Infrastructure, Funding Key to Higher Education Diversity Plans, Experts Say

In his decade of service as top diversity officer at three very different universities — one public, two private — Dr. Keenan Grenell thinks that he has developed a good sense of what works when it comes to major diversity initiatives. He draws his list from stints at Auburn, Marquette and Colgate universities.

It’s a mixed bag depending on how one is defining diversity, says the veteran educator who now runs Grenell Group LLC, a Milwaukee-based consulting agency. Other colleagues agree, in some respects.

“There’s much more of a push among chief executives (college presidents) for this whole concept of global diversity, and it’s putting a strain on traditional diversity groups — African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans,” says Grenell, who most recently served as dean of diversity at Colgate University. “There’s still significant work that needs to be done (with respect to racial minorities) in terms of access, ownership (of the job of ensuring diversity), resources and acquisition (of talent),” says Grenell. He sees traditional diversity efforts being diluted as the range of concerns under the umbrella of diversity continues to expand.

Even as the definition of diversity expands beyond race to include and protect the rights of more specific groups ranging from senior citizens to the disabled to homosexuals and transgenders, there are some key elements Grenell and his former colleagues in the chief diversity officer corps tend to think are essential to any major diversity initiative having the potential to succeed.

Commitment from the top

“Reality doesn’t always follow rhetoric,” says Dr. Njeri Nuru-Holm, vice president for institutional development at Cleveland (Ohio) State University. “When what is being said is being acted upon, that makes me feel supported,” say Nuru-Holm. She says university President Ronald Berkman backs the school’s diversity agenda with his pronouncements, key hires and inclusion of diversity concerns in every aspect of running the school from program development to budget planning.

Adds Grenell, “We’re at a point in higher education where it’s really transparent who’s committed and who’s not. It’s in the president’s communications and how they [incorporate] that chief diversity officer into all the major decisions made on campus from capital campaigns to athletics.”

Focus on the goal and reward accordingly

As more and more schools, particularly in the public sector, stress accountability and focus on college completion and outcome agendas in determining overall funding plans, it has become clearer that the ambitious goals being pursued by many institutions cannot be reached absent significant inclusion of historically underrepresented groups.

“We’ll reward you for helping those students complete,” says Dr. Wendy Thompson, vice chancellor for access and diversity for the Tennessee Board of Regents, the agency that oversees six state universities, 13 community colleges and 27 technical education centers. “That message elevates the discussion from social justice and the right thing to do to the overall completion discussion,” Thompson says. “We want everyone to succeed, and this approach definitely incentivizes our institutions. We can’t meet our overall completion goals without succeeding with our underrepresented students.”

Infrastructure

The best comprehensive diversity initiatives function with a defined infrastructure that signals to the university community and general public the importance of the diversity agenda and the chief diversity officer’s key role in steering its achievement efforts. “Having someone in place and left to their own resources” doesn’t work, Grenell says.

Cleveland State, for example, has a President’s Council to help devise and execute a campuswide diversity program. It also has a diversity council for each school within the university, says Nuru-Holm, who reports to the university president and works closely with department-level groups and organizations that embrace the entire campus community. As important as the organization part of the infrastructure plan is, having an identifiable budget from which the chief diversity officer can draw is essential.

At some schools, there is direct access between chief diversity officers and officials such as deans, directors and other supervisory level administrators. A clear chain of communication can help ensure top school officials are aware of the needs of various constituencies at a university and that field generals clearly understand what is expected of them as part of a university’s overall diversity agenda. “Infrastructure is extremely important,” says Nuru-Holm.

Money

Having a fund that, for example, can be used to improve a job offer being made to a much-sought-after candidate can make a big difference for a school official responsible for enhancing a school’s effort. The same can be said for a variety of other tasks that have ambitious goals, the diversity officers say. Goodwill goes a long way, they note. It does not, however, always go as far as the funds do to make things happen. D