University of Maryland Turns to Diversity Trailblazer

When Dr. Kumea Shorter-Gooden took on her newly created job this month at the University of Maryland’s flagship College Park campus, she assumed a challenge at the school with a lot riding on her shoulders — helping the University of Maryland strengthen its diversity efforts and, thus, its relevance to the state in the future and standing among the nation’s major research and teaching institutions.

As associate vice president and chief diversity officer at the College Park, Md., institution just outside the nation’s capital, with 37,000 students and 10,000 employees, Shorter-Gooden will be Maryland President Wallace Loh’s top aide in charge of giving day-to-day meaning to the school’s ambitious 10-year strategic plan for diversity.

“The university has made a lot of headway over the past few decades,” Shorter-Gooden says, noting the University of Maryland’s steady gains in student diversity, retention and achievement. “The (10-year strategic) plan is exemplar,” she says. “But the plan has to be implemented,” she adds, noting there is much work to be done, much building to do on the gains of the past.

A key element of Shorter-Gooden’s charge will be helping Maryland develop, execute and sustain a solid plan for better recruitment and retention of tenured and tenure-track women and people of color. To illustrate the challenge, academic observers note that fewer than 200 members of Maryland’s nearly 1,500 tenured and tenure-track faculty are Black. Shorter-Gooden, a Washington, D.C., native who spent 20 years on the West Coast before starting her Maryland assignment, acknowledges that taking on a major role at a major public university “is a big transition.” Her most recent post was that of associate provost for international-multicultural initiatives at Alliant International University, a significantly smaller private college in Southern California.

“I’ll have to get used to being in the public eye,” Shorter-Gooden says. “On the other hand, it really means my work and the work of the university is really anchored in the community. You have to be more accountable. Your actions are being scrutinized more.”

Pioneering ways

Shorter-Gooden has a rich personal history of taking on and mastering big challenges. She and others note that Shorter-Gooden, the daughter of public school teachers in the District of Columbia, was one of two Black girls to integrate the prestigious Madeira School, a private girls prep school in Virginia. After graduating from Madeira, she earned her bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in 1973 from Princeton University with its first class of women.

In 1978, Shorter-Gooden earned her Ph.D. in clinical/community psychology from the University Maryland. She has since amassed considerable experience as a teacher, practitioner and college administrator.

Shorter-Gooden, selected from a pool of some 100 applicants says she thinks it was her “personal story” plus her 16 years as

a teacher and researcher before becoming an administrator that helped move her to the top of the prospects list and stirred her interest in the job. “This really resonated with my life,” she says, noting the possibility of getting close to home was an added attraction.

“I bring to the job administrative skills,” she says. “I write. I do research. I know what teaching is like. I really get the academic side; what it’s like to supervise and teach.”

Achievements and accolades aside, Shorter-Gooden is quick to acknowledge the task ahead and cautions against expecting overnight miracles.

“Will it (the strategic plan) be fully realized in five years?” Shorter-Gooden asks. “Probably not. But it’s really important to know what you want to achieve. … I don’t see this as something where you arrive,” she says, noting diversity gains are no longer purely a numbers game. They are as much a culture and environment, she adds.

For sure, the University of Maryland is a late starter in designating a chief diversity officer when compared to many universities it considers itself competing with for student and faculty talent. Now that it’s on board with the idea, observers say the university is holding nothing back in trying to make sure Shorter-Gooden has the tools she needs to help propel it to the top ranks.

Job Description

The new chief diversity officer will have a number of programs reporting to her as part of her portfolio, creating the infrastructure for better coordination of various diversity efforts. She will be part of the university president’s Cabinet, giving her ready access to the president and a voice in the decision-making process as ideas are being developed, discussed and debated. Shorter-Gooden also will have an identifiable stash of cash she can draw on to help deans and other department heads improve their diversity recruitment efforts.

“We have a lot of great programs aimed at diversity, but the sum was less than the parts,” says Dr. Robert Waters, associate vice president for academic affairs at Maryland and chief architect of the university’s 10-year strategic plan, “Transforming Maryland: Expectations for Excellence in Diversity and Inclusion.” Implementation of the plan began in 2009.

“We’ve been (working) at diversity a long time, and, after awhile, it becomes part of the culture,” says Waters, who has been at Maryland 12 years and heads the school’s equity council whose creation dates to the 1970s. “Our weakness was in not having one very strong person who can articulate campuswide where we are and where we need to go — keeping the spirit you need on a decentralized campus but bringing together more collaborative programs,” says Waters, who will serve with Shorter-Gooden as deputy chief diversity officer.

On a broad scale, Shorter-Gooden will have to help the university community decide whether a diversity structure built in the 1970s, one that was used when she was a graduate student at the school, will achieve what the school needs for the 21st century, a period during which society’s collective vision of what constitutes diversity has gotten much broader than achieving racial goals.

Shorter-Gooden says much has changed since she was a fixture on the Maryland campus as a student. For starters, there are far more buildings and students of diverse backgrounds on the campus. More than 30 percent of the student body is considered a minority. There are 40 to 50 campus programs that identify themselves as diversity programs. They range from degree programs to campus clubs. Maryland has a first-class athletic field for many of its major sports events, and Title IX, the federal law designed to enhance equity for women in college athletics, exists and is dramatically changing the institution.

Some things have not changed as much, however, Shorter-Gooden and others note. Among the most significant things is the school has been unable to assemble a “critical mass” of minorities in its teaching ranks. University officials say that’s an important shortcoming as the institution pursues “our vision of becoming a model multiracial, multicultural, and multigenerational academic community.” It also is critical to the school’s future as the state steadily evolves into one in which its population is majority minority.

To prepare for these challenges, Shorter-Gooden says she first plans to do “lots of listening and learning” about what her new peers think works and what they think needs new, more enhanced or different attention. “The demographics are different, and I need to find the strengths, challenges and points of leverage,” says Shorter-Gooden, who prides herself on what she says are her strengths in “forming relationships.”

“It’s a lot of people to try to bring on board,” Shorter-Gooden says. “It’s probably the thing I fear most. But, there’s a way to get through it. My hands will be quite full.”