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Question & Answer with Dr. Lawrence T. Potter

Part 3 of three-part series

In 2010, Dr. Lawrence T. Potter made history by becoming the first chief diversity officer of Allegheny College, a predominantly White, private liberal arts institution in rural, northwestern Pennsylvania. Here, Dr. Potter talks with Diverse about the challenges — and triumphs — of his new job.

Why did you take the job at Allegheny, over other potential opportunities you could have pursued?

I looked at three pathways: continuing down the road of private liberal arts institutions, looking at the HBCU path in terms of leadership and going back to where I actually got my start in higher education, as a third generation college student. And as I explored all three of these environments, I felt that predominantly White institutions — particularly the private, selective liberal arts institutions — still had a lot of room for improvement with diversity.

Given my skill sets, I figured that I would be most impactful.

So thinking about the level of impact that I could have in working with the leadership team to help transform an institution like Allegheny was the ultimate variable for the decision.

How would you rate the institutional commitment to diversity at Allegheny?

One a scale of one to 10, I would give the institution an 8.5. We are still in the throes of making real sense of diversity in its most comprehensive sense. And in terms of the leadership commitment, Allegheny is looking far beyond compositional diversity. So we started to look at this structural component, making sure we were maximizing and optimizing what we could with limited resources. And working with the leadership team, I am continually assured that this was a key strategic priority of the institution. And if it were not a key strategic priority, I probably wouldn’t have stayed.

How have faculty members responded to your efforts to promote diversity?

I would say faculty have had what I would consider to be the traditional response. You have a number of people who are on board for transformative change. And you have other people who are on board with maintaining the status quo — that is, ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.’ They clearly understand the changing demographics of northwestern Pa., and in the past 10 years at Allegheny, faculty have become more diverse in terms of ideological and political stances that are represented across our tenured and untenured faculty.

Can you name some challenges you have encountered and successes you have achieved thus far at Allegheny?

The greatest challenge in terms of diversity is resources, both fiscal as well as human. In order to be transformative institutions, colleges and universities have to be very solid and serious about diversity and inclusion and equity as a priority in the baseline of the budget.

Allegheny definitely has at times budgeted diversity in its baseline. But as we look to increase the work that we’re doing, it will require more resources.

What I’ve been able to do successfully in my first 10 months here is re-envision what diversity looks like. So those diversity functions that have the greatest impact in terms of supporting the institutional mission have been realigned by the new Institutional Diversity, Equity and Access office that I’ve founded.

It’s important that we’re not just looking at diversity. It’s important that we are looking at issues of equity, and it’s important that we look at issues of access, primarily for our students but also for our faculty and staff.

We have been able to reduce the number of faculty and staff committees that have been attentive to diversity and create an internal, campus-wide organization that I’ve envisioned called CODE or the Council on Diversity and Equity.

And this particular body is representative of our trustees: a local community member, members of the alumni organization as well as undergraduates, faculty at liberal arts colleges, administrators and staff at Allegheny College.

Do you have any advice for aspiring chief diversity officers?

One of the things that’s important for aspiring chief diversity officers is that they really have to have a core commitment to not only the practical, pragmatic aspects of the work, but they also have to have a commitment to the theoretical aspects of the work.

This work does not come out of hitting the ground from an activist-only perspective. This work comes as a result of an evolutionary process, which means that striking the balance between the theoretical and practical usually will equal success. Particularly if you are looking to connect with faculty. In higher education, you have to be able to talk the faculty’s language.

And if you’re looking to connect with practitioners, you have to be able to demonstrate by doing.

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