As part of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s ongoing focus on elements of the N2025 strategic plan, Nebraska Today sat down with Marco Barker to learn more about diversity, equity and inclusion efforts on campus, and what drives his passion for inclusive excellence.
Barker has served as the university’s inaugural vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion since April 1, 2019. He previously served in diversity leadership roles at Westminster College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Louisiana State University.
What drew you into the field of diversity, equity and inclusion?
Experiencing exclusion and wanting a better world for future generations.
It is the worst feeling when you feel like you do not belong, are made invisible, and are undervalued. I can point to many instances where I was overlooked, underestimated, and therefore, not provided an opportunity and not fully supported. As a scrawny Black kid with a stutter and who did not have a lot of financial resources, you can easily be overlooked. I also noticed at a young age that I and other students who looked like me were not often tapped for opportunities; I quickly realized skin color meant something. I would later experience acts of bias and hate, including racial and anti-gay slurs. It was not until middle school that I felt someone saw something more in me. My seventh-grade math teacher (Ms. Williamson) told me I should be in her more advanced math class. That moment set me on a course that would result in pursuing an engineering degree, an MBA, and later, a doctorate.
My future path was not free from bias. I experienced professors who were “surprised” of how well I could speak and present — and they did not know about my stuttering. This whole life journey taught me how systems, and particularly education, could be limiting and biased and at the same time offer opportunities for social mobility. I must credit my doctoral professors and coursework (e.g., race and gender, history of higher education, educational leadership and policy, student development theory) for introducing me to approaches for understanding the world as a complex system of people, policies and practices shaped by our identities, culture, attitudes, philosophies and ideologies. My fascination with understanding these complex systems and how they shape people and are shaped by people led me to study aspects of diversity, equity and inclusion more deeply and to ultimately pursue a career that weaves DEI principles in education practices and policy making.
Why is it so important to you?
Our future depends on it.
Diversity, equity and inclusion are more than words. I see them as fundamental in making sense out of the world and finding solutions to better provide access, opportunity and support to communities and organizations. In cases of healthcare, it could be a difference between life and death and in education, it can be a matter of changing a person’s life trajectory. I have seen firsthand how “who” you are and “what resources” you have make a difference.
The better we understand others, the better we can connect with them. This is especially critical when there might be populations who have historically been and remain underestimated, made invisible, and undervalued. Doing this work became a calling for me to make a better world where we know more about each other, where we set a course to make systems more inclusive, and where everyone — including the Black band kid with a stutter — are seen and know they matter. I believe DEI and other forms of justice like social justice, anti-racism, and decolonization can provide us with the perspectives to ensure people get the help and support they need.
What continues to drive you in this field?
Civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
I am inspired by the learning and growth I see from individuals who engage in DEI education and how organizations can transform themselves into places where everyone feels a sense of affirmation. At the same time, I am furiously motivated by the injustices I witness or encounter. In my role, I hear about those instances where people are treated horribly or called a slur based on their identity; where people feel invisible because facilities like restrooms do not reflect their gender identity; or where spaces are toxic because they systematically ignore the needs of those on the margins — often because there are very few represented. I am driven by the notion, if we can make our spaces, practices, and policies more inclusive of all, why don’t we? Research shows that when we design spaces and practices to be more accessible and inclusive, it benefits everyone. There is always work to do when even one person is not able to fully participate and thrive. The DEI profession is my mechanism by which I do this work.
Talk about your approach to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion?
It is multifaceted.
A few colleagues know my undergraduate degree is industrial engineering. So, I naturally see diversity, equity and inclusion as critical components of complex and dynamic systems that we can maximize, optimize and innovate. At the same time, I am a social scientist and understand how social context, histories and people shape how these systems operate. So, I don’t know if I have a specific approach — it’s probably a combination of several research areas. I can definitively say that I start this work with an ethic of care, always thinking about who is impacted and what are the perspectives present or unseen. This framing is often followed by several guiding frameworks from the fields of education, sociology, psychology, business, higher education, cultural and ethnic studies, and the like.
Having multiple viewpoints allow me to assess the current state of the organization, analyze the issues at both surface and deeper levels, call in the right people to gain their perspective, and then propose a way forward that activates the right people and departments to enact change. At any given time, I may utilize principles of inclusive excellence, operational excellence and continuous improvement, the four frames of leadership, or intersectionality. While I think social and critical theories are more applied in research and academic spaces and receive unfair negative attention, I think they can be highly informative and enlightening. Simply, I believe it is important to pull from multiple viewpoints to shape our understanding about DEI.
What are you most proud of in your leadership role here at Nebraska?
I have the unique vantage point of connecting people and seeing us move from diversity to inclusive excellence.
It has been inspiring to see how there are more conversations on inclusive excellence, equity, and most recently, anti-racism. Some of these terms are not the easiest to navigate and can be uncomfortable. It has been important for us to move from only valuing diversity or differences and move toward thinking about how we change our systems to be more inclusive and more competitive — inclusive excellence. I think our leaders at the institution are doing more to advance inclusive excellence. This is a major step for UNL as there has always been members of our community actively hosting and implementing efforts, programs and courses addressing the broad spectrum of DEI. These grassroots efforts have been important, but we lacked greater synergy as an institution in elevating these efforts to greater transformation. This was outlined in the Hulualani and Associates report from a few years ago.
While we pursue our inclusive excellence goals, I think we have made progress. When I look around the institution, there is momentum building. We have academic colleges and administrative units developing their own diversity strategies. Our chancellor has convened a group of thought-leaders to assist on barriers and opportunities to be an anti-racism and racial equitable institution. Academic programs like Ethnic Studies have created a racial justice, equity and inclusion minor. We have a council of leaders across the institution meeting and discussing DEI issues and proposing areas where we can make progress. Diversity professional development offerings are expanding across the institution and throughout extension with efforts like Reaching One, Reaching All.
We have a responsibility to prepare the future leaders, educators, scientists, agriculturalists and innovators for Nebraska and beyond. Our ability to do this relies on creating learning environments where we understand and respond to the changing, complexity of our ecosystems and our world. Inclusive excellence is a pathway to do this.
What are our biggest challenges as we continue to move forward to improve DEI on campus?
We must see we all have a role in advancing inclusion.
I sometimes encounter that when people hear “diversity” they think it means “people of color,” “women,” or “LGBTQA+ persons.” In some cases, they feel it means someone other than me. This sentiment often leaves individuals in the majority who identify as white, straight, male, and cisgender, and in some instances, Christian, feeling as if they cannot or should not be brought into the diversity conversation. That is far from the truth. I often say it is important to have a white male perspective if we are discussing how we create more inclusive spaces for women of color. In those moments, their perspectives can shed light on how they understand the needs of women of color. Or, if we are talking about strategies that support persons who identify with a disability or neurodiversity, it would be important to have those who are often decision makers and may not identify with a disability around the table as an active ally. The work of DEI involves all of us and often depends on those in the majority to be greater advocates as not to overly depend on those underrepresented.
I do not talk much about religion, but I grew up Baptist and the Bible has been an important reference for my mother. There is a scripture from Luke 12:48 from the International Version that reads, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Whether you are of the Christian faith or not, the general principle of using your position and opportunity to lift up others can be adopted by all. This is a core principle that I feel is forgotten when we are talking about aspects of equity, inclusion, and fostering a climate of anti-racism.
There are still misconceptions and not “being on the same page” of our societal challenges and how everyone focused on DEI can advance our institutions and country. Some of this misunderstanding or misguided viewpoints is inadvertent and comes from lack of information; and other instances, there is an intentional effort to misinform, redirect attention, and incite confusion and opposition. There is a deep human connection, empathy, understanding, and knowledge divide that is widening our ability to be “in community” with each other. We must be able to listen and connect, even when the conversation is tough, and do our part to support, empower and invest in others. I called for this coming together in statement following the George Floyd murder.
The late Professor Anna Shavers always reminded me of the importance of staying the course.
How would you define DEI success as we look ahead to 2025?
Success is attracting a more diverse talent to Nebraska and seeing greater engagement of DEI opportunities.
Nebraska can truly be the good life for new employees and recent graduates, and the university can be a top, national institution of choice for the brightest Nebraskans and students from across the world. To be this place, we have to become the institution described in our N2025 strategic plan — where every person and every interaction matters. Mattering can be tricky, but it has to be evident and visible in how we recruit, support, promote, recognize and compensate people. There are many areas I think we might see success in the next three years.
Top of mind indicators include more inclusive search and hiring practices and policies; allocated research dollars for faculty, staff and students who are studying DEI topics or engaged in DEI projects; reduction or elimination of unintended or intended barriers to successful promotion of faculty and staff of color; DEI engagement valued in performance reviews; pay equity across genders; greater inclusion of gender identity that extends beyond gender binary markers not required by law; more student support mechanisms that are cultural specific; and increased applications and representation of students, staff, and faculty who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. These steps, which operate firmly within the confines of our state laws, would set us on a positive trajectory.
What can an individual Husker who is on campus — student, faculty, staff, alumni — do to help advance understanding, inclusion, and belonging?
First, I want to acknowledge we have a number of students, faculty, staff and alumni who have always advocated for greater inclusion and equity. I want to thank them for the work they do. For those looking for a place to start, take a first step. Your first step might be attending an event or participating in a reading club to increase your knowledge. This will allow you an opportunity to reflect and self-assess your own understanding, bias, or life experiences. I might recommend a second step of active engagement. Engagement could be financially supporting existing groups whose focus is to address equity, anti-racism, LGBTQ rights, or other forms of social justice. Or, you might want to join a group whose focus is to foster inclusion and equity.
There are a number of groups on campus and in the community. I suspect for alums, you have centers and groups in your local community or can join a group virtually. You might also take action by becoming civically engaged — support a candidate whose values align with DEI, ask your legislators to support DEI issues or rescind legislation that impedes DEI efforts, or find ways to engage in peaceful protest. Lastly, consider speaking up. We may find ourselves in spaces or places where we see mistreatment, voices being ignored or silenced, or vulnerable groups being targeted. When we have the opportunity and the power to say something, we should take it. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “the time is always right to do what is right.”