ArtCenter accessibility | How one of America's top art colleges is rising above the 'reactionary' media DE&I debate

How one of America's top art colleges is rising above the 'reactionary' media DE&I debate

Debates around DE&I ‘controversy’ are already a dime a dozen in 2024. It’s tough to avoid headlines about ‘wokeism’ such as prompted by former Harvard President Claudine Gay’s unceremonious resignation.

But as HR leaders, focusing on noise, politics, and discourse can distract from the ultimate goal of creating a fair, equitable, and engaging employee experience for all workers.

Examples like Gay and Harvard have placed a spotlight on academic institutions. This makes such colleges an excellent case study when considering how HR leaders can escape this reactionary debate, and instead focus on embedding values around accessibility.

Take the example of ArtCenter College of Design, which Lisa Sanchez, Vice President, Employee Experience and Engagement (HR) describes as “the Harvard of art colleges.” Sanchez is all too aware of the danger of being distracted by the debate.

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“As HR leaders and practitioners, we always have to be aware of those sound bites that come out of the media,” she says. “But if you're only listening to those and being reactionary, then it means that you're not being proactive to get ahead of those headlines.”

Sanchez acknowledges that cases like Gay, where major presidents or leaders of schools are walking away from their jobs, are the worst-case scenario. But, she argues, what’s important to HR leaders is treating people with dignity and respect and giving employees space to show up as their authentic selves. “If we're going to be organically good at diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and belonging, these values have to be embedded into the organization so that we're not reacting to a press conference,” Sanchez says.

Embedding accessibility values everywhere

Sanchez says is motivated to embed accessibility, inclusion, and a good employee experience for all because of who she is as a leader. “I identify as Afro-Latina”, she begins. “My parents came to the U.S. from Panama and Ecuador looking for the American dream. My entire lived experience has been navigating this world for fairness, for equity, for opportunity to be seen, to be heard.”

She is also guided by her experience living in what she describes as a dysfunctional family, and how this left her ill-prepared for the world of work. Her goal is to address the lived experiences that people come to work with, be it bankruptcy, divorce, verbal abuse, domestic abuse, mental health issues, or any other experience. “That's what I'm guided by, not the sound bites coming out of the media,” she adds.

She therefore aims to embed the values of ABIDE (access, belonging, inclusion, diversity, and equity) within all areas of ArtCenter College of Design, including talent acquisition, benefits, compensation, and promotions. Accessibility itself covers several areas from physical barriers and access to buildings to making sure that people of all abilities can use technology and delivering access to opportunities, promotions, and job movement programs.

Take, for example, talent acquisition. “My approach is always to create a fair and equitable process for internal and external candidates,” Sanchez explains. “We've done that through our talent acquisition guidelines. It’s a document that embeds temperature checks along the way for fairness. For example, casting a wide net to attract a diverse candidate pool. It gives the hiring team the authority and autonomy to pause a search to recast the net.”

Being intentional about talent acquisition ensures all faculty at ArtCenter have full access to job opportunities. The same approach applies to compensation. “For fairness, equity, and accessibility you have to make sure that you have consistent practices for how you assign [pay] grades, how you assign the salary ranges or bands so that it's not the wild, wild west,” Sanchez notes. A final core area is within the language used at ArtCenter. The HR team has intentionally removed gendered language from its policies like his, her, she, or he. The aim was to create gender-neutral documentation so that people could connect to their own identity.

‘You are the center of what we do’: Listening to your people, not media noise

Higher education is a collaborative environment. Embedding accessibility is a natural opportunity to give people a chance to participate and to lend their voices, to task forces, committees, and workgroups. These are the voices that HR leaders should listen to, rather than becoming distracted by culture wards, argues Sanchez.

“There's nothing worse than planning in isolation where people don't have an opportunity to give voice to the things that are impacting their experiences at work,” she explains. “We have to listen, learn, and understand the feedback through post surveys so that we can course correct when necessary.”

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Higher education is also home to lots of shared governance, which creates an excellent starting point for accessibility and employee experience conversations. Faculty councils, staff councils, and student governments are opportunities for feedback loops for faculty, staff, and students to lend their recommendations or offer recommendations on things that impact their experience.

This approach firmly places employee accessibility at the heart of the organization. “We’re guided by a mission statement,” says Sanchez. “Our tagline, if you will, is you are the center of what we do. That means we're intentional and aware of every single thing that we do that we have to do for faculty, staff, and the student experience. We have to hold ourselves accountable to that mission.”

Just as it is up to Sanchez to hold ArtCenter College of Design’s HR team to account for the experience of its faculty, so it is for all HR leaders to take responsibility for accessibility within their company rather than reactively responding to media debate.

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