DEI: Let’s Be Honest

As the culture wars have heated up, diversity, equity, and inclusion have been in the crosshairs at independent schools across the country. While many have embraced the idea that schools and students benefit from diverse perspectives and welcoming students of all races, ethnicities, socio-economic classes, religions, abilities, sexual orientations, and gender identities, programs, policies, and practices vary widely. As independent schools, this is as it should be. And yet, regardless of school, region, or population served, all schools grapple with how to articulate and live their values. Perhaps not surprisingly, this has implications for the head of school search as well.

How does a school looking for a new leader evaluate a candidate’s vision, experience, and “match” on this critical issue? From a tactical standpoint, if DEI appears in the school’s mission, a formal statement on DEI exists, there are formal practices and/or policies around the issue, or its topic of discussion (positively or negatively) on campus, then it should, at the risk of stating the obvious, be part of the search process. How, you ask? DEI should be highlighted in the opportunity statement for sure. Application material should be evaluated with DEI leadership in mind. What has been the candidate’s leadership on these issues in her current role? Does the language he uses in his written materials reflect commitment, purpose, and alignment with your school? Does the candidate seem to understand where your school is on its DEI journey? Most importantly, all candidates should be evaluated using the same criteria. Candidates of color are too often scrutinized differently than their white counterparts, in general and on these topics in particular, probably because of the misplaced notion that all people of color are experts. This a dangerous assumption. If DEI is critical to your school’s mission and success, then it’s critical that all candidates be able to demonstrate their capacity for leadership in this area. 

Perhaps even more critical than the questions a school asks head of school candidates, however, are the questions it asked itself. Many independent schools have a long track record of engaging in DEI work, while others are newer to it, and still others have felt the pressure to use the language of DEI without really making changes to program, policies, or practices. Which are you? Examine where you’ve been, where you are currently, and where you would like to go. Are all in the community on board? What about the trustees? What happens when pushback comes from those expressing concern that the school is teaching critical race theory in kindergarten? Answering these questions honestly—even if you don’t always like the answers—are important to setting up your new head of school for success. Lying to yourselves, and, by extension, your new head of school is a recipe for disaster. 

Independent schools are, in a word, independent, and as such are free to pursue a vision that fits its community. Whether traditional or innovative, urban or rural, aspirational or comfortable, committed to social justice, just beginning to grapple with diversity, equity, and inclusion, or reluctant to push this work too far or too fast, be honest with yourselves, your community, and your head of school candidates. Your school’s future success depends on it.