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Taking Diversity to the Next Level

When Colgate University decided a few years ago to recast its diversity efforts, it joined a small, but growing, number of schools across the country in taking a new approach to a decades-old challenge of how best to make their schools more appealing to people from all walks of life and more compelling to employers as a good place to recruit

Colgate, a midsize liberal arts college in northwestern New York state, created a high-ranking diversity post with an ambitious mandate to help expand the school’s approach to diversity. It would embrace recruitment, enrollment and retention of students; development and retention of staff; long-term planning; academic programs; and internal and community relations. It would be quite a leap from historical efforts largely run at department levels by individuals with less authority.

“Things here had been done in silos,” says Dr. Keenan Grenell, recruited by Colgate two years ago as its vice president and dean of diversity, a new post at the school that reports directly to its president. “You can’t do those things without some campuswide coordination,” says Grenell, adding that disparate efforts around campus have achieved their goals but not as well as a coordinated campuswide approach may have.

Today, Grenell is working with his colleagues to get through a long to-do list, including a study of campus cultural climate and, separately, the first major evaluation of the school’s affirmative action program since 1997. Grenell is responsible for the school’s affirmative action and equal opportunity compliance programs.

Grenell has spent most of the past decade as part of a legion of educators helping schools take their historical affirmative action programs to a broader level of “inclusiveness.” However, they face myriad challenges, including dissent from people who question the need for such a broad, all-encompassing approach that may give short shrift to the concerns of high-need constituents.

Today’s chief diversity officer (CDO) has an agenda and mission, thanks to expanded anti-discrimination laws, that go beyond race and numbers to cover sexual orientation, older students, military veterans and the disabled. Also, they say, employers are increasingly asking colleges for job candidates who are “culturally competent” and able to function effectively in multicultural environments.

“You’re seeing recognition of the value of having a person lead each campus’ initiatives,” says Glen Jones, an attorney and senior associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at Arkansas State University-Jonesboro. Jones is the recently elected president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE).

NADOHE, founded in November 2006 amid a scattering of state-level diversity officer groups, is the largest of several organizations of principal and chief diversity officers in higher education. It has about 150 institutional members, says Jones. This spring it announced it would begin creating state-level chapters to help expand its outreach and networking effectiveness.

Schools moving in the direction of boosting the role of diversity planning and programs “recognize that to educate a student in the absence of diversity causes one to question whether the education is complete,” says Jones. “For skeptics I say, ‘Examine where you are and ask yourself can you really prepare students for a diverse world?’” says Jones, referring to academic leaders who question the value of such expanded efforts.

From large private schools, like Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, to rural state schools like Arkansas State, to statewide systems like the State University of New York (SUNY) system, the slowly spreading trend in most parts of the country is toward expanding management and planning to include chief diversity officers or some variation thereof. These institutional leaders are outside human resources departments and more than affirmative action officers in different clothes. They are a new breed of leaders in higher education.


Lost in the Shuffle

Still, while the idea of high-ranking diversity officers resonates across the spectrum, many veterans of progressive movements in higher education voice words of caution about the emerging trend overshadowing historical affirmative action efforts.

“While we must focus on all aspects of diversity, it is important that we not assume we have arrived in terms of race and gender of students, faculty and higher education leadership but to continue to focus on all areas of diversity,” says Dr. Lorenzo L. Esters, vice president of the Office for Access and the Advancement of Public Black Universities at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. “This is especially important as President (Barack) Obama has challenged the U.S. to again become the leader in degree attainment.”

Esters, echoing others, says “there is more work to be done” given the gaps in higher education degree attainment between minorities and low-income students and their majority counterparts.

Dr. N. Joyce Payne, founder in 1987 and recent interim chief executive of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, worries that “diversity” and “inclusion” are becoming “so diluted that it’s almost meaningless.”

“I’m really concerned” about the trend, Payne says, asserting there is a risk of traditional affirmative action efforts, particularly as they relate to African-American males, being lost in the push toward diversity. The Marshall fund provides millions of dollars in scholarship aid to African-American students attending public historically Black colleges and universities. 

While various schools throughout the country are trying this new global approach, the mandates and expectations vary by school and its history.

In New York, for example, where the state expects its population demographics to become majority-minority over the next generation, the SUNY system’s focus is on students and staff. The state created the new post of vice provost for diversity and education equity to take a big-picture approach covering all 64 SUNY campuses. SUNY recruited veteran educator Dr. Pedro Caban to lead the new effort. Only the University of Minnesota joins SUNY in taking a systemwide approach.

“Diversity is important for an institution to realize its potential,” says Caban, who accepted the challenge of leaving the classroom after 30 years of teaching to see if he could put some of his research ideas to work in the real world. “It (diversity) recognizes traditional issues (in which affirmative action programs are rooted) but also includes other groups.”

Caban says each campus has a diversity officer or the equivalent with whom he works to develop diversity strategies that complement the academic focus of a particular school and other factors ranging from a particular school’s past history and its goals to population demographics. The same tailored approach is true with most schools and systems in other parts of the country, Caban and others say. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions, he says.

In Tennessee, for example, where a statewide higher education desegregation case limited the focus of state officials for some 38 years to Black and White race issues, the end of that case now allows the state to focus on its historical affirmative action efforts and more.

“We’re trying to educate our leaders that diversity is more than Black and White,” says Wendy Thompson, vice chancellor for access and diversity for the Tennessee Board of Regents. “We still have affirmative action and EEO pieces. But that’s compliance. Diversity is a commitment to a value that a diverse experience enhances what our students get from us and leave with.”

“We’re going beyond just talking about numbers enrolled or hired, to climate issues, curriculum issues, representation on faculty committees. It delves a little deeper into the policymaking of an institution,” adds Thompson, an attorney who says the level of complaints about the expanded thrust are comparable to normal opposition to diversity efforts in general. 


Necessary Ingredients

Dr. Damon Williams, vice provost and associate vice chancellor for diversity at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, sees movement and hopes to see more. Williams has done considerable research making a case for expanding the role and reach of diversity officers. Both men have spoken to audiences around the country about the merits of the idea.

In nearly every instance of schools moving toward the chief diversity idea, its chief advocates like Williams and practitioners say there are key elements to making the job and its mission more likely to succeed.

Chief diversity officers need to have officer rank and report directly to an institution’s chief executive, Williams says. In addition to rank, the institution’s chief executive needs to clearly and regularly articulate and practice “diversity” and “inclusion” as part of their agenda. The rank and statement of endorsement from the top send clear signals to the field generals—deans, directors and department heads—of the importance of the new thrust, says Williams.

Effective chief diversity officers and their counterparts need a body of good historical facts upon which to help their respective schools devise a future plan, a staff and a budget to help various departments get things done, like hire top-rank faculty and stage various internal and external outreach programs.

“Don’t set them up as a symbolic figure with no ability to move the agenda,” says Williams. “This is real work.”

Even with all the titles and portfolio of responsibilities one could want, the new legion of diversity officers cautions that their jobs have their limits and that dramatic changes are not likely to appear overnight.

The nation’s sour economy in recent years has deflated even the most solid and ambitious program budgets, diversity officers say, as chief executives and oversight boards look for austerity options. Programs of all kinds are on the table, and diversity programs are no exception, they say. Still, with only a few exceptions, new initiatives remain intact.

Had the economy not been a factor, many hastened to add, getting a critical mass of support for expanded and more coordinated diversity efforts will take time. Change in academia moves at a glacial pace in normal times, the officials say, adding that internal education of colleagues is still a major need.

“My sense is a number of institutions have come to the realization the way they have done business in the past has to change,” says Caban. “It’s no longer a moral or equity issue. It’s going to enhance their own standing nationally. It’s a slow process. But the fact we are at this point indicates the growing importance of chief diversity officers.” 

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