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Engagement through thought leadership

Northwestern supports industry partners with insights into racial equity

This article appeared in the September 2020 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. Click here to subscribe.

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In this COVID age of university-industry collaboration, webinars and other virtual events have become more commonplace. Most of those sponsored by universities have seen the institutions functioning as facilitators, bringing together experts from both academia and industry to share their experiences, best practices, and lessons learned.

But in a recent webinar, Northwestern University took a different tack: They presented themselves and one of their leading experts as thought leaders, delivering insights into a current “hot” topic that is not without controversy — racial justice and equality — and addressing the latest thinking on:

  • What it means for a corporation to promote racial equity; 
  • Specific actions business leaders can take to start building an equitable organization; 
  • How to gauge when you are on the right path to becoming an equitable organization. 

In addition to featuring the university’s own expert, the webinar also drew on social science literature and offered case studies of experiences at several corporations.

That expert was Alvin B. Tillery, Jr., PhD, director of the university’s Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy, reports Jim Bray, director of corporate engagement, who notes that Tillery had been studying Black Lives Matter and related issues for years. “He had been doing a lot of one-off consulting for companies, and thinking through his own issues, so he was on the radar.” In addition, says Bray, Tillery was interested in gaining more corporate support for his center.

In the wake of recent protests and a growing national conversation about race, Bray continues, “we saw an interest in partner companies on how to address the issue of racial inequity, and we knew Al would be well-equipped to talk to them. Also, more broadly we were trying to create some in-depth events to highlight areas of interest at Northwestern, which are particularly easier to do in terms of capturing people in the Zoom environment.” According to Bray, these events will be held bi-monthly, with the next one offering advice to business leaders on implementing ethical approaches to artificial intelligence.

In a strict “numbers” measure, the racial equity webinar was a clear success. “We had almost 400 registered and 266 attended,” reports Kate Rice, senior associate director of corporate engagement. “There were a lot who wanted to watch but couldn’t,” and a link was provided for later viewing of the recorded webinar. The event was marketed via a “priority blast” sent to all of the university’s priority partners, who number in the dozens, as well as to other development partners and through the UIDP.

Finding the right tone

Are there challenges for universities delving into controversial topics and telling its industry partners they may not yet be getting things like inclusion policy and practice totally right?

Apparently not, according to one of the attendees, Adam J. Hecktman of Microsoft Philanthropies. “Microsoft has been interested in this space for a number of years; we have a group called Technology and Corporate Responsibility, which deals with accessibility, human rights, and environmental sustainability,” he shares, “but we know there’s a lot more that needs to be done. Change begins first by looking inward, and that’s what this workshop was about, but we also know there are things we can provide to the rest of the world to solve some of these seemingly intractable problems. People are looking to us and watching to see the ways companies can change around equity and best practices; we’re all on this journey together.”

Bray agrees that the webinar leaned into the spirit of the recent national dialogue. “We recognize that not everyone has all the answers,” he says. “Things are uncomfortable now, but at least Al can provide background some have not been exposed to, and [help] think about questions to ask. A business leader might ask you to give them three bullet points of attack, but you can’t take this approach. Al really talks more about how to approach the issue — one of the first steps would be an audit, understanding organizational trends, and how they came about. You have to have that approach that we’re not here to tell you what to do.”

Microsoft’s Hecktman says he left the session with several takeaways. “One is that racial equity can’t be viewed from just a single lens,” he comments. “That’s what it means to be ‘systemic.’ Systems worked together to create these gaps; if you want to move even a little you have to know what systems are involved. Second, business leaders have to look at how your industry, your company, your department have ever profited from systemic racial inequity; that was not obvious until he talked about it. He said that even the location of your headquarters can impact that. Third, business leaders have to have hard conversations internally. It’s one thing to be able to say from a leadership standpoint, ‘Yeah, my employees all feel free and connected,’ but it’s another thing to ask them if they feel there is an atmosphere where they can have dialogue on identity, and feel they are their best selves — if they can bring their authentic selves to work.”

Hecktman also stressed another key point. “[Tillery] said don’t do this assessment yourself — you have to have an outsider come in and do it,” he reports. Tillery used the example of one company doing an internal survey and getting a 73% positive result, and then getting only a 40% positive result with a subsequent survey conducted by an outside firm. “This tells you that you have to do it in a smart way,” he says. “I really learned a lot.”

With virtual comes change

Though webinars were in style long before COVID, Bray sees an impact on this and other webinars due to the virus. “To me, a couple of things have changed in the post-COVID world,” he offers. “Everyone’s online all the time; it’s easier for people to be able to take part in these things. They’re not travelling as much, and that’s one great positive. People are also more used to participating in these now. Before, webinars would have a challenge in attendance; people were not as interested in all of them before, but we feel comfortable taking this approach now. The topic had a lot to do with it, but this environment now also had a lot to do with the amount of people able to take part.”

“The virtual landscape allows everyone to join, drop in later, and be more engaged at the virtual level,” adds Rice. “We all look forward to those one-on-ones when appropriate, but where else can you do this and get such broad exposure? For now, we’re taking advantage of taking things virtual, and it will be part of the landscape for years. There will be a shift in our program based on what makes sense, and not [the assumption that] if it’s not in person it doesn’t count.”

Still, it’s not all sunshine and roses when it comes to virtual. “Technology is obviously a challenge,” says Rice. “We do a lot of thinking about that; we’ve adopted some best practices from others who do a lot of it, specifically the Kellogg School of Management. They shared details on how to run the show, how to use backup hosts, and so on.”

“Kellogg also did a seminar on diversity and inequality in early July,” Bray adds. “They helped inform us in planning this webinar, and the questions we wanted to get answered.”

Strengthening connections

With one of the reasons for the seminar being an interest in gaining corporate support for Tillery’s center at Northwestern, Bray and Rice are anxious to learn more about corporate response to the webinar. “We look forward to the [follow-up] survey — it will be great to have that,” says Rice. “It’s about being thoughtful of what we put together, making sure the approach was of interest to people you’re sending information to, and making sure we’re not hitting them with things they’re not interested in.”

If Hecktman is any indication, there is little to worry about on that account. He feels webinars like these “absolutely” help to deepen university-industry partnerships. “When somebody asks me is there anybody in the academic sphere you know who does this work, I say Northwestern,” he shares. “We’re thinking about how you can get equitable skills for people participating in the new economy. That’s all wrapped up in issues of equality, and Northwestern delivered it. For example, I did not know about that center — that it existed. It also helps that Kate sent me the recording, and I sent it to a bunch of other people.”

Meanwhile, Northwestern is reaching out in the same space through other vehicles. For example, Tillery has a Business Forum in its nascent stages. “He’s put together an advisory group of companies, partners convening together virtually or in person to hear about research, and to be a network place as well as a substantive place,” says Rice. “We’re looking to see which companies are interested in partnering.”

“This is one way we’re involved directly in the center; we’re holistic, so we support philanthropy,” adds Bray. “We wanted to put the Business Forum out there to encourage companies to follow us directly, and we will reach out to companies we know.”

Another “big one” where engagement efforts are aimed, he continues, is STEM education, where Northwestern, along with many corporate partners, is working with the local community on curriculum and mentoring.

The university is also working with corporate partners on helping to increase diversity in the talent pipeline. These efforts include working with student groups, helping first generation students with pre-college programs, and working with alumni to have them return to campus and share their experiences and advice.

All about service

Like any university offering programming for its corporate partners, Northwestern would be pleased to realize benefits from this webinar, but Bray says the bottom line when it comes to the rationale for the program is service.

“We approached this from a service perspective,” he asserts. “This specific one is very topical; a lot of people are dealing with it right now. Northwestern has strength in areas we can talk about and provide advice from some of our experts.”

Being a thought leader on how this and other key issues impact corporations, he continues, “will hopefully increase our standing with them. One way I see companies wanting to interact with the university is to take advantage of what we have — a different perspective, perhaps, than the one they have.”

From Hecktman’s perspective, he’d like to see more universities following suit. “Oh, yeah, for sure,” he enthuses. “First of all, universities have unique convening power. Even if you are not a Northwestern of the world, where you attract people from all over the world. If you are a local university, a state university, or a community college, you have convening power. These conversations are not only multi-systemic, but multi-sector.”

Any higher education institution can play that kind of role, he continues. “Microsoft and a lot of other companies in my industry are looking to universities to provide the research, the thought leadership, and that convening power,” says Hecktman. “And also, to do what they do best — provide the teaching that leads to the next generation of leadership. If a university does everything else, but does not teach to prepare the leaders of tomorrow, then it is not totally fulfilling its mission.”

Contact Bray at 847-491-3371 or j-bray@northwestern.edu; Hecktman at https://aka.ms/adamh or @AdamHecktman; Rice at 847-491-4185 or kate-rice@northwestern.edu; and Tillery at 847-467-4697.


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