Spotlight: Dr. Lisa Coleman, Chief Diversity Officer, New York University

Lindsay Stuart
Apr 20 · 15 min read

Championing diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education and beyond.

This interview is part of our Empowered Women series in partnership with FREE THE WORK, The 3% Movement, The Female Quotient, and TIME’S UP Foundation — a coalition effort to champion more equal and accurate representation of women leading at work, at home, in their communities and beyond. Read more about this initiative here and download images from the Empowered Women collection here.

Dr. Lisa Coleman is New York University’s (NYU) inaugural senior vice president for global inclusion and strategic innovation, and the University’s chief diversity officer. Reporting to NYU president Andrew Hamilton, Dr. Coleman works with the Office of the Provost, deans, and other senior leaders, internal stakeholders, external partners, and constituents to advance, promote, and build capacity for strategic global inclusion, diversity, equity, belonging and innovation initiatives across NYU’s global network.

Prior to joining the NYU community, Dr. Coleman served as Harvard University’s first special assistant to the president and its first chief diversity officer. During her tenure there, she and her team developed some of the first initiatives focused on the intersections of technology and disability. Before her time at Harvard, she directed the Africana program at Tufts University and was later appointed as that institution’s first senior GID executive.

We spoke with Dr. Coleman about her approach to DEI programs, what she sees as the biggest opportunities to support women and people from underrepresented communities on the path to leadership, and what inspires her as she looks to the future.

I actually started my Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and related access work long before my time at Tufts University, and a lot of that work was in the area of what was then called multicultural affairs. I focused on that type of work at the College of Wooster, at the Association of American Medical Colleges, and at Merrill Lynch. In all of those jobs, there was some component of what we’d now call DEI work, whether I was processing grants, or evaluating medical institutions, etc. Eventually, I went back to graduate school. I initially thought I wanted to focus on business, but quickly realized I did not, so I went on to also do other things. I think this was a pivotal point for me and the desire to return to work in higher education was sparked. Even though I had worked previously at the College of Wooster, I hadn’t yet made the decision to actually be IN higher education — so, once I made that decision, I still had to navigate the various areas within higher ed. I was trained as faculty and I was on the faculty at a couple of institutions. It was at Tufts where I served in both faculty and administrative roles, and I began to both understand and embrace the intricacies of higher education leadership and administration.

I entered into DEI work at a time when it was just emerging, and so in many ways, I started off as a generalist. There were not a lot of Chief Diversity Officers at the time and certainly not in the C-Suite. Since then, there’s been a maturation of the field and we now see segmentation of the field. There are Diversity Officers in Healthcare, in STEM, focused on the arts, and more. When I began, most DEI Officers were more like explorers navigating a terrain that had yet to be charted. I liken it to the technological/IT journey. And this was a terrific initiation into the field because I am a very curious, entrepreneurial person; I love innovation and learning. I am interested in what is next on the horizon, what is emerging, and through this work, I have been able to be creative, utilize research, and implement innovative practices and programs. I remain excited by the maturation of DEI into areas like belonging, etc. and while I am always attentive to history, I remain focused on emerging trends and area.

My journey certainly has been circuitous, but once at Tufts, my journey seemed to move more quickly. I became the Chief Diversity Officer reporting to the President after serving on the faculty and in other administrative roles, and then about a year into that role at Tufts, we won a few DEI national awards. Although I was in the position at Tufts for almost 3 years, Harvard reached out when I was only a year and half into the role. I mention this because this is about the time when Diversity/Inclusion Officer jobs started to proliferate and become more centralized in the C-Suites across sectors (in higher ed Chancellor, President, Provost offices)— which was around 2008/2009, and I officially joined Harvard at the end of 2009 as their inaugural Chief Diversity Officer, reporting to the President.

I have, and continue to be, really interested in the evolution of this field. I have found that far too often DEI programs unfortunately still remain additive, siloed, and not part of the core function of institutional practices. I have been fairly fortunate in that I have been able to secure opportunities that have allowed me to develop comprehensive initiatives related to the C-Suite and board development, leadership enhancement, sustainability, and core organization functions (IT, HR, Finance, Marketing, etc.) and this is the type of work I continue to do at NYU and beyond.

Sometimes people will ask “What’s your origin? How did you get interested in this work?” And I would say that I was not interested in diversity work, but I WAS interested in systemic and systematic disenfranchisement, the lattices of power, the democratization of resources and education, trans-disciplinary research — sciences, arts, etc. leadership in all forms and across sectors, and in institutionally-based equity work. justice and institutionally-based equity work. Early in life, I volunteered quite a bit. I also interned at a K-12 school where I worked with deaf children who also often had other types of disabilities. This experience was pivotal. I learned sign language, which not only shifted my ideas about language and “ability,” but also allowed me to explore new ways of learning, innovating, and being. I also volunteered in homeless shelters, with rape and sexual assault survivors, and in the buddy system during the AIDS pandemic. Even though all of those things were seemingly unrelated, I learned that peoples’ disenfranchisement was not about individual blame or fault — it was systemic and that the work needed was urgent. It taught me that we were not always treating one another in ways that were fair, equitable, or sometimes, to be frank, humane — particularly during the AIDS pandemic. So, that made me want to work toward change — real, transformational change, not just change in “how do we change organizations” but how do we really think about democratization, how do we create a better, more informed, globally connected society and how do we engage institutions in these transformational processes?

I think this is what drives me; it’s been part of my philosophy all along — how do we leverage the research, data, and organizational/ institutional power to make systemic systematic transformational shifts that allow for more equity, more humanity, more capacity for radical accountability to one another. In some ways, it has made me a quirky Diversity Officer. I am a true inter-disciplinarian; my explorations are vast and wide and include technology, leadership, AI/robotics, health, business, art, sciences, and much more. I attend conferences on business tool creation and machine learning in Israel, to those focused on Maori print-making in the mountains of New Zealand. I think of myself as a Chief Strategy and Transformation Officer — building on the concept of transformation out of South Africa in the post-apartheid moment. And because of this, I’m equally as interested in leadership and technology and science as I am in global understandings of race, disability, sexuality, gender, etc. because to transform society, to move towards equity for those most marginalized, there must be an interruption to historical systems of power; and the development of the analytics, tools, and resources for co-creation across differences. These transformative processes will underscore collaboration, and transformative actions in leadership across disciplines, sectors, etc. that are specific and timely. I am committed to driving change, not only in higher education, but through the impact our research and pedagogy have globally.

I think a great deal about how ideas, people, etc. are framed and, in particular, how when something is framed or described how “it” is then perceived. Across institutions, what has occurred is the “description” of Black people, queer people, people with disabilities, members of religious groups, women, emerging generations, etc. as “the problem.” What happens when you frame something as a problem to be addressed? What happens when something is framed as an asset, as a possibility, or as a strength or a learning opportunity? I believe how we frame is often what we receive. Reframing will lead to different types of leadership, and capacity building efforts and possibilities.

I will concretize this. I’m a Black woman, when I get up each day, do I see a problem — do I look in the mirror and say, “There she is, there’s the problem we need to fix?” NO. When I work with others from an array of backgrounds, generations, etc., different from one another in so many ways I think — they are solutions, and assets. Organizationally, difference must be engaged in this way. In this framing, there is a move toward possibility, toward transformation that leads to innovative engagements, co-creations, and collaborations that learn from and engage differences, and embed these resources into leadership and other practices versus siloed, one-off programs or events that are “solving” or addressing individual problems.

I often say one of my best learning opportunities came when I was in a wheelchair for close to three years, and had to use other apparatuses to walk for another two. It changed how I saw the world because it changed how people looked at me. People did very strange things, i.e. talking loudly to me, not talking to me at all, or taking control of the chair inappropriately, and other such disturbing interactions. It taught me something about how we view or do not view each other. To drive meaningful change, we need to reframe what, who, how we designate “difference,” and embrace perceived differences as assets, strengths, and areas for immense capacity building.

When I think about the power of visual representation, it is probably one of THE most powerful areas for us to consider — image-making is often how we understand our world. Earlier I referenced science, and sometimes what I believe to be a false dichotomy between science and art. Often, there is a failure to recognize the importance of art and artistic representation in all forms. For example, this is one of the reasons film and other artistic forms of representation are so important. As research illustrates, representations in film can completely reshape understandings of actual, historical events.

When I think about representation in terms of race, gender, sexuality, disability, and the ongoing disparities today, there is often a lack of recognition of the systemic patterns of disenfranchisement embedded into so many parts of our societies. People seem to be saying there’s new or more racism and/or sexism. I’m not sure there’s more, and I am certainly sure it is not new — I think there may be more captured more often on social media, and there are certainly historical and contemporary shifts and nuances, but new is not the word I would use. I do hope that the visual, and collectively seeing more, continues to raise levels of concern, but more importantly action that is sustainable, and only time will tell. My hope is that as we return to our Broadway shows and museums, etc. that we return to a different way of doing that embeds commitments to equity and radical accountability.

I care deeply about aesthetics and visual representation mostly because the visual can be so powerful. Research demonstrates the often monumental impact of representation, image making, and the dispersion of this information globally. For example, what we know when researching gender differences between little girls and boys in a binary context (and here I think of Claude Steele’s of Andrei Cimpian’s work), representation has a direct relationship to perceived self-woth, notions of who is and who is not powerful, criminal, over/undereducated, intelligent, and/or deemed a genius.

Lastly, as I think about the ongoing impact of COVID-19 there is a reframe that has emerged about “our new normal?” While disruption might be part of our new normal, my unrelenting hope is that there also be the emergence of a “new different” — a transformation where, globally, learnings are harnessed and leveraged to advance new possibilities, new opportunities, that recognize historical disparities, and power differentials to engage innovative, different research, actions, and levels of accountability. This is more than rhetoric or optics, and underscores transformation built upon the learnings from the past; and, processes are based in co-creation, nuanced and generative trans-generational collaborations that multifaceted and where entrepreneurial ideas are contested and debated, not to annihilate, but to innovate and anticipate future disruptions and opportunities.

Perhaps, in this “new different,” members of historically marginalized communities will be recognized for their assets — understood to be solutions rather than problems to be fixed or patronized; allowed to partake in the immense civil and human rights afforded to others in the fullest extent; and, celebrated for the tremendous contributions to society that have been and are ongoing even in the face of adversities. In this new different, global communities are acknowledged and differences are leveraged rather than obliterated; education about specific and sometimes conflicting histories and actions taken are dispersed; concrete innovative strategies are developed based on research to re-imagine a world where everyone can thrive.

I love this question because I work in a sector where that is what we do — educate, teach, sustain, generate, and nurture new and emerging leaders. As such, I am not only interested, but excited about the future, sustainability, and possibilities of what is next. So, first say, if I were to say anything less than positive about older generations, I’d say that sometimes they/we have not passed the baton very well. Sometimes there is not enough focus on ways to nurture and engage what’s next. Think about the ways that some have described Millennials, Gen Z, and now Gen C as “problems.” As I stated earlier, framing is crucial to engagement opportunities and outcomes. Of course, also think about how some young people frame older generations. Moving toward frames that leverage co-creation opportunities across and between generations will enable more innovation, sustainability, and ability to navigate emerging trends.

In higher education, we generally have the most generations of any sector, because we have people who are geniuses that enter higher education sometimes as early as 12 and 14, and then we have teachers and professors (and, yes, sometimes students) who are still teaching and learning well into their 80’s. And also, we also know that our aged population of people over 60 is expected to grow from 900 million to1.4 billion by 2030, it is important to ensure we continue to engage across the life-cycle. Asset-modeling will entail leveraging new types of inter/trans-generational collaborations. One example is the Arizona-based group Teeniors — an organization where teenagers help older people learn technology and seniors provide mentorship. There are all types of ways to rethink co-creation, co-programming, co-planning, intrapreneurship, and co-learning, and there is a great deal more that can be done in this area across all sectors.

What inspires me are young and old people. For example, the protests — at some point we had over 45 days of consistent, non-violent protests and public demonstrations in major cities. That says something to me about how people are connected and how they organize; and I’ve said this a lot in my lectures — little Jamshed in India and Jen in Indiana can now be connected in ways that they never were before; and older people are engaging in unique ways as well. That is incredibly exciting because people get to learn about difference, and learning helps to develop better equity programs and dismantle systems of exclusion as we explore together the sites and systems of differentiated humanity globally, and human connection.

As might be evident, I’m also incredibly excited about trans/inter-disciplinary work. Deep disciplinary learning is needed and important, and so are cross-generational and trans-disciplinary collaborations to address the most complex global concerns. It is exciting to see new research collaborations related to sustainability, science, art, etc. and the breaking down of strict disciplinary silos for example in health and health care. As I stated earlier, I am a curious person, someone who loves to learn, and as a result I am interested in how we utilize different types of strategies, methodologies, and approaches from robotics and machine learning, to art restoration; and so again, I am very enthusiastic about the collaborations across generations and intersections of identity, and equally important…across sectors, fields, and disciplines.

I often say this to students who are about to go to graduate school , new jobs, or leadership positions— don’t go to graduate school, a new job, or leadership role to try and figure out what you want — these are not the places! One needs to have an idea of what one wants to accomplish. That does not mean that one’s interests will remain the same through because of course we reimagine, pivot, etc., but I believe it is important to have some idea (even if it changes) so that you can track your learning, strategies, and growth. In my experience, when this is not the case, far too often there are so many influences — peers, parents, professors, other leaders, bosses, etc. — and this can be challenging. Having a sense of oneself, career, and leadership goals, cultivated mentors and sponsors, and professional and personal feedback loops are all crucial to navigating often different and competing interests.

For example, I know that I’m curious, I know that I’m a learner, and I know I’m an innovator, a transformer. I initially gravitated toward these types of organizations and now, I intentionally create spaces and opportunities for me to accelerate this work no matter the environment. This does not mean for me that other spaces or more traditional workers are not fundamentally important — all types of people, traditionalists, work approaches, methodologies, types of innovators, etc. are needed. I have to have a team that brings it all together. Leadership (and follower-ship) is a journey and along the way, it is important to chart where one is in terms of appetite for change, where one is on the learning, leadership and management skill acquisition, innovation capacity, growth vs. fixed mindset, etc. scales (of course this will change); and then utilize this information pivot, sustain, thrive, and excel.

One also needs to identify, or create a “posse,” sometimes referred to as a personal board of directors (mentors, sponsors, peers) because we all need support, and we all have areas where we are not the experts. In building a team (personal and professional) one has to build one that is diverse. One of the best leadership qualities is to surround yourself with super smart people who are much more talented than you are in areas outside of your “expertise”- then together you/we can hash it out to create collaborative, well-informed transformational change, initiatives, etc.

And, lastly it is important to learn from mistakes. This is demonstrated again and again in our scientific and laboratory experiments. The difference between a successful leader and an unsuccessful, or experiment is simple → the successful experiment, leader, employee, manager, contributor, entrepreneur and/or innovator learns from its, his, her, their mistakes, brushes off and restarts again and again — learning is ongoing, and better and different outcomes, ways of doing and being are created in the process.

About NYU’s Office of Global Inclusion, Diversity, and Strategic Innovation
As part of NYU’s Office of the President, the Office of Global Inclusion, Diversity, and Strategic Innovation (or OGI for short) is charged with leading NYU’s efforts to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion across the University’s global network. OGI partners closely with students, faculty, administrators, and staff to help make every aspect of NYU more equitable.

About The Female Quotient
The Female Quotient taps into the power of the collective to advance equality. Through their portfolio, the organization brings visibility to the invisible, creates actions and accountability for change, and help companies close the gaps across parity, pipeline, and policy. Together with their partners, they are adding more women to every equation, from college campuses to the corner office, across sectors and industries.

Noun Project

Building a global visual language that unites us.