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Northwestern University’s Dr. Alvin Tillery Discusses Driving DEI from Within on EDU: Live

Written by Bannon Puckett on May 5, 2021

Related content: Diversity And Inclusion, Corporate Social Responsibility, Leadership

Editor’s Note: Hosted by 2U Chief Strategy and Engagement Officer David Sutphen, EDU: Live is a monthly LinkedIn Live series of conversations with leaders from academia, business, and civil society who are passionate about creating greater equity, access, and opportunity in higher education and beyond. Drawing from his experiences at 2U, his work with the civil rights community, and his service on education-related, non-profit boards, Sutphen talks about opening doors of opportunity with those who have walked through them—and are using their positions to empower others to follow. Visit the EDU: Live LinkedIn page to keep up-to-date on the full series, watch past recordings, and register for the next episode.

At age nine, Dr. Alvin Tillery was waiting at an elementary school bus stop when the unthinkable happened.

“A group of older white kids hung me in a tree,” he shared with David Sutphen in last week’s EDU: Live. “Fortunately, the bus driver was on time that day. I still remember the look in his eyes when he saw me up there. He got his knife out and cut me down, so I was able to live. From that moment on, I really puzzled over why the world was so divided over color—and pledged to find ways to make it better.”

One look at Dr. Tillery’s career, and it’s clear that this horrific experience from his childhood has been a driving force in his mission to ensure greater compassion, understanding, and humanity in the world.

After graduating with a bachelor’s from Morehouse College, one of the nation’s top Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Dr. Tillery went on to pursue a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University. “Harvard was a huge culture shock,” he said. During Dr. Tillery’s first week on campus, a professor exclaimed, “You’re wasting our time and should drop out, because your seat could go to a more qualified white student.” This was another defining moment in Dr. Tillery’s life. “That’s where I committed to becoming an expert on race issues and teaching younger generations how we can come together,” he said.

After graduating from Harvard, Dr. Tillery moved into a series of faculty positions—first at the University of Notre Dame, then at Rutgers University, and finally at Northwestern University, where he currently serves as an associate professor in the Department of Political Science, teaches two 2U-powered short courses on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and is director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy.

Read on for Dr. Tillery’s insights on organizational DEI efforts, anti-racism education, and the greatest challenges universities have yet to hurdle.

Watch the full episode of EDU: Live featuring Northwestern University's Dr. Alvin Tillery

“You Can’t Be Afraid to Lead”

Sutphen kicked off the conversation by referencing software company Basecamp’s recent decision to ban “societal and political” conversations for its employees at work—an action that Dr. Tillery stands firmly against.

“You can’t be afraid to lead,” said Dr. Tillery. “Yes, conversations about politics can be debilitating because we are polarized. But within that polarization, it’s the job of the leaders of organizations, universities, corporations, and nonprofits to state what that organization’s values are. If your people are polarized around these conversations, it’s because you’ve done a poor job of leading inclusively and stating what those values are.”

Instead of shaming employees into silence, said Dr. Tillery, organizations should create safe environments where they can have difficult conversations around diversity and politics. “We’re in a changing culture. Millennials and Gen Zers have had a much better education on gender, race, sexuality, and ability/disability. They have a much different set of personal ethics around these questions than the Gen Xers and Baby Boomers do. If an organization is going to thrive going forward, they’re going to have to address the needs of a diversifying demographic. Workers want to be supported by their organizations. So it’s also going to mean a new level of corporate citizenship if we’re going to make progress.”

One way to lead a Millennial workforce through DEI challenges, suggested Dr. Tillery, is “to get experts in leading these conversations in your organization.” Another step is to set up value statements that promote non-aggressive discourse and proactive education. “If you do that, you won’t need to do what Basecamp did, because you’re going to be having healthy conversations,” he explained.

As Dr. Tillery noted, making the wrong move can have serious consequences. “What we know from our social science data is that Millennials and Gen Zers are willing to punch out of organizations that pay them a lot of money to go work for an organization that pays them less but that is more aligned with their values,” he said. “I see that every day in my consulting work.”

If an organization is going to thrive going forward, they’re going to have to address the needs of a diversifying demographic. It’s also going to mean a new level of corporate citizenship if we’re going to make progress.
— Dr. Alvin Tillery, Associate Professor and Director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University

The Evolution of Higher Education

Transitioning to the topic of higher education, Sutphen asked Dr. Tillery to share his thoughts on some of the biggest challenges institutions have yet to hurdle.

For Dr. Tillery, the answer was immediate. “The cost of traditional university education is just too high,” he shared. “We’re living in a nation where the average family has less than $400 in savings. So the idea that families should load themselves up with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for someone to get a BA degree—which may or may not translate into a job or lead them to an average salary—is just preposterous.”

The second challenge, said Dr. Tillery, is that “a demographic cliff” is on the horizon in 2025. “Older Millennials have not had enough kids to sustain a lot of these institutions,” he explained. “Forty percent will be financially stressed very quickly.”

Finally, Dr. Tillery turned to DEI as the third major challenge institutions must confront in the modern era. “Does a mostly white, mostly male faculty make sense in a nation where the modal college student is Latino or the child of an African or Asian immigrant?” he asked. “Probably not. That’s where 2U has tremendous opportunity to fill the voids of the traditional education environment and help bridge some of these gaps around inequality. That’s why I’m so thrilled to be partnered with 2U.”

“The Academy Still Has a Lot of Work to Do”

Looking at the entire higher education landscape, Dr. Tillery pointed out many institutions’ elimination of SAT requirements as a step in the right direction.

“We have this really curious view in our society that racial inequality is a result of schooling, when we live in a country where only [a small percent] of the population has advanced degrees,” he explained. “Racial inequality is a result of earlier transfers of wealth to whites—not schooling. Those schools have seen the SAT rightfully for what it is, which is just a way to recycle privilege to people who are already wealthy, living in good neighborhoods with good school systems, and have the ability to take expensive prep courses.”

However, he emphasized that eliminating SAT requirements is only the tip of the iceberg. “The academy still has a lot of work to do,” said Dr. Tillery. “Universities look a lot like corporations now. You’ve got a typical Boomer or Gen X governance structure and you’ve got Millennial and Gen Z faculty and students who are pushing for more changes, even around the more symbolic conversations—like, Should Confederate statues come down or not? Should Black students and their allies be allowed to kneel as student athletes to protest police brutality? They’re lurching around looking for answers like every other company out there, and having limited success.”

Looking ahead, said Dr. Tillery, institutions of higher learning must commit to taking bold stances and driving DEI from within. “The opposite of anti-racism is racism,” he concluded. “So if you have parents writing into a school saying they don’t want their kids engaged in anti-racism conversation, then you’ve got to ask them: Well, what do you want your kids doing?”

Registration is now open for the next EDU: Live episode scheduled for Wednesday, May 26 with guest Stephanie Marken, Executive Director of Education Research at Gallup. To keep up-to-date on all episodes, visit the EDU: Live LinkedIn page.

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