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Diversity Proponents Looking for the Academy to Lead Way

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by Reginald Stuart

010616_DiversityDiversity, the elusive goal that has had its share of ups and downs over the last few decades as successor to the pioneering affirmative action steps taken by corporate America in the 1960s, is getting a boost from students in colleges and universities across the nation.

Higher education, which has been slower than corporate America in expanding its efforts beyond student enrollment to include staff and program diversity, got a stunning reminder this fall of the work still to be done.

The reminder came in the form of widespread student demonstrations for better institutional leadership on diversity issues. The marches, rallies, meetings with institutional officials, and threats of student class and athletic activity boycotts echoed student protests of half a century ago.

Then, college students played a big role in the 1950s and 1960s in the waves of peaceful, non-violent demonstrations aimed at pushing government and civilian leaders to make good on the promise to outlaw racial segregation and discrimination across the board, from schools to housing to employment.

Much of that protest was fueled by the pace of response by education and government leaders to the “all deliberate speed” mandate in the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education outlawing so-called “separate but equal” local laws preventing racial integration of public education.

Now, society may consider itself legally light years beyond the era of legalized racial segregation. Still, today’s demonstrations reflect a sense among many current students that vestiges of many past practices persist and are reflected in the absence of urgency to address discriminatory practices and embrace inclusion at every turn.

“There’s a movement across the country,” says Dr. Benjamin Reese, vice president of the Office of Institutional Equity at Duke University and Duke University Health System and national president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE), reflecting on recent developments around diversity and the University of Missouri. “Many who have never had a chief diversity officer (CDO) are beginning to recognize having a CDO is necessary but not sufficient.

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“What needs to happen is institutions need to provide these new CDOs with resources and fully engage them with the chancellor, president and senior leaders to allow them to provide the value they are suited to offer,” adds Reese.

Strategy needed

Indeed, the University of Missouri has emerged as the most prominent example, although far from the sole one, of what can go wrong when an institution lacks a well-thought-out strategy for inclusion and a go-to person such as a CDO to help chart and execute strategies and help address real-time issues as they arise.

Missouri never had a formal chief diversity officer. Two years ago, it eliminated the job of the person directing diversity efforts along with a number of other officials, according to university records and officials. In the time since, complaints of all kinds ranging from employment practices and goals to administrative response to allegations of racial and ethnic discrimination steadily accumulated with no resolution.

During that same two years, the institution parted ways with the leader of its medical school and its athletic director. It reduced student health benefits. It downplayed or did not sufficiently address, according to protesters, the significance of racial incidents on campus.

As Reese and others say, having a chief diversity officer in and of itself does not guarantee an institution is protected from unrest among its population, as many with well-established diversity programs and officers have learned. It does help an institution become focused and achieve a better outcome when issues arise, say education advocates, current academics who have studied diversity in the corporate world and corporate veterans of the affirmative action era.

Today, the fall unrest illuminated the need for institutional leadership sensitive to “diversity, equity and values,” says Dr. Danette G. Howard, vice president for policy and mobilization at the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation. “Leadership really does make a difference.”

Howard says that some of the issues raised by students at various campuses were quite similar and seemed “longstanding and not new.” She says that she hopes institutions engage in thoughtful responses in the coming months aimed at “resolution” of issues and “not a Band-Aid, short-term solution. It should not be a reactionary approach to a longstanding problem.”

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Looking to private sector

Several academics who have focused on the evolution of diversity efforts from affirmative action initiatives in the private sector offer research and trends as higher education leaders search for ideas to help address the new wave of concerns.

“We’ve gone through and are still going through a lot of experimentation,” says Dr. Ned Smith, an associate professor of management and organizations and sociology at Northwestern University, assessing where the nation is today compared to when affirmative action started in the early 1960s. “There’s been a lot more success with centralized approaches,” he says, with “visible buy-in from the top.”

Visibility and buy-in from the highest levels of an organization lets middle managers know clearly the importance of the goals and the strong possibility they will be held accountable for helping achieve the goal or goals, says Harvard University sociology professor Frank Dobbin.

Dobbin, who has spent much of his 13 years at Harvard studying diversity in corporate America, says that there are a variety of ways to “measure outcomes.” In that context, studies have found when companies put in “diversity managers, we see some uptick.” The studies have found “significant increases in gender, race and ethnic diversity” when there is a program and person in place, he says. “It has some effect just to appoint a diversity manager.”

In a higher education setting, having a chief diversity officer in place can help in the sense that “they can effect that kind of accountability” in recruiting staff and faculty, says Dobbin.

Retired media executive Albert Fitzpatrick, who was among the first generation of affirmative action officers hired by a Fortune 500 company, adds “the resources” to which people in higher education politely refer to is a seat at the leadership table, voice in strategic planning and funds to help make things happen.

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“They [employers] give you a lot of lip service,” says Fitzpatrick, reflecting on the media landscape today and during his era. “You can tell when a company is committed by the resources they put behind it [affirmative action and diversity].”

Fitzpatrick spent 10 years pulling together and helping develop myriad recruitment, training, development and retention programs for Knight-Ridder Inc., the one-time owner of daily papers in cities around the nation. His agenda, backed with a budget of several million dollars yearly for internships, first-time hires and high-level recruits, also tied annual bonuses for top managers to their performance in those areas.

To be sure, there is much work to be done in advancing diversity actions on the nation’s campuses and more than a handful of culture changes that must be embraced and pursued.

NADOHE, the national organization of diversity officers in higher education, has approximately 500 member institutions as well as several hundred individual members. Not all of the active individual members have ranks as chief diversity officers and even fewer have a seat at the strategy table of a university or a direct ear of a president or chancellor, according to Reese.

The nation has some 3,300 nonprofit colleges and universities, according to most recent government IPEDS reports. No federal agency, NADOHE or other private group has precise numbers on how many institutions have diversity officers, according to numerous national higher ed organizations. All rely today on unofficial and anecdotal information.

Beyond staffing up, after years of economy-related downsizing, there are many real-time issues facing many institutions on the diversity front. At Missouri, for example, one academician familiar with its issues says that, to achieve a 10 percent presence of African-American professors on the university’s faculty, it would have to hire a professor a week for four years. Retention, the academic adds, is a different matter.

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