ACUI 2023: Keynotes Offer Practical Advice, Opportunities for Reflection

A behavioral scientist, a designer/entrepreneur, and an activist poet who shared their work during keynotes with members of ACUI attending the Association’s Annual Conference in Boston this year provided space for attendees to reflect, strategize, and bring creativity to the roles as campus community leaders. Then two leading chief diversity officers from Boston campuses had a discussion that underscored the important work ACUI is doing in the social justice space.

Lee’s Six Micro-Strategies for Fostering Mental Health-Focused Communities and Cultures

In her role leading the behavior science program at Northeastern University, Dr. Kristen Lee is afforded the opportunity to speak with educational leaders from across the globe. From those conversations, she’s concluded that the burning sentiment of educators today is one of self-doubt.

“The travesty in the world of education is that we are the people who do the most—the most—and yet we question whether we’re doing enough,” Lee told ACUI 2023 attendees.

With burnout on the rise in both students and educators, Lee suggests using modern behavioral science to conceptualize and propagate mental resilience. “We need to look at the conditions at hand and determine what we can do collectively maneuver and renegotiate our environments to make them more human, more realistic, and less of a recipe for burnout.”

To do so, Lee is a proponent of micro-strategies—small, bite-sized techniques that are easy and practical enough to fit into the busiest of schedules. She recommends starting with the following six.

  1. Set Boundaries. “We’re human beings, not human doings,” Lee said. “We’re not robots or machines. We have to hold mental health as the greatest priority for ourselves and our learning communities.”

    Think long-term, focusing on sustainability—and have the courage to say no. “No one’s going to stand at your funeral and say, ‘They answered their emails in .02 seconds,’ or ‘They had 1,476 followers on LinkedIn,'” Lee said. “That is not your legacy.”
  2. Practice Mindfulness. Lee is the first to admit that there’s a lot of hype around mindfulness—the practice of living in and accepting the moment. “Mindfulness is the new kale,” she quipped. “It’s everywhere; there are even apps devoted to it, which can feel ironic.”

    Still, Lee recommends using mindfulness to focus on the things you can control in life.

    “Studies show that people who can see what’s in their locus of control are more likely to grow versus staying hyper-fixated on that which we can’t control,” she said. “Another thing that mindfulness can help us do is to reduce the toxic inner critic or chatter that haunts us. And it allows us to practice our gratitude, which is so important to our wellbeing.”
  3. Reject Perfectionism. “This world, this cult of overachievement, often baits us to think we should never show what we’re really feeling,” Lee said. “We also can oftentimes become mistake-averse.”

    The solution, she said, is to honor and revere our varied identities and dimensions. Part of doing so includes resisting impostor syndrome—the psychological tendency to feel as if you do not deserve your achievements—and recognizing where that feeling comes from. “Imposter syndrome disproportionately affects persons of color and the LGBTQ+ community,” Lee added.
  4. Practice Self-Compassion. Remember that it’s okay not to be okay, Lee said.

    “We need to get to that place of not taking everything about ourselves so seriously; if we make a mistake, we can see the humor in it, see it in a different light, and reframe it,” she said.

    Lee also emphasized the value of accurately distinguishing between your emotions. “I love the emergence of discussion around emotional granularity, which is just a way of saying that using language to name our precise emotions can be a catalyst for healing,” she said.
  5. Find Metaphors and Mantras. Lee said research shows that creating abstractions about our experiences can create helpful psychological distance from troubling thoughts. “Referring to ourselves in the third person, for example, can be a way to recognize some of our behaviors as harmful and work to overturn that inner critic.”
  6. Build Trust Through Kindness and Joy. Finally, Lee emphasized the mood-boosting benefits of eye contact, acts of solidarity, and camaraderie.

    “We’re all serious people doing serious work,” she said. “We can sometimes forget to bring joy to the table and have fun, and that’s why even for myself, I practice comedy. I started a comedy mental health show smack in the middle of the pandemic, which was completely absurd, but it served as a real therapeutic tool for me and a way to build community.”

Design Entrepreneur Jason Mayden: Advocating for the Good of the Whole

From Nike’s first black design intern to president of Fear of God Athletics and CEO and founder of the design and strategy consultancy Trillicon Valley, Jason Mayden has embraced a range of high-profile creative roles. But if he had to define himself in just one, it would be that of a cultural alchemist.

“Cultural alchemy can be defined as contextually educated, methodically, creative, socially aware, culturally blended, and technologically proficient,” Mayden told attendees of the final all-conference session and keynote of ACUI 2023. “Cultural alchemists are driven through genuine interactions, exchanges of ideas, collective aspirations, and access to experiences that lead to meaningful opportunities.” Mayden described the role as not only relevant for corporate America but for academia and society at large.

“Cultural alchemists are people on the edge of discovery,” he said. “Creativity is an expression that allows them to connect with people they may not feel closely connected to due to socio-economic barriers, race, gender, all these different classifications that make us feel apart from one another. Cultural alchemy is bringing them together.”

Over the years, Mayden has infused cultural alchemy into his many leadership positions, which include senior global design director for Jordan Brand, director of innovation for The Nike Digital Sport division, Sloan Fellow at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, CEO and co-founder of Super Heroic, and his current role as CEO and founder of the design consultancy Trillicon Valley.

Through the lens of cultural alchemy, Mayden’s goal is to create a multi-generational impact uniting diversity, youth, and the tech industry.

“I don’t believe that I’m employed by any organization,” he explained. “Once I figured out that there’s a difference between a vocation and a profession, I saw myself as being deployed against a purpose, an initiative, a mission, or a moment. And when you think that way, you can step into any room and create value simply by being.”

Mayden said that thinking of himself as deployed, rather than employed, creates a sense of urgency in the spirit—a feeling that he’s fighting for, instead of against, something—even when designing items to be sold.

“My relationship with products isn’t just to get people to buy the things that I create; it’s to capture a moment, to create a sentiment, to make sure that everything has a purpose and is an intentional outcome of my expression of creativity,” he said.

Evolving Cultural Values

Mayden said he’s observed an emergent mindset in which people focus on work-life “prioritization” rather than work-life “balance.” “When you put your priorities at the top, you make decisions with a clear mind and heart,” he said. “And so, a lot of what I’m seeing in my industry, and what I’m seeing in the youth, is this exact mindset of prioritization.”

At the same time, Mayden became aware of a rise in malignant normality“Malignant normality refers to a degenerative social phenomenon in which large numbers of people view reality through the skewed lens of a political or cultural leader and even adopt their traits,” he said. “The internet has made this exceptionally dangerous because information spreads at the click of a button. So now we’re seeing these echo chambers that reinforce narratives, that reinforce thoughts that push us further apart.”

With this knowledge, Mayden, who had climbed the ranks to become senior global design director for the Jordon Brand, decided to shift his focus and purpose “to build stronger children rather than fix broken adults.”

“As I’m looking at all the data, as I’m working in the market, as I’m spending time with people, I’m realizing that prevention is a better solution than correction,” he said. “So, the work I started doing at Super Heroic focused on bringing the Batman effect, which is the research that I leverage to build this multi-modal ecosystem of play. And the reason I did that is because children, when you call them a hero, you give them a cape, and you put them in context, they actually perform better. There’s a physiological, emotional, and developmental uplift because we’ve labeled them heroes.”

Super Heroic closed its doors in 2020 due to pandemic-related supply chain issues but was still recognized by the design world, winning Fast Company‘s Innovation by Design Award and the Edison Award for product innovation.

Inclusive, Meaningful Leadership

Today, Mayden continues to inspire others as CEO and Founder of the design consultancy Trillicon Valley, where he provides thought leadership on everything from social justice and ethical entrepreneurship to design and innovation.

“This point in my career is doubling down on this term servant leadership,” he said. “My whole premise is ‘know me to serve me;’ the audience that I work for, the youth, the athletes, the entertainers, whomever, I go into their world, and I deeply understand fears, insecurities, worries.”

With that insight, Mayden is giving himself three priorities every year: Serving the creative entrepreneur’s needs, catalyzing conversations that amplify collective healing, and creating premium experiences that inform and inspire.

“We can’t expect the workforce to thrive or our economy to thrive if people aren’t okay, but typically, mental health is an afterthought,” he said. “So I’m trying to start this revolution in self-leadership and self-governance that helps people get to better solutions and outcomes.”

Poet Olayiwola Shares Boston Insights in Connecting with Members

A writer, performer, and educator who uses Afrofuturism and surrealism to examine historical and current issues and black woman and queer diasporas, Porsha Olayiwola welcomed ACUI members to Boston with insights into the city, its cultural heritage, and how her work and the work going on in Boston connected directly to the work being done by ACUI members on their campuses.

She reminded her audience that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scot King, both attended school in Boston and met in the city, and that today, King’s words about Boston remain important today.

“This is an epigraph and it’s from Dr. King and it reads, ‘Boston must become a leader among cities. The vision of a new Boston must extend into the heart of Roxbury and into the mind of every child. Boston must conduct the creative experiments and the abolition of ghettos, which will point the way to other communities.’”

Olayiwola then connected those words to the ACUI community: “As we all gather here to really think about young people and college students and do the work surrounded with young people, what did it mean for these two young people from different places, from different schools, different campuses to meet here?”

She shared that the story behind the two meeting was through a mentor of Coretta Scott King, who said, “You guys are doing similar work.” And she set them up right.

“But thinking about what it means to build people up and connect folks together, and also how in each of us there’s this possibility of becoming a flourishing leader right above the great possibility of helping to shift and change things. I think this quote also made me think about or consider what is King saying about Boston, right? And I’m thinking, is this that beacon on a hill, the city upon a hill that we’re supposed to be occupying?”

Olayiwola reminded the audience that Boston is one of the oldest places in the United States, the start of the revolution, but also then I think it must hold within it some of the oldest displays of racism or of indigenous folks, the genocide against indigenous folks right there, all of “that history is still existing.”

“How do we move through that or how do we continue to be this, ‘beacon, this leader,’ so to speak, while holding all of these dichotomies?”

Leading Diversity Officers Share Challenges, Opportunities

Georgianna Meléndez, assistant chancellor for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the University of Massachusetts–Boston, and Sherri Ann Charleston, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Harvard University, led conference attendees in an all-conference session that explored the role their positions play in ensuring environmental factors support student success, and how social justice strategies, practices, and programs are being advanced within higher education.

Moderated by ACUI director of strategic initiatives and senior diversity officer Stacy Givens, the discussion between Charleston and Meléndez and the question and answer session that followed, covered a wide swath of what higher education strategies are being use to design, implement, and measure the work being done in a space that includes diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, belonging, and equity.

“When you have a world and community that is grappling with issues related to race, racism and social justice, and you have a campus that is so diverse — 60 percent of our student population identify as underrepresented minorities — it’s important to consider how that impacts our campus,” Meléndez said.

They noted that by 2027, 49 percent of high school seniors will be students of color. Yet, historically and today, African American, Latino, and Native American students are notably less likely than students from other racial and ethnic groups to enter and complete college.

Charleston, a historian trained in U.S. history with a focus on race, women, gender, citizenship, and the law, and an attorney with a specialization in constitutional and employment law, recalled how organizations often struggle in the “how,” of designing a strategy – “They don’t know where to start.” – and then the importance of having the tools in place to develop strategy from an existing framework, Charleston said.

“We use an inclusive excellence framework as an organizing framework,” she said. That’s our North Star. In general, we set out in our job to make sure we are fully embracing the diversity that flows from our campus and our community. It’s the people that makes us an excellent institution, so we must make the best possible use out of the wide variety of talent we have.”

Nationally, the Inclusive Excellence Initiative began in 2017 with a cohort of 24 universities and colleges and added a second cohort of 33 institutions in 2018. It is a model and approach to diversity and inclusion intended to assist with integrating diversity and inclusion quality efforts into the core of institutional functions. Charleston noted that the framework is designed to infuse diversity and inclusion into recruiting, admissions, and hiring processes; into curricular and co-curricular activities; into our administrative structures and practices; and into cultural norms.

Meléndez agreed that the only way long-term goals to address existing disparities between students can be achieved was through a collective and sustained commitment over time involving leadership, faculty, staff, students, and alumni.

“You can’t say belonging on some campuses; you can’t say diversity. But that doesn’t mean you are not doing the work,” she said. “Recognize that there are people with different belief systems that are coming from those spaces. But even if you can’t use that vocabulary, those words, how do you do the work? Hopefully, our politicians are paying attention and those involved in advocacy work are paying attention; it is empowering our students to be more vocal and to be less tolerant of curriculums that are not inclusive, less tolerant of spaces that are not inclusive, and that don’t reflect them or who they are.”


  • Christine Preusler

    Christine Preusler, Managing Editor at The Wyman Company in Gainesville, Florida, writes The Lead for ACUI's biweekly newsletter, The Bulletin. Christine uses more than 15 years of experience in publication management and a master’s in mass communications from the University of Florida to highlight the latest industry news and create thought-provoking content. Contact her via email ( with story ideas and announcements you'd like to see in the newsletter.

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