As the coronavirus spurs an economic downturn, colleges and universities have started to tighten their budgets. But when institutions cut spending, will their diversity and inclusion work suffer?
Diverse: Issues in Higher Education explored this question and others with university leaders and diversity professionals in a two-part webinar moderated by editor-at-large Dr. Jamal Watson last Thursday. It was the final segment in a series of online discussions hosted by Diverse and CoopLew, a professional development organization for chief diversity officers in higher education.
According to Dr. Walter Bumphus, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, the answer is yes – the pandemic will set back diversity efforts – but the real question is how much.
For him, that depends on the extent to which universities maintain their focus on eventual outcomes for diverse students. It’s “critical” for these students to leave college with job opportunities, especially in a time of financial hardship, he said, so having diversity isn’t enough if universities aren’t offering underrepresented students pathways to employment. He praised community colleges for making job training a priority.
“We’ve got to continue keeping our eye on what’s going on with student success and diversity,” he added. “Because if you’ve got diversity only and you don’t couple that with student success and high expectations for all of your students, it’s all for naught anyway.”
Because the virus has put a spotlight on inequities, Dr. Timothy Sands, president of Virginia Tech, hoped that universities with strategic plans emphasizing diversity, equity and inclusion will use the limited funds they have to promote those values, assuming their boards are supportive.
The pandemic “opened up a window to the stories of our students that we had either ignored or just didn’t have time to address,” he said. It provided universities with “a better understanding of the range of conditions our students are operating in, especially for low-income, first-generation students of color, students of all sorts of backgrounds that really are challenged in the moment.”
Or as Dr. Lisa M. Coleman, senior vice president for global inclusion and strategic innovation at New York University, put it, “COVID-19 is a diversity and inclusion issue,” not just for students but for faculty and staff as well.
“It is about food insecurity,” she said. “It is about broadband. It is about access. It is about health and safety in our homes, so many who had to return to homes that were unsafe. It is about disparities of health. So, COVID-19 has not just uncovered, it has demonstrated again where we are in this country when it comes to diversity and inclusion issues.”
After the pandemic, no one should see diversity as a “side gig,” said Dr. Debra Joy Pérez, senior vice president for organizational culture, inclusion and equity at Simmons University.
“If inclusive equity isn’t a part of your recovery plan, your reopening plan, you need to rethink your reopening plan and your recovery plan,” she added.
This might be a new moment for philanthropy in higher education, as donors gain a clearer picture of the disparities students face, Sands and other panelists noted.
Dr. David Kwabena Wilson, president of Morgan State University, stressed that funds should be funneled to the neediest students, not just to help them weather the crisis but to foster future success in growing communities of color.
“In this space, it’s going to be even more challenging because many students are going to have parents who have lost jobs,” he said. “It’s going to be very challenging for them. So, what I would say to the philanthropic community is make investments in the students that can least afford to remain in college and cross the finish line if we want to see ultimately a more diverse, more inclusive, more competitive society.”
Dr. Ken D. Coopwood, co-founder of CoopLew, emphasized that universities that involve their chief diversity officers in making decisions are going to be better prepared to offer that support. Diversity professionals can help schools with “maintaining whatever progress was made pre-COVID to post-COVID,” he said. Meanwhile, he thinks schools that didn’t invest in the infrastructure for connecting with their minority students before are going to find it even more difficult online.
CoopLew Co-Founder Dr. William T. Lewis described diversity officers as those “on the front lines of the diversity and inclusion space.” He thinks this is an opportunity for them to “reemerge” as an essential resource for universities.
For Wilson, as the president of a historically Black university, preserving diversity work during the pandemic isn’t just about support for underrepresented students and the professionals trained to help them but about support for the institutions that are “overproducing diverse talent.”
To not invest in historically Black colleges and universities right now would be an “incredible, missed opportunity,” he said, because if these institutions struggle, “that’s going to have a deleterious effect on diversity and inclusion with regard to the talent that’s going to be available for the nation.”
Sara Weissman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.