An open door
Sep. 27, 2023


We all probably know how it feels to be excluded. Denied entry. Left outside. Othered. Exclusion is one of the many ways that we can make others feel “less than.” It can be done without a word, done so that the person excluded isn’t even sure it has been done. Being excluded from a space or a group denies one the opportunity to build an identity, to make a contribution.

In his book The Four Stages of Psychological Safety, Timothy R. Clark begins with inclusion safety, in which “the members of the social collective accept you and grant you a shared identity” (p. 7). On paper, we would probably agree that we want to build inclusive spaces around us. Indeed, “Compassion & Inclusion” is one of our campus values. And yet, we continue to exclude. In a few paragraphs, I would like to share some embedded structural and cultural reasons exclusion remains the default, particularly in higher education, consider what deeper inclusion might offer, and share a few ways that we can make inclusion a shared practice.

As they are currently constituted, educational systems are built on a bedrock of deficit. Learners lack knowledge and credentials; the organization, ostensibly, provides both. At the end of their educational journey, learners have filled their knowledge deficits and are therefore awarded their credentials. This is the same for a CPR certification course as it is for a doctorate, in martial arts and mechanical engineering.

While I can’t think of any argument against the deficit-diminishing system of education in theory or practice, we all must admit that, by design, it is exclusionary. After all, if someone can just declare themselves a physician, or accountant, or HVAC technician without satisfying basic standards, there wouldn’t be much trust in the practitioners. Selective inclusion maintains trust in the profession.

But there are good reasons to champion inclusion. People have an innate drive for belonging. When that drive is frustrated, conflict becomes more likely. In any educational or professional setting, we are asking participants to give something of themselves, whether it is money, time, commitment, or creativity. To do so while being excluded is to be set up for disappointment, on both ends. And, in an age of straitened resources and tightened budgets, non-monetary incentives for better performance are at a premium? So, if there was a way to make everyone happier, with a greater sense of belonging, why not?

Finally, there is a moral imperative to inclusivity, particularly at UNLV. Our campus value of Compassion & Inclusion challenges all members of the community to actively support and advance colleagues and students, encourage different opinions and knowledge, and bring in differing perspectives that help us learn. If we can’t be inclusive, we can’t properly do any of that.

So how can all who seek entry be included, even in an inherently exclusionary system? How can we make it happen?

First, Clark suggests that we can begin our journey towards inclusivity by jettisoning our sense of superiority and embracing our inherent equality. We might recoil a bit from this proposition—after all, we study and work and live in a highly stratified organization, with some people “in charge,” others sorted by rank (Assistant, Associate, and full Professors; Administrative Assistance 1, 2, 3, and 4; assistant, associate, and senior vice presidents). Those ranks may represent a great deal of sacrifice and can specify our responsibilities and obligations; but they do not represent a claim to innate superiority. For example, there are many high-ranking officials working in Flora Dungan Humanities; but if the air conditioning goes out on a summer day, no one would be more valuable to the university than the HVAC technicians assigned to effect a repair. Everyone here offers important service to our community.

Second, we sustain inclusion safety by continuously, in Clark’s words, “replenishing” it by performing acts of kindness and service. Doing so builds and maintains trust. Without such small, regular acts, he write, “the relationship with wither from neglect.” Such re-affirmations of inclusion can be as simple as responding to emails promptly or entertaining suggestions at meetings rather than dismissing them out of hand, or even thanking someone for their contributions. It might just be about taking a moment in a busy day to stop and notice someone in your group. And, when someone’s performance can be improved, letting them know that they are still a welcome part of the group, and that they can enhance their position by making some changes. Intent is difficult (and maybe impossible) for others to read. Rather, we can provide small but frequent data points that demonstrate inclusion safety.

Clark even has advice for those who struggle with including someone, either through natural diffidence or bias, either conscious or unconscious. First, he recommends taking stock of our own bias, considering how it may affect us. Second, developing a higher self-regard can lead to greater inclusiveness. As people have greater faith in their own value, they are able to be more kind and generous. Finally, he believes that we can “behave until we believe,” that by practicing inclusion we can become comfortable with it.

Whether intentional or not, not offering inclusion safety can lead to a whole host of negative outcomes, from lower levels of performance to untapped potential to good people leaving. Though it may be daunting, building inclusion safety doesn’t have to be difficult. Instead, it can be accomplished through a simple declaration of principle (“You are welcome here”) and reinforced by small, frequent reminders that we practice what we promote. Many of those visiting the Ombuds Office have, at the root of their issue, a lack of inclusion safety. A little bit of preventative work here can forestall much larger problems.

And if you don’t feel included, or aren’t sure, there is one place that is open, with no questions asked. For all students, faculty members, or other UNLV employees, the Ombuds Office has many resources available to help you through any conflict or communication issue you might be facing. If you are having an issue and are uncertain where to go, it is an excellent zero-barrier first stop. You have nothing to lose and quite a bit to gain.

If you would like to talk off-the-record and confidentially about any work- or campus-related concern, please make an appointment with the Ombuds. Our door is always open.

David G. Schwartz

UNLV Ombuds