University holds unconscious bias trainings for high-level administrators, rolls out series of workshops for future learning

Through a train-the-trainer program, the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion hopes to facilitate trainings across departments in upcoming months


Emily Gonçalves

Kirkland Hall, which houses the offices of Vanderbilt’s upper administration.

Caitlin David, Staff Writer

Senior leaders and administrators at Vanderbilt are pushing for extensive unconscious bias training throughout the 2019-2020 school year. Training began at an Aug. 28 workshop for senior administrators, kicking off a year-long commitment to training faculty and staff about the dangers of unconscious bias, according to Chief Diversity Officer André Churchwell. The initial training included deans, vice chancellors and senior staff, including Interim Chancellor Susan Wente.

“It was a huge, in-depth, level-setting and awareness-raising set of exercises and discussions that set the stage of what’s coming next, which is called train-the-trainer,” Churchwell said.

The train-the-trainer program aims to equip certain members of the Vanderbilt administration with the knowledge and resources they need to hold their own unconscious bias trainings across departments and schools. In October, the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion conducted a four-day training session with 16 Vanderbilt leaders, selected from the Office of the Dean of Students, faculty and Human Resources. These individuals will conduct unconscious bias training throughout the 2019-2020 school year.

“We recognize that we have a very diverse staff and student body, but we can’t deliver on the power of diversity if we aren’t inclusive,” Churchwell said. “Inclusion doesn’t occur until we have a mission to deal with our own blind spots around people who are different from us.”

Churchwell has conducted unconscious bias sessions at the Vanderbilt Medical Center for the past five years and trained 4500 staff and faculty there. In an interview with The Hustler, Churchwell discussed the process of adapting these sessions to a higher education setting.

“High-level education is still interpersonal,” Churchwell said. “You’re selecting new faculty members and students. With unconscious bias, there can be a natural impulse to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who looks like you.”

The Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion hopes to hold more frequent training beyond the initial August date for senior faculty and staff. According to Churchwell, deep knowledge requires repetitive training. In Nov., Vanderbilt announced a new series of implicit bias workshops for faculty, university leadership and leaders of student groups. The university plans to hold modules on hiring and evaluating faculty and students within search processes in the future.

Eva Durchholz contributed reporting for this article.