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Roueche Center Forum: Are We Really Serious About Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?

Last year, the Campaign for College Opportunity in California issued a report that revealed a serious lack of progress in diversifying the higher education institutions in the state. Seventy-three percent of the students at the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) campuses and 72% of the students enrolled in California’s community colleges (CCC) are students of color.

However, the tenured faculty in all three systems is overwhelmingly White: 69% at UC, 63% at CSU and 62% at CCC. If nontenured faculty are considered as a potential source for future tenured faculty, there will not be much progress as that pipeline is also not racially diverse.

The senior leadership of the institutions in all three segments also lags in measures of diversity. At UC, 71% of the senior leadership is White; at CSU, it is 73% White; and at the community colleges, it is 57% White. The disparities in other states may not be quite as stark as they are in California, which is rapidly diversifying in its general population, but the issue is a serious one in every state. Higher education is not making the progress that it needs to make to have its faculty and senior leadership reflect the diversity of its student body.

While I believe that most faculty members and leaders, no matter their race or ethnicity, value diversity and are committed to the concepts of equity and inclusion — and may even have specific goals to improve diversity — progress is stalled. Actions do not seem to match rhetoric. The question is, are we in higher education truly sincere in what we say about the value of diversity, equity and inclusion?

In a 2016 opinion article in The Washington Post, Professor Marybeth Gasman, argued that the reason higher education institutions don’t hire more faculty of color is that they really don’t want them. Her major point is that search committees rate candidates based on what they call qualifications. The committees say that the “most qualified” candidate should be hired.

Dr. George R. BoggsDr. George R. Boggs

The problem with this criterion is that “most qualified” is ill-defined. Is a candidate with an Ivy League degree more qualified than one with a degree from a state university? Is a candidate with a doctorate more qualified to teach freshman English at a community college than one with a master’s degree? Is a candidate with seven years of prior full-time teaching experience more qualified than one who is just starting a teaching career? Is a woman who has a break in her work record to care for children less qualified than a candidate who has no gap in his work history?

It is pretty easy to see that use of the ill-defined term “most qualified” can be used to discriminate against women and candidates of color. Instead, leaders need to change selection criteria from wanting to employ “the most qualified candidate” to wanting to hire “the candidate who best meets the needs of the institution.” Even more specific language might be considered, such as wanting to hire the candidate who would be the best department chair or dean to improve student success rates — or wanting to hire the candidate who would be the best faculty member to promote the success of students of color and women in STEM disciplines.

Senior leaders need to change hiring procedures to require adequate diversity in the applicant, interview and finalist pools. They need to lead or effectively participate in selection processes rather than delegating these important hiring decisions. Programs should be formally established to identify and mentor women and students of color who show promise for academic careers. Upsetting the status quo will likely not be popular, but leaders need to have the courage to take the necessary steps to increase the diversity of the faculty and leadership in American higher education. Higher education is not going to make the progress that we need to increase diversity in our colleges and to close student achievement gaps unless we take visionary, courageous and often difficult actions.

After the hiring decisions are made, institutions need to provide adequate onboarding and support that goes beyond a simple orientation process. A mentor or coach should be assigned to each new faculty member and administrator, someone who can help the new employee learn the culture, where the “landmines” are, and where to go to get answers and resources. All employees should
be provided with opportunities for professional development that includes information about diversity, equity and inclusion. Employees should be encouraged and supported in their efforts to further their own education.

Faculty and administrators of color should be provided with opportunities to serve on the most significant institutional committees and governance bodies. As an example, the Campaign for College Opportunity documented that the academic senates of all three California higher education segments are not racially diverse. The Academic Senate at UC is 80% White; at CSU, it is 73% White; and the academic senates at the California community colleges are 71% White.

Colleges and universities need to move beyond statements of support for diversity, equity and inclusion to implement policies, make data-informed decisions and take bold actions that advance the cause of social justice on campuses. Higher education is slow to change, but it will never change without dedicated and committed leadership at all levels.

Dr. George R. Boggs is the president & CEO emeritus of the American Association of Community Colleges and superintendent/president emeritus at Palomar College in California. He is chair of the board of the Phi Beta Kappa International Honor Society and a professor of practice in the John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership at Kansas State University.

The Roueche Center Forum is co-edited by Drs. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis of the John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership, Department of Educational Leadership, College of Education, Kansas State University.

This article originally appeared in the May 14, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.

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