Getting to know Yale Leaders—Elizabeth Conklin

Elizabeth Conklin, J.D., joined Yale University in the inaugural role of associate vice president for Institutional Equity, Access, and Belonging in September 2020. In this role, she works closely with other leaders across the university to support institutional equity and accessibility, and to guide strategy and initiatives that create a culture of belonging. Elizabeth oversees the Office of Institutional Equity and Access (OIEA), Student Accessibility Services (SAS), and the Office of LGBTQ Resources. Elizabeth’s work also focuses on ensuring training for university community members on responding to discrimination and harassment and creating a culture that prevents such behaviors.

Prior to joining Yale, Elizabeth served for nearly nine years as the University of Connecticut’s associate vice president for the Office of Institutional Equity, Title IX Coordinator, and ADA Coordinator. Before her time in higher education administration, she was an associate attorney practicing labor and employment law with a Hartford law firm. Elizabeth earned her law degree from the University of Oregon School of Law, and she is a cum laude graduate of the University of Connecticut, where she earned a bachelor’s degree with an independent double major in Political Science and Peace Studies. Elizabeth and her husband, Gregg, and son, Henry, reside in Guilford.

What have been the challenges and the opportunities of the pandemic for you?
I started at Yale on September 1, so my entire time here, outside of my interviews in late January 2020, has been during the pandemic. I joke that Zoom squares Yale is the only Yale I really know so far. For me, this time has been about building new relationships and connections, and there are ways that Zoom has lent itself to this but there are also challenges. You’re seeing everyone’s face at close range during a Zoom meeting, but there’s a lot that happens in person before and after a meeting, during hallway conversations for instance or observing body language and where folks choose to sit at a table. Zoom makes it harder to read group dynamics. So, I am looking forward to being in person more regularly once it’s safe to do so. A lot of folks have offered lunches and coffees once we’re back in person, and I plan to take them up on those offers!

What do you think is the best advice a leader could receive?
I’ve received a lot of good advice and I’ve tried to follow at least some of it! Right now, I find that I am reminding myself to treat each colleague as a whole person. The pace in higher education is so fast and sometimes it is necessary or appealing to go straight to the substantive work at hand; I’m definitely somebody who does that regularly.  But COVID has reminded us about the importance of connecting and seeing people fully. Right now, we’re seeing children and pets on our screens. Or laundry that needs to be folded. We have human needs and feelings that deeply impact our work lives, and I think the veil on that has been lifted a little bit by necessity as many of us work from home. I am a huge fan of Brené Brown’s work, including “Dare to Lead,” and her leadership podcast series. She’s presented important inclusion-and-belonging-related conversations in the context of her work around vulnerability, shame, authenticity and accountability, which I really appreciate because that dialogue is central to my work. Her body of research has focused in part on the need for leaders not to dance around emotions because they are scary, but to show their own concerns and vulnerability where appropriate, and on the need for accountability without shame. That concept has guided me as has her statement, “Clear is Kind.” I have found that if you can be clear with the people that you work with and who work for you about what’s happening at any given time, that is very helpful.

What book or books are you reading now?

I am an avid reader and enjoy a fairly wide variety of genres. In terms of work, I’ve been reading the authors that we’ve been partnering with as part of the Belonging at Yale Antiracism Speakers Series virtual events—Dolly Chugh’s ‘The Person You Mean To Be, and Ibram Kendi’s ‘How to be an Antiracist’ are two recent examples. I also just received a copy of Derald Wing Sue’s new book, ‘Microagressions in Everyday Life,’ so that is on my list as is ‘Caste,’ by Isabel Wilkerson. On my nightstand right now is “The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories” by Danielle Evans. My favorite reading for pleasure these days is probably historical fiction. During the pandemic, I have really appreciated a book that transports you completely to another time and place.

What music do you listen to?
My musical tastes are all over the map. I listen to a lot of classic jazz like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Stan Getz. Classic jazz is constantly playing in my house. I also like classical music, particularly Chopin and Debussy. Growing up, my mother played mostly classical music and used to give my sister and me a quarter if we could correctly name the composer during Sunday Morning Baroque. I like a wide range of other genres too, including folk, soul, Afrobeat, kirtan, reggae, jam bands, and more. We have a record player and about 200 records so there are a lot at hand. Music is an important part of my daily life, and I’m really looking forward to seeing live music again and experiencing the energy of a live show that really can’t be matched in the virtual environment.

What are you most grateful for?

Gosh, I would say a couple things, and one is my health. I think COVID has really brought that home. I would guess that most of us have found ourselves thinking about our health and doing the best we can to protect our health and the health of those around us. I am also grateful for my son, who is four. It was a long road to having him because of fertility challenges. I am every day just astounded by the miracle that he is.

When we can travel again, where would you go?

My husband and I love to travel, including with our son. I’ve been to all but six of the U.S. states - one of the six is Hawaii. We’re hoping to take a family trip to Hawaii in 2022, in part as a celebration of our upcoming 10-year wedding anniversary.

What world problem would you solve if you could?

I would like to see a world where we all acknowledge our shared humanity and deep interconnectedness with one another and the planet. I believe that our university work around equity, accessibility, inclusion, and belonging is an important aspect of that global work.

If you could invite five people to a dinner party, living or dead, who would they be?
I would just love to be able to give a dinner party for my closest friends and family. I like to entertain in my home in normal times, and I greatly enjoy cooking, mostly vegan fare. I love planning parties and gatherings that revolve around good food and drinks, friends, and music. Right now, honestly, it’s a simple thing, but I’d like to see my closest friends and family for dinner in our new home without masks or anxiety about being in each other’s company.

What has helped you develop as a leader over the course of your career—relationships, courses, making mistakes, hard work?
I have benefited throughout my career from strong, supportive, candid mentors. And they were not always formal supervisors, but individuals who took the time to mentor and support me. I’m enormously grateful for having their support and also their candor about areas where I could further develop. Also, you learn so much from just doing the work. Like everyone, I’ve stumbled, and I think the key is to learn from this and keep moving forward. It is easy to shut down or become scared to take a stand on hard issues, but I try to ground my actions in my values around courage, authenticity and integrity. When I am struggling or challenged, I think about what needs to be said, what is the right course, and what values are underpinning the actions I’m thinking of taking.  

Some childhood memories?

I grew up in Stratford and when I was in high school, New Haven was the city to visit to have fun, so I have great memories from that time in my life. I also lived in New Haven for a few years right after law school, so the Elm City feels like home. As a child, my sister and I were fortunate to spend most of our summers at a seven-week sleepaway summer camp in Vermont. My mom was an incredibly hardworking single parent, and we didn’t have a lot of resources for extras. But in part through the support of my aunt, who was at one point a Chaplain at Yale New Haven Health, we were able to attend camp. It was formative for me in terms of becoming independent and absorbing the camp philosophy, which was really about accountability for your own feelings and actions. Figuring out how to cultivate authentic relationships while learning to live in an independent yet interconnected way had a very tangible impact on my personal and work life.

Can you please tell me about… the first time you____(made a mistake on the job; reached an important goal; etc.)
I think what I would share is when I realized I wanted to go into a career in higher education. I practiced law for a few years, and eventually the litigation and ongoing conflict became very draining and frustrating. Even though I was helping my clients, the cases existed because something had already gone wrong or broken down; somebody had lost a job or inflicted pain on someone else. I realized that I would rather focus on preventing the harm from occurring in the first place. I had a wonderful and transformative undergraduate college experience at UConn, where I was a very engaged student leader, and to be able to do that work in a higher education setting, at the institution I had attended, had a lot of appeal for me. I began working at UConn in 2010 as an investigator of discrimination and harassment complaints, as well as a facilitator of accommodations for employees with disabilities. What struck me very early into my work there was that in the course of a few weeks I was able to resolve concerns and complaints and accomplish what it would have taken years to do in a private litigation setting. This reaffirmed my deep interest in creating positive cultures through community building and also creating avenues for appropriate conflict resolution that acknowledges peoples’ needs and shared, interconnected interests

What would you say to your 12-year-old self?
‘You are enough.’ As a child of the 80s and early 90s, I think many of us felt a real sense that you are your performance, for example that getting an A shows your worthiness. I definitely had that at 12 and for a long time after 12. So, I would say, “You have worthiness just for being on this planet.” Why not start from a place where people are whole and deserve love, and rest, and support completely unattached to their performance? I’ve supervised people who are early in their careers who have really struggled with this one. I’m a huge believer in accountability, but accountability without shame, including for yourself. Everyone is going to make mistakes because we are all human. Sometimes even when you do your best, the situation just falls apart. I think this is a very universal experience and what matters is how you recover, learn and move forward from those experiences. Having the deep support of people around you, makes this possible, and I try to provide this kind of support to the people I work with, just as it has been provided to me many times over in my career and life.