Ohio State University’s new president has taken a strong stand ondiversity. Some say his is an example of the type of commitment Whitemale senior executives need to make if higher education’s dreams ofdiversity are to be realized.
Frank Hale Jr. first encountered Dr. William E. Kirwan’s commitmentto racial diversity two decades ago — and it made an impression thatreverberates to this day.
Hale, now vice provost emeritus and professor at Ohio StateUniversity, had just been appointed Ohio State’s vice provost forminority programs when he got a phone call from Kirwan, then provost atthe University of Maryland College Park. Hale had launched someinnovative initiatives to attract and keep African American and otherminority students at Ohio’s largest university, and Kirwan wanted tofred out more.
“We must have talked an hour, an hour and a half,” Hale says. “He was very interested.”
Kirwan told Hale he wanted to visit OSU to see some of the programsup close. “Yeah, sure,” Hale said to himself. “I’ve heard that before.”
But Kirwan did, indeed, show up.
“He didn’t deputize someone else to come, he came himself, and hespent quite a bit of time here,” Hale recalls. “That showed me he had acommitment that went beyond the ordinary.”
That was 1978. Now, twenty years later, Kirwan has returned to OhioState, this time as the university’s president. He brings with him astrong track record on racial diversity issues that he established asprovost and president at the University of Maryland-College Park, wherehe helped boost minority student enrollment and lured several renownedBlack scholars to the university’s faculty. His challenge now is toreplicate that success at Ohio State, the nation’s second-largestuniversity campus with more than 48,000 students.
Events of lass spring suggest there is work to be done. In May,African American OSU students held a week-long sit-in at the OSU Officeof Minority Affairs to protest a proposed restructuring in thatoffice’s administration. Some protest leaders urged incoming Blackfreshmen to reconsider their choice of Ohio State. The protest endedafter the university agreed to delay the restructuring so that studentsmight play a role in developing it.
When Kirwan came to campus two months later, he wasted no time.Shortly after he took office, he declared that campus diversity wouldbe one of four themes for his administration — an act that sent astrong message through the faculty, staff, and administrative ranksthat he was not simply paying lip service to the issue. Last schoolyear, approximately 13 percent of Ohio State’s students, nearly 12percent of faculty, and 18.5 percent of staff were minorities.
In recent weeks, Kirwan has announced plans to bring in nationalconsultants to analyze and identify weaknesses in the school’srecruiting of minority students and to assess OSU’s hiring practices.The announcement came during the first of what Kirwan promises will bequarterly town meetings on race. He also assigned an interim provost tolook inward at the university’s diversity efforts and map outobjectives and strategies for improvement.
OSU also will join two national initiatives on race. One will be inconjunction with the Ford Foundation and the Association of AmericanColleges and Universities to trigger campus community dialogue on race.The second one will be through the American Council on Education andtwelve other schools, in part, to lobby for campus diversity andaffirmative action.
So far, according to a campus spokeswoman, no specific dollarfigure has been attached to the president’s various diversityinitiatives.
Kirwan’s diversity commitment extends beyond race. Last month, hemade a point of speaking at a Coming-Out Day rally of gay and bisexualstudents on Ohio State’s campus. It was the first time organizers couldrecall an occasion when an OSU president agreed to address gay andbisexual groups at OSU in such a public fashion.
“I’m deeply troubled by the division, the prejudice, and bias thatexists in society and I want Ohio State to be a leader in creating amore inclusive community,” Kirwan told the rally.
Kirwan told Black Issues his motivation for championing diversityissues rests on both moral and practical grounds. First, we should allrecognize that higher education, like society in general, has notserved certain minorities and women well, Kirwan says. That shows up inthe racial composition of faculty and student enrollment on today’scollege campuses.
“There is a sense of equity and fairness, or making up for themistakes and wrongs of the past … I feel there is an obligation to doso,” says Kirwan, pointing to forecasts about future demographicchanges as evidence.
“If we as a nation don’t serve better those groups that have beenunderrepresented in higher education, there will be a profound economicimpact on the United States. The economic vitality of the nationdepends on higher education doing a much better job of recruiting,retaining and graduating [minorities and underrepresented groups],”Kirwan says.
Kirwan contrasts the atmosphere at the University of Maryland withthat of Ohio State. In Maryland, there was a sense of urgency ondiversity issues because the state operated legally segregated schoolsuntil the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Then, the statehad great difficulty in attracting minority students to predominantlyWhite colleges in the years after such segregation was struck down.Ohio did not have that openly segregated history, “but on the otherhand, there’s no sense of urgency” on diversity issues, Kirwan says.
The OSU president says he sees a common thread in diversityprograms that work — visible support and strong pronouncements fromtop administrators that diversity programs are a top priority.
Kirwan also is a strong proponent of actively recruiting minority and women candidates for faculty.
“You have to be willing to go after strong candidates in certaindisciplines, even if you’re not recruiting at the moment,” Kirwan says.
And although he adds, “I’m not talking about positions you don’tneed” Kirwan acknowledges that in certain academic areas, hisadministration will make arrangements if the right candidate becomesavailable.
That strategy served Kirwan well at the University of Maryland,where in 1996 he helped recruit scholars such as Dr. Ronald Walters,who had been the tenured chairman of Howard University’s politicalscience department and a fixture at the school for twenty-four years.Other noted faculty from other historically Black colleges anduniversities were also recruited (see Black Issues, Sept. 5, 1996).
Dr. Edgar F. Beckham, senior fellow at the Association of AmericanColleges and Universities who coordinated the Ford Foundation’s Campus
Diversity Initiative for eight years, says Kirwan does appear tounderstand diversity’s importance to the fabric of today’s colleges anduniversities.
For a White administrator to embrace and promote campus diversitymost effectively, Beckham says, he or she must have a thoroughunderstanding “of how inclusion, fairness and diversity in aninstitution improves education for everybody,” not just minority groups.
“They must understand that it makes a substantial educationaldifference — the institution is smarter, thinks better, knows more andunderstands more” because of the commitment to diversity, Beckham says.
Until the 1990s, presidents of colleges and universities were morelikely to step out ahead of their boards of trustees and regents ondiversity matters, but the boards “are catching up,” Beckham says.That’s because the boards themselves are becoming more diverse, thebusiness leaders who serve on the boards understand diversity is goodfor American business and voters surveyed by the Ford Foundationoverwhelmingly approve of the way higher education is promoting andhandling diversity, Beckham says.
Ted Celeste, chairman of Ohio State’s board of trustees, saysKirwan has the board’s full support for his diversity efforts, notingthat the president’s successes in Maryland were a key factor in theboard’s decision to hire him.
Celeste says he has not encountered any backlash or complaints fromanyone connected to the university regarding Kirwan’s initiatives. Theonly possible downside to Kirwan’s very visible commitment to diversityis the potential for expectations to rise too high and too fast, hesays. Nevertheless, Celeste is confident that Kirwan and hisadministration can overcome that possibility through open, honest, andfrequent communications.
Student leaders say that while Kirwan’s ideas are good ones and his commitment appears genuine, they want to see results.
“He seems sincere and really dedicated, and he has the history andcredibility to back up his words,” says Green Chandler, an OSU seniorand president of the African American Media Association, a campusstudent group. “But as always, students are very skeptical. There’s anattitude of, `Show me.’ … The African American students will givethis administration a lot of scrutiny.”
Hale agreed that it remains to be seen whether Kirwan’s initiativeswill work. But the new president has laid a solid foundation and sent amessage through OSU’s administrative ranks.
“He has shown a lot of courage to walk right into untested watershere and proclaim what he’s all about,” Hale says, “His leadership isgoing to have to be reckoned with.
“I’m hoping he’ll be able to follow through on everything he has said.”
RELATED ARTICLE: Profound Impressions
What drives Witham E. “Brit” Kirwan to devote such strong effortsto diversity issues while some others college administrators pay lipservice? Kirwan ponders the question briefly before talking of hisupbringing by parents who sensitized him an early age to the unfairnessof racial prejudice.
Kirwan grew up in Lexington, Ky., in the 1940s, where he attendedsegregated schools. He didn’t have an African American classmate untilhe was a senior in high school. He vividly remembers the separatedrinking fountains in the public parks, the separate balcony in thetheaters. And thanks to the values his parents instilled in him, heknew it was profoundly and awfully wrong.
When he was seventeen, Kirwan got a summer job in a rock quarry,performing manual labor alongside a young Black man the same age. Thetwo became fast friends, and one week, the two talked about going outtogether on Friday night to grab a bite to eat.
“It suddenly dawned on me we had nowhere we could go,” Kirwan says.
None of the places Kirwan frequented would let his friend in. Thetwo ended up going to a restaurant in the Black part of town, whereKirwan was the only White person in the place.
“It was a strange, uncomfortable feeling, but I knew full wall thatthis is what my friend faced every day when he entered the world Iknew,” Kirwan recalls.
“The whole thing made a profound impression on me. I’ve never forgotten that.”
RELATED ARTICLE: A Ten-Point Checklist for Assessing Presidential Commitment to Diversity:
1 Does the president commit funds from his/her discretionary budget to support diversity efforts?
2 Does the president use the clout of the his/her office as acatalyst for diversity? Are his/her diversity efforts and commitmentregularly communicated in speeches, conversations, and writings?
3 Does the president have a demonstrated record of, and ongoingcommitment to, supporting scholarly and administrative initiatives bypeople of color?
4 Does the president reward administrators and faculty who achievenotable results in this area? How does he/she hold administrators andfaculty accountable for failure to achieve such results?
5 Do the president’s appointments to senior level positions demonstrate a commitment (i.e., what is his/her track record)?
6 Is the president willing to take risks (for example, in theappointment and promotion process) in order to advance the diversityagenda?
7 Has the president implemented specific diversity policies andprocedures beyond those externally imposed or mandated by the courts,federal regulations, etc.?
8 How has the president responded to Proposition 209, the Hopwoodruling, and Initiative 200? Has he/she taken a strong public positionin favor of affirmative action?
9 Does the president solicit support from the board of trustees / governors for diversity initiatives?
10 Is the president a known and welcome presence within neighboring minority communities?
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