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How to get started with DEI at your institution

Feeling overwhelmed by the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) challenges facing your institution and Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program?

It’s easy to be paralyzed by the data and decisions related to DEI, but experts like Tiffany Adams, Director of DEI at Duke University, suggest, “Don’t overanalyze everything.  Start by listening to your stakeholders and find out about their experience and perspectives.”

Below are some tips to help you begin to figure out the best approach for your institution. While there is never one single best practice, these guidelines can help you shape your own process.

  1. Ensure you have DEI champions and a team.
  2. Assess what's happening at your program.
  3. Prioritize issues in collaboration with your team.
  4. Lead with equity in mind first.
  5. Get creative!
  6. Strive for a systematic & strategic approach.
  7. DEI courses with/without certification.
  8. Adapt over time.

1. Ensure you have DEI champions and a team approach to lead your efforts

Whether it be staff, administrators or faculty members, these champions help develop and implement a strategy for meaningful change and shared commitment across your department. Ideally your champions have expertise in DEI, as well as resources and leadership support, to be successful.

At least 5 DPT programs have hired formal DEI leadership positions in their DPT program, and several other institutions have an assigned DEI chair to manage the DEI efforts. At Duke, student advocates drove the hiring of the DEI director. 

“No single person can change the culture and make the environment more inclusive and equitable without the efforts of all,” says DEI Lead Sheri Kiami at Northeastern University. “I heard an Assistant Dean of DEI say, ‘I may have the title, but we all must do the work.’ And that inspired me to advocate for DEI lead positions across all schools in my college to coordinate outreach and engagement through all units.”

2. Assess what’s happening at your program before you take any action. 

Seek to understand your culture and climate through listening sessions and other qualitative and quantitative approaches to find out where you have challenges and opportunities.

“You’ll likely be surprised by how much you learn from listening to people’s stories,” says Dr. Adams. “When I ask faculty, staff, students and clinical partners to tell me about their experiences, they often say that no one has ever asked before and they’re grateful for the outreach.”

Be sure to survey your faculty and staff about their professional development needs in an anonymous and safe manner. Many folks feel vulnerable about exposing their areas of weakness or acknowledging their lack of DEI knowledge. Embed training into mandatory staff and faculty meetings for maximum reach and positive impact.

3. Prioritize the identified issues and potential solutions in collaboration with your team.

It’s important that the stakeholders who provided you feedback are also a part of planning the priorities and how to address them.

4. Lead with equity in mind first.

A focus on diversity, solely, is an equity detour and is not sustainable or optimally impactful. “You can count and track the number of diverse students and faculty, but that doesn’t address the practices and policies that frame the environments that people must work and learn in,” says Dr. Adams. The goal should be creating an equitable and inclusive culture where everyone feels valued, safe and set up for success.

5. Get creative!

You don’t need to have a huge budget to start your DEI efforts, but hopefully along the way, your institution will see the positive impact and commit additional funding and resources to sustain this critically valuable work.

DPT programs have used everything from internal grants to graduate assistants to support DEI work. GAs can be intermediaries between the students and the program, adding transparency and valuable feedback. Diverse upperclassmen peer mentors, core faculty and clinical partner guest lecturers or adjuncts can also help model the inclusivity your program wants.  

Commit to diversifying your core faculty and leadership through career pathways for your clinical partners, students and others.  Research shows that faculty diversity positively influences the recruitment, retention, and success of students from underrepresented backgrounds. 

6. Strive to have a systematic and strategic approach.

Both Dr. Adams and Dr. Kiami stress that DEI practices should be embedded in policies and practices so the efforts will continue even as individual staff change. That means integrating DEI throughout your program as part of an ongoing journey. 

Below are examples of policies and practices to incorporate into your program, with sample documents from Northeastern University to help get you started:  

  • Develop a strategic plan with concrete DEI goals and hold all stakeholders accountable to those goals.

  • Create a DEI statement for your unit that reflects your commitment and conveys your program’s values. Make sure all job postings include the DEI statement and require all job applicants to include a diversity statement describing any interest, service, scholarship or teaching accomplishments in the areas of DEI and social justice. See a sample statement and other resources here.

DEI courses with/without certification

Adapt over time

Understand that you don’t have to do everything at once.  We’re all on a constantly changing journey as DEI terminology, practices, culture and staff adapt and evolve.  

ACAPT’s National Equity, Diversity & Equity Commission (NEDIC) and the work from the NEDIC Summit is continuing.  We’ll keep you posted on their progress to benefit all programs!

See more diversity resources at acapt.org/diversity 

Check out the Center for Excellence in Academic Physical Therapy


ACAPT welcomes ideas & solutions to help meet the needs of DPT programs. Submit your suggestions for continuing education, professional development, guidelines, tools, best practices and more.

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