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Babson College Meets Changing Needs With Diversity Officer

Dr. Elizabeth Thornton, Babson College’s newly appointed chief diversity officer, wasn’t hired to mitigate a highly charged climate of racial violence or vandalism or to appease student and faculty complaints on multiculturalism.

Unlike other chief diversity officers hired to quiet brewing discontent, Thornton, who also serves as an adjunct professor in the department of entrepreneurship, was appointed to address the needs of an increasingly diverse campus and to solidify a structure that continues to recruit and retain underrepresented students, faculty and staff.

“I was already engaged in working with minority students and helping to recruit more minority faculty. When the administration decided to formalize the role and elevate it so the appointee would sit on the president’s cabinet, I thought that I would be the perfect fit,” says Thornton, the Massachusetts college’s first chief diversity officer.

The position of chief diversity officer is a relatively new phenomenon in the world of academia. Over the last five years, more than 30 elite institutions have created chief diversity officer positions, according to a recent survey. Although their titles vary, these officers play a strategic role in monitoring affirmative action policies, stabilizing enrollment and graduation rates among minority students and employing faculty and staff from underrepresented groups.

Thornton, a Babson faculty member since 2006, began her efforts of inclusion by spearheading Babson’s historically Black colleges and universities initiative, an endeavor that emerged from the lack of diversity in entrepreneurial case studies.

“We would read case study after case study featuring all White protagonists as if every entrepreneur is White. We constructed an HBCU consortium to help HBCUs develop case studies featuring protagonists of color. We’ve got about 10 in the pipeline set for publication. They include video clips and teaching notes,” Thornton says, adding there are recruitment endeavors in development with Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University for Babson’s graduate programs.

Babson officials recognize the lack of focus on minority businesses and business owners in the curriculum limits their students’ ability to navigate a complex working environment. Common knowledge suggests employers seek to employ a diverse work force and desire students that can operate in a multicultural environment.

“Creating more diversity in the classrooms, not only as it relates to faculty, but also in what we’re teaching is very important. Getting our academic curriculum integrated with minority cases and minority issues is on the agenda,” Thornton says.

Over the last four years under the leadership of Babson President Brian M. Barefoot, the school has become increasingly diverse. Four year ago, minorities made up less than 10 percent of the undergraduate population. Today, students from underrepresented minority groups, including Asian Americans, account for nearly 30 percent of the undergraduate population.

Barefoot insists that Thornton’s appointment is more than a symbol of Babson’s commitment to diversity, but a vehicle the college will use to achieve greater diversity.

“Everyone is talking diversity, at Babson we are serious about it and taking action,” Barefoot says.

During Barefoot’s tenure, the number of Black students have just about doubled largely because of the college’s partnership with the Posse Program. The Posse Foundation identifies, recruits and trains students from urban public high schools, and sends these groups as “posses” to top colleges and universities. From this program, Babson recruits 10 high-achieving students every year to offer full scholarships. An investment that costs the nearly a $1 million a year. Babson was the first business school in the nation to join the Posse Program, which currently has 21 partner schools.

Increasing the number of minority faculty has been a difficult task, officials say. While the number of doctorally qualified minority professors at U.S. business schools has tripled since 1994, the pool of candidates that meet Babson’s criteria remains relatively small in a highly competitive a market.

“Recruiting more diverse faculty members is going to require developing a pipeline, getting to know faculty member while they’re in their Ph.D. programs and establishing relationships,” Thornton says.

Barefoot has jumped at the chance to hire qualified faculty of color, even when positions aren’t technically available. To keep pace with the growing number of students of color, Barefoot says, “We’re going to hire a [viable] candidate whether we have an opening or not. If we don’t make progress fast enough, we’ll lose some the progress we’ve made on the student side. Students want to see faculty that look like them.”


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