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Demythologizing Diversity in Higher Education

Why has it taken so long for institutions of higher education to move beyond lip service to genuine inclusion for minority and female faculty and staff? The “business case” for diversity has never been more compelling, and, while a number of universities have developed strategic diversity plans, explicitly recognizing this as an important institutional goal, the actual attainment of diversity outcomes is still extremely rare.

In our recently published book, Are the Walls Really Down? Behavioral and Organizational Barriers to Faculty and Staff Diversity, our research indicates that few public research universities have moved beyond addressing structural representation through affirmative action efforts to adopting institutional strategies that promote the empowerment and inclusion of female and minority faculty and staff. When we examined a number of institutional diversity plans and then contacted the chief diversity officers, we found that the attainment of concrete outcomes was slow at best.

While the sweeping forces of globalization and the growing demographic diversity of our student populations create a mandate for change, institutional mission statements, in fact, rarely reference the value of a work environment that supports diversity. Although a significant number of campus climate studies have been undertaken in higher education, the question remains as to how the results of these findings will be used to drive change in institutional practices. Have they really been translated into inclusive practices or have they simply created the illusion of progress?

Institutional recognition of the need for diversity and inclusion has sometimes resulted in tokenism through the hire of a few prominent minorities who have little power or authority to affect meaningful change. In this regard, Leonard A. Valverde eloquently describes tokenism in the book, Leaders of Color in Higher Education: Unrecognized Triumphs in Harsh Institutions, as the incorporation of mannequins into university culture — persons hired for show, with arms and legs arranged so as to depict a certain pose, used to appease racial and ethnic communities but with weak authority.

New 21st-century strategies are needed to foster genuine inclusion in the higher education workplace. Since the context of discrimination has changed since the pre-civil rights era, these strategies must address the reality of second-generation barriers and subtle, cumulative forms of everyday discrimination. Micro-incursions or small, recurring acts of exclusion and marginalization have replaced overt, egregious acts of discrimination. Forms of marginalization now take place through failure to allow female and minority faculty and staff to have voice, to participate in decision-making and to have access to needed resources and support.

An important framework for fostering an inclusive culture is reciprocal empowerment, a values-based approach developed in 1994 by Dr. Isaac Prilleltensky, dean of the School of Education at the University of Miami and Dr. Lev Gonick, chief information officer and vice president of information services at Case Western University. As we have shared in our work, the defining characteristics of reciprocal empowerment are recognition that derives from respect; reciprocity that is two-way and empowers those who are empowering others; and sponsorship that assists women and minority faculty and staff to overcome barriers, surmount criticism, build confidence and be successful.

The challenge to higher education is, first and foremost, to make a solid and unwavering commitment to upholding affirmative action efforts in diversifying faculty and staff and to address lingering issues related to structural representation. The second challenge is to proactively address institutional culture, policies, practices and workplace behaviors, in an effort to eliminate the patterns of exclusion and marginalization. How many valuable employees will stay on the job when they are constantly excluded from important projects and when they are not recognized for their accomplishments and are not given proper credit for their achievements?

We used to talk about the invisible man and woman in the days of egregious discrimination. Today, individuals may be present, but silent; visible, but not heard; at the table but not empowered to make meaningful decisions.

While many Americans believe discrimination is no longer a major problem, dealing with discrimination in the workplace is a fact of life in institutions of higher education, as shared through our research findings. The subtle behavioral and organizational barriers to diversity still impede the success and progress of women and minority faculty and staff.

How will we know when we have truly achieved the high aims and purposes of diversity? When women and minorities have attained leadership and decision-making roles that incorporate their voices and views, when hiring, promotion, tenure review, merit and other processes support the success of all members of the higher education community, and when the cultural environments of departments and divisions are welcoming and supportive to all. To paraphrase Franklin Delano Roosevelt, no college or university can afford the waste of its human resources. The nobility of purpose of our great democracy is the impetus for continued progress toward attaining reciprocal empowerment in the higher education workplace.


— Dr. Edna B. Chun is vice president for human resources at Broward Community College and Alvin Evans is associate vice president for human resources and equity at Kent State University.


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