Five questions with the vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion

head shot of Sharon Perry Fantini

Vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion Sharon Perry Fantini. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

Vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion Sharon Perry Fantini ("fan-CHEE-nee") came to Iowa State in January, after a 20+ year career at Tiffin University, Ohio, that included time as a management faculty member and vice provost for equity, access and opportunity. Inside asked her to reflect on her first eight months as a Cyclone and share what's ahead.


What's occupied your first few months on campus?

Iowa State defines DEI

Diversity: Commitment to fostering a climate in all the ways people differ, including primary and secondary characteristics*, in a welcoming environment.
Equity: Commitment to fostering a climate where all individuals have access and opportunity to fully participate in the educational and working environment.
Inclusion: Commitment to fostering a climate where all individuals have a sense of belonging through support and respect to fully participate in the educational and working environment.

*From the Loden diversity wheel's internal and external filters we use to process information

One of the first things we did was work with senior leaders to define what DEI means for Iowa State (see box). We wanted to define these words in the broadest sense, inclusive of all identities, so we didn't use traditional words like male, female, age, veteran status on purpose because we didn't want an ever-growing list that could be outdated tomorrow. The test at each step was to ask people if they saw themselves in the definitions. Each definition includes measurements for success so we can evaluate what's working and what could be better.


What's at the top of your list this fall?

We're preparing to administer the next campus climate survey and tentatively planning to launch it in late January. We want to hear from everyone. I'm really looking forward to seeing the results and comparing them to the 2017 survey to see how far we've come and identify that next set of opportunities. From the survey results, we'll work with campus partners to develop a diversity action plan. It will be a partner to the university's strategic plan but with a direct focus on DEI. Broad participation in the survey is crucial to writing an effective diversity action plan that will help us become a more inclusive place.


What can individuals do to make ours a more inclusive campus?

Everyone has heard the phrase, 'Treat others the way you want to be treated.' I prefer, 'Treat others the way THEY want to be treated.' To find out how they want to be treated, you have to communicate, which includes listening. It sounds so simple, but we tend to shy away from it because we don't want to be wrong, and we're fearful of unintentionally hurting others. Sometimes it's because we don't know what word to use -- or not use. Until you engage with someone or do the research, you're not going to learn.


Iowa State has a strong DEI network on campus with multicultural student success coordinators, equity advisors, associate deans for diversity, etc. What's your experience with that network?

They report to their respective leaders -- deans and chairs, for example. So while we're not under the same umbrella, there are plenty of opportunities to work together. One of the reasons my office is structured under the president's division is to provide an institutional perspective on initiatives both in our division and around campus.

One example: We revitalized the former VPDI Council as a smaller Institutional Council on Diversity. I serve as chair and it has members from this office, the academic colleges and student affairs. Those leaders will work in their respective units and bring information and ideas back to the table for the diversity action plan. The council won't be solely responsible for creating the diversity action plan; it will collaborate with other groups such as the campus climate team.


The climate around DEI continues to morph. How do we create positive change amid all that?

Iowa State does not lack passion. People want to do the right thing for the right reasons. Our biggest challenge is understanding time and when we can move forward and when we need to pause and reevaluate. I believe we can get to where we want to go, but it matters how we get there; what words we're using, what words we're not using, and understanding the need to bring everyone into the conversation and explain our experiences.

We should also remember to celebrate the wins, big and small -- because there are days when they don't happen. Things will change, even if they don't change today.