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Diversity Officers — Coming to a Campus Near You?

Diversity Officers —
Coming to a Campus Near You?

From diversifying the curriculum to the faculty, these senior-level administrators are taking on unprecedented roles

By Shilpa Banerji

In the long line of equity and access shifts, maneuvers and descriptive title appointments in higher education, yet another has emerged. One of the newest titles, “chief diversity officer,” owes its lineage to its more controversial predecessors, including minority affairs officers, equal opportunity officers, access officers and the once legally bolstered affirmative action officer. 

Buoyed by several factors, including the reality of operating in a laissez faire post-affirmative action environment, college administrators across the country are increasingly seeing the need to establish a new and more senior-level position to head up overall diversity efforts, from improving minority faculty retention to diversifying the curriculum.
“There has been a lot of executive-level hiring going on around the country. Schools are hiring vice provosts, provosts, chancellors — a point leadership position to push their diversity effort,” says Dr. Damon A. Williams, assistant vice provost of multicultural and international affairs and co-director of the Senior Diversity Officers Research Project at the University of Connecticut.

“This trend [of appointing a point person] is compelling, … it is a redefinition of academic excellence,” says Dr. Steve O. Michael, vice provost for diversity and academic initiatives at Kent State University, who convened the first meeting of chief diversity officers at the American Council on Education conference in Phoenix last month. The group plans to have a more unified voice by extending its network, forming a national association and holding future conferences.
A New England State of Mind

Depending on the size of the institution, the commitment from the top and the availability of resources, there are generally three kinds of diversity officers: chief diversity officers who report directly to the president or provost; senior diversity officers who report to everybody above the dean; and diversity officers who report to all senior-level administrators, according to Michael. While some may have minimal staffing, others oversee both the institute’s curriculum and policy. “So it’s important for the person to have a faculty background,” he says.

Nowhere is this trend more evident than on many New England college and university campuses, where the student and faculty population are predominantly White, and diversity officials are looking for innovative ways to improve minority recruitment.

Dr. Wanda Mitchell was appointed last year as the first vice provost for diversity at the University of New Hampshire. On a campus that is 96 percent White, with 2,442 full-time employees and 12,045 full-time graduate and undergraduate students, Mitchell has her work cut out for her. Her most immediate goals are to improve minority recruitment, retention and curriculum, and to appoint a diversity council to advise on policy. The initial outlook has been positive. Six minorities were hired out of 16 open tenure-track positions in the 2004-2005 academic year.

According to Mitchell, the university has long had a difficult time trying to attract minorities to campus largely because of its geographic location and homogenous population.

“We did fairly well with students, but not as well with faculty recruitment and hiring … and following the Michigan decisions, the university took specific steps to determine how best to accomplish its goals related to diversity and inclusion,” she says.

Mitchell’s appointment was not without some controversy, she notes, but the administration understood the need to go beyond rhetoric and take concrete steps that would have a lasting effect. Besides, she says, they saw other institutions in the region doing the same.

The University of Maine and the University of Vermont both took steps to set up diversity offices at their respective campuses. Susan Nichols was named executive director of the office of equal opportunity and diversity at UM in 2004. Although she is not the first person appointed to the post, the president recently changed the title to “executive,” adding a new dimension to the role.

“Diversity initiative was in the provost’s office, so moving it here [to the equal opportunity office] helped to create an agenda,” says Nichols, a former federal employee. Since Maine is the “Whitest state in the nation,” the university has always had problems attracting minorities from other states, “because there’s no one who looks like them. So they don’t want to stay on and work here.”

In spite of the challenges, Nichols says the college is not just recruiting through job fairs, but is also courting immigrant communities around the state. Somalis and migrant farm workers from Central America are changing the state’s landscape, and UM is helping them to find employment by trying to improve their hourly wages.

“Portland [Maine] is a port for refugees and we are encouraging them to move north for jobs,” Nichols says.

After an internal search, UVM’s Dr. Willi Coleman was appointed vice provost for multicultural affairs in 2002. The former history professor and founding member of the National Association of Black Women Historians was the first person to hold the post at the 95 percent White campus. Coleman says she initially felt some resistance to the creation of the new position, but she knows she has a job to do — to bring diversity to the faculty ranks, the student body and the curriculum.

“My office nurtures support to departments … and we do a lot of smoothing of ruffled feathers,” Coleman says.

A diversity curriculum hearings proposal is on the agenda at UVM, the centerpiece of which is a policy that would require undergraduates to take six credits of diversity coursework on racism, gender or sexual identity. And the university is also making efforts to diversify its student body by recruiting outside the state.

“It seems like the right thing to do in this period of growth and a no-brainer that we’d do this,” said admissions director Don Honeman in an interview with the Associated Press last month.

But there have been concerns about the natural connection between diversity and affirmative action. According to Dr. Robert W. Ethridge, vice president of equal opportunity programs at Emory University and president of the American Association for Affirmative Action, there are shortcomings when diversity is considered an alternative to affirmative action.

“There is no timetable or law when it comes to diversity,” he says. “Universities are getting rid of affirmative action programs because of the negative connotations and diversity is being looked at as warm fuzzies. But we need to talk about increasing women and people of color and then talk of warm fuzzies.”

On the Heels of Controversy

The case for a more diverse campus has never been stronger, say university officials.

“We need diverse graduates who are able to work in a diverse environment. There is now a corporate, educational and social case for diversity,” Williams says.

UM’s Nichols agrees. “Equal opportunity offices in colleges are about compliance. Compliance has begun to work,” she says. “Diversity, however, is far beyond compliance. It’s about asking what do we do with this wonderful resource and why should we?”

The rise of senior-level diversity officers comes amid the current anti-affirmative action backlash, and the response of the colleges has not come without some controversy. Other hires have also been made following controversy.

Dr. Evelynn M. Hammonds, professor of the history of science and African-American studies at Harvard University, was appointed senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity at Harvard following president Lawrence Summers’ widely publicized comments questioning women’s aptitude for math and science. In addition, the university tapped government professor Dr. Lisa L. Martin as the school’s first diversity adviser to advise the dean of faculty on matters relating to gender, racial and ethnic diversity.

Dr. William B. Harvey, the former vice president of the Center for Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity at the American Council on Education in Washington, was recently appointed to head up the University of Virginia’s diversity initiatives as its first vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity.

UVA has experienced its share of campus race crimes in recent years. In September, Dr. Rick Turner, dean of African-American affairs at UVA, told the Associated Press that the racial climate on campus was the worst he has seen in his 18 years with the university.

“I call it racial terrorism — it’s gone beyond racial incidents. We have some African-American young ladies who are … afraid of going to class,” Turner said.

UVA’s President’s Commission on Diversity and Equity, a yearlong study launched on Sept. 5, 2003, to examine the social and academic cultures at the university, recommended the creation of Harvey’s position.

“The range of engagement that is expected of this position, and the fact that it has direct responsibility to the president, were central to my decision,” said Harvey when his appointment was announced. “It was clear that the University of Virginia was interested in transformation at all levels of the institution.”

The University of Connecticut’s Williams says Harvey’s appointment signaled something very powerful, positive and symbolic. “He may not be the diversity messiah, but UVA has to have the will to change,” he says.

“Whether the appointment was proactive or made under controversy, it was a good step for all universities,” says Kent State’s Michael. “Institutes are being made to respond to changes … where students will have to function and work in a diverse world.”

Mirroring Society

These new appointments have emerged at historically Black colleges and universities as well. Prairie View A&M University in Texas recently hired a director of multicultural affairs. In a letter to Diverse, President George C. Wright said: “I believe [diversity] even serves a purpose in our historically Black universities. As the world continues to change — and especially the state of Texas with our changing demographics — the responsibility to educate all underserved populations of the state must include Hispanics, Asians and even some Whites.”

Dr. R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr., the author of Building on the Promise of Diversity, says the appointments of diversity officers at higher education institutions mirrors what is happening in corporations.

“More and more companies have elevated the diversity officer to a higher position, someone who has access to company policy and other senior officers,” he says. According to Thomas, diversity is not just about representation of all groups, but also about showing a commitment to access an individual’s potential in an organization.

“Schools can put pressure on employers to include a more diverse workforce and the other way around,” he says. “I’ve seen it work both ways.”

Hammonds, Harvey, Nichols and Mitchell all report to the presidents of their respective institutions, putting them close to the decision-making process. Their proximity gives them a better chance of being heard and, therefore, having an impact on university policies.

The work of these diversity officers is broadening under the ever-changing needs of colleges and universities. According to Williams, their responsibilities now have a three-pronged approach: equity and compliance; multiculturalism; and an academic-diversity focus.

“The role gives you capability, but it depends on the resources you get,” Williams says.

Mitchell, who previously was a department chair and university endowed professor of education at historically Black Hampton University, says accepting her current post was a risk because she had to give up her tenure-track position and come to New Hampshire as a visiting professor and administrator.

“In our society, our history of denied access, especially to people of color, this job is very important,” Mitchell says.

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