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The Death of a Diversity Alliance

The Death of a Diversity Alliance
When foundation funding dried out, so did a Florida college coalition’s diversity initiatives.
By Blair S. Walker

A decade ago, 11 eager Florida colleges and universities came together to form what was expected to be a shining example of institutional cooperation to advance diversity initiatives.

Fast forward to 2006, though, and the Central and South Florida Higher Education Diversity Coalition is a distant, unlamented memory. The lead institution for the consortium was Barry University in Miami. When Barry’s grant money for the coalition dried up, the impetus to move the coalition forward also evaporated.

With Barry’s funding gone, the other cohort institutions — Bethune-Cookman College, Florida Memorial College, Miami Dade College, Nova Southeastern University, Palm Beach Atlantic College, St. Leo College, St. Thomas University, the University of Central Florida and the University of Miami  — simply let the coalition quietly wither and die.

“Barry lacked the critical mass of faculty and staff of color — and progressive White faculty for that matter — that wanted to make sure the program didn’t fall apart,” says Andrea Monroe, the former director of the coalition.

“I think that Barry’s failure just mirrors the diversity failures that we see in higher education in general,” says Monroe, who is now teaching at California State University-Monterey Bay. “I don’t see a lot of leadership in wanting to sustain thoughtful, meaningful diversity programs.”

A spokeswoman for Barry, a Roman Catholic university that had 53 percent minority enrollment in Fall 2005, says the school’s commitment to diversity has never wavered, despite the coalition’s demise.

“We have diversity within our mission statement now; the board approved that a number of years ago,” says Dr. Sister Phyllis Superfisky, assistant to the dean of Barry’s School of Education.

The university and its 10 cohorts started the coalition in October 1996, eager to prove that they could attain a broader range of diversity objectives collectively than they could working alone.

“Each university was already doing a lot, but we wanted to experiment with a new regional model,” says Fran Freeman, the coalition’s first director.

Funding was supplied by a $50,000 grant to Barry from the Ford Foundation in 1996, followed by a grant for $128,500 in 1998. That year, Freeman left the university, leading to the hiring of Monroe, who had been diversity agenda coordinator for the University of Michigan.

“By the time I had gotten hired, things had gotten a ‘part diversity, part service-learning’ focus,” Monroe recalls. “The Diversity Coalition had kind of morphed into that. We had money to literally pay faculty to change their curriculum, to change their pedagogy, to make it more culturally inclusive.”

Not long after Monroe took the reins, the Ford Foundation cut the program’s funding in half. But the W.K. Kellogg Foundation stepped in with a $60,000 grant, which ran from March 1, 1999, until May 31, 2000. Monroe and Superfisky agree that when the grant money died, so did the coalition. 

“Basically, the coalition existed as long as there was external money,” says Monroe, who left the university in frustration in 2001. “When the money ran out, the big question was, ‘Was the [Barry University] Office of the President going to sustain this?’ And the answer was, ‘no.’”

Dr. Betty J. Overton-Adkins, now the vice president of academic affairs for Spring Arbor University in Michigan, was the Kellogg Foundation’s director of higher education programs when Barry received the $60,000 grant.

“You need to plan from the very beginning as to how you are going to take over the grant once the loan dollars are no longer there,” she says. “Foundations don’t support things forever.”

Today, Barry and the other members of the short-lived coalition are doing what they did before 1996 — approaching their respective diversity objectives as each institution sees fit.

While acknowledging that the coalition was an “effective” body for promoting diversity concerns, Superfisky says it wasn’t indispensable.

“Sometimes there are other avenues to accomplish the same goals,” she says. “I don’t think [diversity] died a death and was ignored. I think it was picked up by other areas of the university.”

Monroe’s memories of the coalition are tinged with regret, she admits.
“My decision to leave, to take the attitude that, ‘You can have it!’ was a bit defeatist,” she says. “I’ve been doing that kind of work since 1995. It’s work, and it usually is a battle.”

Ensuring that higher education diversity initiatives remain on track can be a difficult proposition, although hardly an unattainable one, says Dr. Steve O. Michael, the vice provost of Kent State University
and a professor of higher education administration.

“I have advised institutions to establish chief diversity officers who report directly to the president,” he says. “It is also critical that colleges and universities have line budgets dedicated to achieving the goal of diversity.”

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