RALEIGH, N.C. – Diversity isn’t recession proof, and higher education and corporate officials agreed that institutions of all types must be proactive to prevent the faltering economy from overly impacting one or more underrepresented groups.
That was a theme of discussion during the American Association for Affirmative Action (AAAA) annual meeting in Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday. The main question: how can organizations maintain diversity when the bottom line forces downsizing?
“You have to pay attention to what’s happening and what decisions are made because downsizing is an opportunity for inequity,” said Dr. Benjamin D. Reese, Jr., vice president of the Office for Institutional Equity at both Duke University and Duke University Health System. “It’s difficult to develop a strategy around diversity. We all want to create an inclusive environment, but in practice, it’s very, very challenging.”
Duke created a group — the Duke Administrators Restructuring Team — that analyzes the potential cost savings of any financial change against the effect on employees. If the human impact is too great, particularly on one population, such as reducing housekeeping services, the team rejects the proposed budget cut, Reese said.
Voluntary, early retirements can pose just as big a problem for maintaining diversity, especially when Baby Boomers hold key positions in the organization, said Michael Leach, chair of the Human Relations Commission in Raleigh. Suddenly eliminating most older workers who are well versed in their jobs from the payroll could negatively impact the delivery of services.
“In some cases, you have to really step back and look at the rational for getting rid of people,” Leach said. “It’s imperative that you know who will be prepared to step in and take on the majority of the job functions.”
It’s the details about these types of experiences that make meetings such as this one beneficial, said Jerry Knighton, interim director of Clemson University’s Office of Access & Equity. Coming together as a group gave him the opportunity speak with other peers in the diversity profession about their experiences with trying to maintain diversity in their organizations in the face of economic downturn.
“It was interesting to hear how others in our community are dealing with downsizing,” Knighton said. “We’re dealing with a lot of the same issues, and it was good to see how they made sure these decisions don’t overly impact one or more groups in their institutions. These are ideas that I’ll take back to Clemson.”
Although maintaining diversity is a popular buzz phrase, making it a reality can mean opposing a long-standing culture in an organization or an institution of higher education, said Dr. James A. Anderson, chancellor of Fayetteville State University and introductory AAAA keynote speaker.
It’s imperative that Affirmative Action and Equal Employment Opportunity officers speak up and advise their organizations on effective and appropriate ways to mitigate the effect the economic downturn has on diversity, said Frank L. Matthews, session moderator and co-founder of Cox, Matthews & Associates Inc., publisher of Diverse: Issues in Higher Education magazine and DiverseEducation.com.
To do otherwise sets a bad precedent, he cautioned.
“You are the change agents on your campuses and in your organizations,” Matthews said. “People will try to play it safe, but you must find advocates who support maintaining diversity. If we don’t, it’s like the old saying, there will be no one left when they come for us.”