A Conversation with Lawrence Alexander
Lead Search Consultant for CS&A’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practice
Tell us about your new role at Carney, Sandoe & Associates.
I am the full time and Founding Director of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Practice. The firm was committed to the work of equity and inclusion long before I got there. However, just as we’re seeing in independent schools, creating a senior level position in equity and inclusion demonstrates a new level of commitment.
I’m guessing you’ve been very busy.
Yes! In my first role, I am firm facing. While we don’t make hiring decisions for schools, we do influence hiring managers. So our influence is absolutely consequential. I trained our firm on issues of inclusive practice and working against implicit bias.
And I’ve been traveling the country doing implicit bias training in college admissions. I’ve done now 20 plus colleges or universities–Brown, Boston University, Brandeis… I was recently interviewed by NPR about interrupting implicit bias in the college admissions process. The real proof of concept is how busy it’s been for me. I started formally in July and I’ve been living out of a suitcase ever since!
Plus, I’ve been partnering with a number of TABS schools on climate assessments to understand where they are with regard to the community’s feelings around equity and inclusion. We’ve been partnering to build up the competency within school communities, especially when the adult community doesn’t reflect the student community. I’m working with St. George’s, New Hampton School, Tabor and Cushing.
What kind of progress do you see in the area of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?
This work has deep and rich roots in independent schools and it is evolving. I think that the offices that house this work have had different titles and different levels of commitment. There have been offices and multicultural programs, and officers in admissions or in student life, who have made this a part time job or a quarter time job. That’s been great. And that’s been student-facing. I think it’s kind of been the five Fs–food, fun, festivals, flags, and fashion. It’s been all of the symbolic pieces of this work, and maybe at the expense of substance.The work is evolving.
Schools now recognize that it’s important to look at this from a systems level, because the work of equity and inclusion impacts every facet of the institution.
The positions within equity and inclusion have evolved to become full-time senior-level, administrative positions, often reporting directly to the head of school. So the role has evolved; the institutional commitment has evolved.
Has this been an easy change?
Most schools said yes to the programming a long time ago, but to commit the dollars and the resources to a senior level position, that’s been recent. That’s a shift in the last decade and it’s not something that requires just the head of school to buy in. The fact of the matter is, this work of equity and inclusion doesn’t really happen at a school, unless the board is on board.
Why is institutionalizing this work coming so late in the game?
This work of equity and inclusion is not as old as we think. I think there’s a population that’s weary of the conversations about equity and inclusion, and want to believe that we’re in a post racial society. Yet if you look at the history around this work, you’ll realize this isn’t ancient history at all, it’s very, very recent history.
I was at a university last week I looked at the date of their founding. It was sometime in the 1850s. I said, “This is 40 years, at least, before Plessy v. Ferguson, where it was legalized–the notion in our country–that separate but equal was constitutional. It would be another 58 years before Brown v. the Board of Ed would reverse that decision. It’d be another 10 years before we started talking about the fact that not everyone in this country had the right to vote. Around the same year, we started to get the Pell Grant to help folks access higher education, because while separate meant equal, it didn’t mean equitable.”
So this work (DEI), ironically, is just beginning, because it started so late.
What can schools do to increase representation on campus?
If there’s any community that has a challenge hiring faculty from diverse backgrounds, it’s boarding schools, largely because of this triple threat model. That algorithm, while desirable, doesn’t lean toward diversity. Carney Sandoe does a lot of work in this space with our conferences–our Diversity Forum and our Women’s Institute in particular. We need schools to join hands with us to make diversity a priority with regards to faculty recruitment–and then retention once we get them.
It’s one thing to get them, it’s another thing to keep them.
What is Carney, Sandoe & Associates offering to bolster retention?
We offer executive coaching with heads and other school leaders, and transition coaching for new heads. The transition work can be particularly important when you’re hiring heads from under-represented backgrounds or heads for whom you’ve identified a need for cultural competency as a real growth edge. And we talk with a lot of heads and hiring managers about cultural competencies. This is for them to lead schools with that cultural competence and also for department chairs, deans of faculty, folks who are mentoring new hires, to make sure that once new hires get there, schools are working to keep them.
What are some of the benefits of an increased commitment to equity and inclusion?
Ultimately because institutions are doing this work, students benefit. Students from all backgrounds get the benefit from, not just a diverse campus–because diversity is just the statistics and the numbers–but one that’s equitable and inclusive, where they see themselves in the curriculum, in the adult community. Conversely, there’s a not so subtle message when we start touting academic excellence and start talking about rigor and all those things, but have limited representation. It summarily makes you feel that people who are in your race, sex, or gender didn’t contribute to the academy and to the canon. I mean, that’s a lie and it’s also a bitter pill to swallow.
What about “difference blindness”? Is that a useful concept or not?
There’s a real sentiment for folks to be difference-blind. We’re the same inside, therefore I don’t see your color, I don’t see your gender, I don’t see your sexual orientation, I don’t see your religion. I actually believe that people who say that mean well, yet intent and impact are two different things. If I ignore your historical identity that lives in your sex, and gender, and sexual orientation, and race–because it indeed forms the context in which you’ve grown up and see the world–if I dismiss that, I dismiss you.
We are persons of history. And this world has responded to our sex, to our gender, to our race, and to our sexual orientation. So the disposition that I have is a response to something. And we need to figure out what we’re responding to. I don’t say, “Black lives matters,” out of nowhere. My colleagues and friends in the LBGTQ community don’t say, “Love wins,” out of nowhere. It’s a response to something. So we would run a risk of dismissing and diminishing one’s identity by being difference blind. Our differences make us who we are.
What’s your background with boarding schools?
For the last 10 years I’ve worked in college counseling. I started at a public school – The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria in Queens. In 2014 I moved to independent schools– to the Ross School on the east end of Long Island, then the White Mountain School in New Hampshire in 2016 before joining Carney in 2019. For two of my three years at White Mountain, I served as Director of College Counseling and Director of Equity and Inclusion.
Lawrence is currently leading a search for TABS for the VP, Learning Strategy & Professional Education position.
Connect with Lawrence at: email@example.com