we worked to ensure students’ chosen name was used correctly and consistently throughout the college and beyond, my internal struggle and outward actions to ensure staff are treated equitably and feel they are treated equitably, or my contemplating ways to encourage programs to “make their curriculum more culturally relevant, anti-racist, [and] inclusive.” However, the answer yes and a list of actions obscures the complexity of what the experience itself was like.

What I saw across this snapshot of time is an experience in many – many steps, many efforts, many priorities, many tensions. This should not be surprising since this describes the life of an associate dean in general. Within the data, across one week in late February, I wrote about 1) grappling with how to ensure a feeling of equity within our staff; a persistent issue I continue to actively think about, 2) sharing about diversity, equity, and inclusion events as a practice in leading, and 3) contemplating how to facilitate our equity and inclusion team group to be a true collaboration with me as a member instead of a group that implements my ideas as associate dean. In April, one day I documented a discussion that occurred at the university undergraduate dean’s meeting where I mentioned our work in the college on chosen name as part of an effort to push the conversation in multiple venues on campus. Three days later, I wrote about my frustration that I had yet to figure out how to move on my desire to make curriculum changes related to equity.

I have been wanting to do something for over a year now that asks our faculty/programs to think about ways to make their curriculum more culturally relevant, anti-racist, inclusive…So why haven’t I? …I’m still grappling with how, finding time to come up with a plan, and how to walk the line of curriculum is under the control of the faculty – but if I am supposed to be a leader then what does that mean? (April 16)

When I analyzed what I wrote about, I rarely saw a specific topic revisited. In the moment, and in initial analysis, my efforts felt scattered and disconnected. With more sustained examination and when contemplating these efforts and their connections and contexts, what I saw was not disconnected but rather reflective of the many dimensions of my life as associate dean. The position itself involves varied responsibilities that require adjusting and sometimes competing priorities. In this snapshot of time, leading with an eye towards diversity, equity, and inclusion reflected the nature of the position itself, which meant that this work was not highly focused on single projects but rather was infused across my life as I shifted daily or even hourly based on the different aspects of my role that I was attending to at the moment (e.g., curriculum, analyzing data, working with staff).

Describing the variety of experiences across a period of time opens one window into the daily experiences of an associate dean, but so does exploring the depth and nuance within a single event. Focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion can be intense, exhausting, invigorating, frustrating, and rewarding, sometimes at the same time. I experienced frustration with myself, others, and institutional and societal systems multiple times. I often experienced multi-layered thought processes just to take an action that appears small or simple from the outside. After analyzing my writings and meetings with my critical friend, one particular event emerged that helps convey some of these complexities as lived.

On April 20, 2021, I sent an email message to our office team. Sending an email happens dozens of times a day. It is a seemingly simple action. This email emerged out of a confluence of larger socio-cultural events in the United States, events within the university, my focus on nurturing a climate of understanding, respect, and care in our team, and my frustration with myself and the university not doing enough. I wrote on the subject line: “A message from me to all of you” and sent this message to all members of our office:

As we watch for the results in the Derek Chauvin trial to come in, as we watch black and brown children like Adam Toledo be killed, as we see examples of systemic racism over and over, I want to acknowledge that some of us live with pain, grief, and fear in ways that others of us cannot understand. In an interaction or the flurry to get something accomplished, we may not even realize that someone else is bringing a whole lot [of] trauma with them to a meeting or a conversation. I will continue to remind myself of this and ask that we all keep[sic] try to keep this in mind this week and every week. As a team, we try to be here for our students and often think about how to support them. I also want folks to remember it is both ok and necessary to take care of ourselves. (April 20, 2021)

I shared this email with my critical friend, Christina, as soon as I sent it to the office. In response, she asked: “What was the motivation for saying something? What were you thinking about when writing it?” The deliberation, time, and emotion behind this email are hidden. What I replied helps convey some of the complexity of what I experienced before sending the email, providing another window into the experience of leading with an eye on equity. I replied:

Here’s the oversimplified version.
Had two minds of it. The leader /associate dean and Me as a colleague.
As a colleague I wanted to reach out individually to my BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color] team members or those who have BIPOC family and children just because I again am reminded how much fear and stress they experience and I can’t even fathom how these past few weeks have been – again. There’s a lot [to consider] here and I didn’t want to reach out just because of how I felt. Like some kind of white person sharing my feelings is important.
Leader/associate dean – I want to make sure that everyone on the team feels supported and I also know that there are people who still don’t understand that others have pain that they don’t experience. I know some just don’t think about it. It isn’t at the level of not thinking it exists but just not seeing the trauma of systemic racism on folks.
I am not sure how long [this has festered], maybe it came out of yesterday but the impetus came today. While I was trying to figure out what to do, I was feeling confusion, pain, angst, because I know so much is going on and things aren’t changing in noticeable ways. And, I found out a couple things yesterday about people leaving the institution, again because of race, which upset, irritated me – why can we not move so people who are awesome stay here? Why can’t we make people who repeatedly perpetuate micro and macro aggressions change? I know it is not always intentional but you would think we would have gotten better at knowing when we do things or, when others do things then we say/do something. Honestly I was frustrated that we as a college hadn’t said anything about the killings and the trial or as a university (though the president sent a message before I sent mine but not when I started aching). We had a big statement when the [US 2020 presidential] election happened to help students who were stressed depending on the results.
I was feeling all this, then, I had a staff meeting this morning and I didn’t say anything, nothing! And I was angry with myself. How freaking hard would it have been to just say something! A moment of silence even, but then I was silent – I didn’t speak anything, which speaks volumes.
I swirled some today after that, around meetings, trying to write something, deciding what to do, starting and stopping of writing. I started to email the [Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion], the dean, actually started drafting messages. I finally asked [the] Director of Diversity Outreach and Development [in our college] if we could talk. We did. But I didn’t want to ask him. because he’s a BIPOC colleague and I knew he would be hurting too, but I needed to turn to someone. When we spoke, I told him that too – I wanted his DEI expert brain but I knew the conversation might be painful and I apologized for asking him to do it. He thanked me for apologizing – for the acknowledgement that what I was asking was painful. We talked. I shared some of this. Then I more clearly drafted and sent it. I revised several times. I didn’t want it to cause more stress for some, I wanted it to be stated though, so they know someone thinks about these things. I also wanted to make sure that those who aren’t thinking about how [these events] hurt others do think about it once in a while. I will say the way I felt today was all full of doubt and emotion. (April 20, 2021)

As a leader, I had many varied thoughts and emotions while trying to decide whether to write this email, all while completing other work and making other decisions. As an individual, I had my own frustrations that institutional change was slow and concerns about the state of the country as a whole with regards to social justice. I weighed those against my roles as an academic and team leader and my place in the university hierarchy. As the leader of our office team, I was concerned about the stressors some members of our team were experiencing more directly related to racial justice in the USA in 2020-2021 because they or loved ones were Black - three of our staff identified as Black and were parents of Black children and at least two White staff members had Black or multiracial children. As a leader, I wanted to cultivate a safe space where all feel valued. As an associate dean, I am a direct connection to the dean and there are only two people between my position and the president of the university. I know that what I say or do not say matters and reflects on the larger institution. So deciding when to speak, what to say, and how to say it are key decisions to make. Not recognizing and speaking to the moment, would have sent a message and one that I decided would have damaged my long term ability to work towards equity and inclusion. This moment provides a small glimpse into a single lived experience of an associate dean trying to lead with an eye towards equity.

Concluding Thoughts

As I conclude this paper, I know I have grown since the moments captured in the data over those three months. Gmelch, Hopkins, and Damico (2011) shared that a dean should develop in three interconnected areas to become a strong academic leader. The three areas are “a) conceptual understanding of the unique roles and responsibilities encompassed in the deanship, b) the skills necessary to achieve the results through working with faculty, staff, students, constituents, and campus leaders; and c) reflective practice to learn from past experiences and perfect the art of leadership” (p. 8). I grew in all three areas through this time. Though not a process that ever ends, I have become more explicit in my practice about my values, the choices I make, and the reasons why I make them. I have become clearer in how and what I communicate to others and I have deepened my understanding of the role I play on my team and within the larger institution. The practices of self-study helped me become more deliberate about the work I engage in, and I honed my ability to notice in the day-to-day of my practice. It brought my attention to my values, my actions, and my decisions. I became increasingly skilled in how I act and how I make decisions with attention to questions of who has voice, who is included, who is not included, and who or what am I not thinking about.

Gmelch and Buller (2015) provide a variety of strategies for leadership development for deans that support growth of conceptual understanding, skills, and reflective practice across three levels (the personal, institutional, and professional). Self-study does not appear by name but strategies we use in self-study do, including “journaling,” “reflective practice,” “values clarification,” and “consultations with mentors and confidants” (p. 119). The focus and structure that self-study brings helps an academic dean learn from their experience, refine their reflective practice at the personal level, gain knowledge of themself as a leader, and develop skills as a leader. Considering Gmelch and Buller’s model, I recommend self-study not only as a method of engaging in reflective practice but also as a means to continually develop skills, knowledge, and reflective practice as a dean and to find renewal as an academic leader.


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Alicia R. Crowe

Kent State University

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