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Missouri Interim President: Faculty on Frontline of Quest for Diversity

SAN FRANCISCO ― The National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE) and the American Council on Education (ACE) held joint sessions at their co-located annual meetings on Tuesday with a heavy diversity emphasis. Front and center at a session titled, “Campus Climate: Multiple Perspectives from Campus Leaders,” was a man who is now in the eye of the storm — interim University of Missouri System President Michael Middleton.

University of Missouri System President Michael Middleton cited resources and faculty as keys to helping higher ed institutions live up to their ideals of diversity and inclusivity.University of Missouri System President Michael Middleton cited resources and faculty as keys to helping higher ed institutions live up to their ideals of diversity and inclusivity.

Middleton had been retired from the post of deputy chancellor of the University of Missouri-Columbia (UM) for less than three months when protests led by Black UM students prompted both System President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin to step down last fall. On November 12, the UM Board of Curators appointed him interim system president, a role Middleton envisioned he’d be in for a year while the board searched for a permanent successor to Wolfe.

However, “I came quickly to the conclusion that I needed more than a year to get this job done,” Middleton told Diverse. “If in their search, which is ongoing right now, they don’t find somebody who they think can take over and complete this mission, I’m willing to stay around two or three years to do that. So we’ll see what happens.”

When asked what he believes will help the nation’s higher ed institutions live up to their ideals of diversity and inclusivity, Middleton cited resources and faculty, “who are the heart and soul of what we do, if you exclude students.”

Middleton added that faculty governance and shared governance give faculty a great deal of autonomy and authority. “And with all due respect to faculty, they are experts at something, and they’re very busy with their area of expertise. And it’s very difficult to convince them that they need to break off a little bit of their attention and a little bit of their superior academic capacity and devote it to” diversity issues.

Middleton says that faculty are reluctant to address diversity issues “because we as a nation have always been reluctant to acknowledge the pervasive impact of our history, that goes back to slavery, to White supremacy as a philosophy of maintaining control over the country. It’s that deep. And most people don’t recognize the magnitude of the problem and the need to really focus on addressing that problem freely so that we can progress into the next century.

“We’re not going to make it to the next century as a society unless we do that, and we’ve got to figure out a way to make faculty understand that and devote their attention and their expertise to solving this problem.”

In a NADOHE session titled, “Moving from Strategic Plans and Campus Climate to Action,” Matthew Griffith, project manager for the Campus Climate Initiative at the University of California, Berkeley, presented some findings of a Berkeley campus climate survey which underscored the importance of diversity training for faculty.

According to Griffith, the climate survey revealed that the classroom is where “people feel the most isolated.” Griffith cited a common pedagogical practice wherein a professor asks the class to break up into groups. Griffith pointed out, “There is so much bias in how Black students experience that — how many people run away from them, and the major feeling of isolation.”

Griffith says that such findings should prompt faculty to think about how such pedagogical practices “can ‘other’ people and what are some opportunities to improve that experience.”

Though some have called for mandatory diversity training for faculty, University of Minnesota Duluth Chancellor Lendley Black, who sat on the NADOHE panel with Griffith, said, “Mandating training for an unwilling trainee is not going to get very far. You’ve got to somehow get them to come to terms with the need for more training for more growth and development.”

Such training can “help bring people along to really be honest about what the issues are” within, Black added. “And that’s tough. It’s tough for people to admit prejudices and the biases and the way that they were raised was maybe not correct” in every instance.

“I heard somebody talking about coming to terms with the fact that not everything your grandfather told you was true. And being able to be okay with that doesn’t mean everything he told you was wrong, but in my own case growing up in the South, I had relatives I really cared about who had a lot of racist issues and behavior. And I really struggled with that for a long time.”

The future for Fisher v. Texas

In another joint ACE/NADOHE session titled, “Fisher II, and Diversity as a Compelling Interest: The Current Campus Context and Societal Imperative,” panelist Theodore M. Shaw, the Julius L. Chambers Distinguished Professor of Law and director of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina School of Law, spoke about what he believes will be the future of affirmative action once the Supreme Court rules on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which is challenging The University of Texas at Austin’s use of affirmative action in its admissions process.
“A good general counsel is risk-adverse. And when a decision comes down, they’re going to be some general counsels who will advise institutions to back away from diversity efforts. And in my view … that would be unfortunate and tragic,” Shaw said.
“Given the dynamics of the demographic changes in this country, no matter what the Supreme Court says, I’m optimistic about institutions remaining engaged on these issues because it is institutional suicide to do anything else,” he added.
Fellow panelist Jonathan Alger, president of James Madison University, said that pressure will come from without on institutions to graduate diverse classes.
“At the end of the day, the employers, the marketplace is going to speak and say, ‘We expect you to be producing certain types of graduates with certain types of experience, and if you’re not doing that, that’s a problem,’” said Alger. “So I think there are going to be other pressures that are going to be brought to bear.”

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