Approaching Diversity From the Top Down

Three university presidents talk about recruiting and retaining diverse populations as well as the diversity challenges that remain at their respective institutions.

The City College of New York is one of the most diverse campuses in the country — approximately 90 foreign languages are spoken on campus. Educating recent high school graduates to working adults, CCNY also ranks among the leading schools conferring bachelor’s degrees to African-Americans. The University of Maryland, College Park, celebrated the fact that African-American students earned 40 doctorates this year, the largest number in the school’s history. In addition, over the past three years 46 percent of faculty hires have been women and 34 percent to minorities. And the University of Virginia, long recognized as a leader in educating minority students, tied Columbia University among top-rated universities this year for enrolling the highest percentage of African-American students, at 11.4 percent, and the university also announced this spring that for the 14th straight year, its African-American students posted the highest graduation rate, 83 percent, among those at all flagship state universities.

There are, of course, additional accomplishments that each of these universities could list, and other equally impressive universities to profile, but in this edition Diverse speaks with presidents Dr. John T. Casteen of the University of Virginia, Dr. C.D. Mote Jr. of the University of Maryland, College Park, and Dr. Gregory H. Williams of The City College of New York about improving diversity within the faculty ranks and the student body.

Dr. John T. Casteen, President, University of Virginia

DI: Since UVA is recognized as a leader in educating and graduating minority students, how do you explain the value of a diverse campus community?

JC: I spend a lot of my life in front of alumni, donors, political leaders, our students and their families. In these circles, people get it. This is a public university. People who have followed our development over the years know that we take our public mandate seriously and we have large ambitions for the university and for its people. The university’s minority members’ contributions and impact, here and in the world generally, and their successes are well known. We publicize them. In raising money, making our case to state government, and planning for the university’s future, we put these issues out in front, right alongside our origins in Thomas Jefferson’s thinking about freedom in America, our ambitions for the university’s academic future, and the community’s convictions about personal and public ethics, including the honor system.

DI: When talking with other college presidents who are struggling to recruit diverse populations, what “best practices” do you share?

JC: Direct, personal involvement with the people and the issues, clearly articulated goals, transparent disclosure of accomplishments and failures, acknowledgment that within universities change may be advocated at almost any level, but happens most deliberatively and probably most efficiently when presidents, provosts and deans put themselves on the line with regard to defining clear purposes and reporting timely and clearly on results, including failures.

DI: What are some steps UVA is taking to ensure it retains diverse talent?

JC: What keeps good people? Superior compensation, mutual respect within faculty communities, access to colleagues with compatible research agendas, access to top students, a supportive surrounding community, recurring opportunities for personal and academic growth, including a properly funded sabbatical system, solid local support for faculty research, and a sound system of faculty/academic discipline with the integrity to make hard collegial decisions, and fully engaged leaders.

DI: Several of UVA’s schools and departments have their own diversity Web sites. Does the public commitment to diversity come from the Office of the President?

JC: In the beginning, which was before my time, the president led. Over time, the Board [of Visitors] and the presidents have had a common agenda. We may be more transparent and forceful about that agenda nowadays, and schools/departments may reflect that. To oversimplify, the goal in this regard has been to live the values written into the Constitution, including the 14th Amendment.

Dr. C.D. Mote Jr., President, University of Maryland, College Park

DI: Maryland, with its proximity to the nation’s capital, benefits from the regional diversity (in addition to the university’s efforts), but what advice do you offer to college presidents who are struggling to attract diverse populations?

CDM: First of all, if you’re the president, you have to be genuinely interested in doing so (attracting diversity) and have to take steps to convince the campus as a whole that it’s genuinely interested in doing so. And that’s done by actions, by commitments, by recruiting colleagues around the campus to participate and so on. The second step is to actually recruit some people who are diverse. On the front end, that’s a little difficult because it’s not necessarily so attractive for them to come. So it requires some overt action on the part of the university — scholarships, special opportunities, etc.

So I think there are three steps — the commitment of the institution; secondly to establish particular programs and activities to engage colleagues on the campus; and then, of course, worry about the inclusion of the students, faculty and staff when they arrive.

DI: The university has made impressive strides in its hiring of women and minority faculty. Is the message encouraging department heads to make such appointments coming from the president’s office?

CDM: The higher administration has the bully pulpit, which has a lot more power than we’d like to think sometimes. But it really does work. The leadership, from the president’s office, deans and others, has to not only talk about their interest in developing a diverse population and programs, but do it and believe in it.

DI: What are the diversity challenges that remain at the University of Maryland and how are you addressing them?

CDM: There’s an evergreen challenge. One is that you’re constantly in recruitment mode. You’re constantly looking to find people who can prosper and participate in the campus in a very active way. But there’s another very interesting challenge also. You can go from being a successful place doing well to having a lot of trouble very quickly. For example, the hanging of a noose outside the Nyumburu Cultural Center done by somebody is enough to all of a sudden create uncertainty among our diverse populations about inclusiveness, about security, about the campus’ commitment to diversity.

So in terms of the challenges, it’s a fragile system. A quick and effective response is necessary when these things occur. And regrettably, they do occur every so often.

Dr. Gregory H. Williams, President, The City College of New York

DI: The university is located in one of the most diverse cities in the world, but what advice do you offer college presidents who are struggling with attracting diverse populations because of their geographic location?

GW: I know those can be special challenges. I spent 15 years at the University of Iowa. We had to do a substantial amount of recruitment. I spent a lot of time with the assistant and associate dean of the law school traveling throughout the Midwest and other places recruiting people to come to Iowa, but more important than that, and this is why I think oftentimes programs fall down, is that you have to develop a sense of feeling, a sense of community and belonging both for students and faculty.

When I started at Iowa and later on became associate vice president for academic affairs in charge of diversity, I remember I met with one department and they said, “How do we bring minorities to Iowa and what do we say to them?” I said, “Look, people of color, just like any other folks, have the same goals and desires with regard to their careers and aspirations, and they want to come to a place where they can feel a part of the place, where they feel that they can develop their own careers and fit in and really have an opportunity to grow and develop as either students or as scholars.”

DI: Since your campus is already diverse in so many ways, what is your focus now in terms of promoting diversity and further cultural understanding on campus?

GW: Our focus has not been so much on increasing diversity on campus but on really trying to enhance diversity in terms of where our students are going to go when they graduate. For instance, I received a gift of $9.6 million, the largest gift ever given by any law firm in the country, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, to help build the pipeline to law school for people of color and people of limited resources … so that’s going to make a difference in that law school pipeline.

And while our students are incredibly diverse, often our students are not diverse in their own worldview. The 21st century is really going to be very expansive in terms of worldviews, so what I’m trying to do here is to enlarge the diversity of experience of our student body, which adds to their own cultural and ethnic diversity.

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