Diversity efforts take center stage throughout higher ed
Campuses are discussing and investing in equity and inclusion programming to meet new challenges
In 2008, officials at Barnard College surveyed campus stakeholders to assess the climate of diversity and inclusiveness at the institution. The results were not positive for the private women’s liberal arts college and set into motion an executive effort to identify areas for improvement.
Nine years later, the school’s presidential task force on diversity and inclusion has revealed a set of recommendations, calling for new metrics of assessment in its academic offerings and hiring practices, social development on campus and awareness building.
The speed of that process seems slow, but throughout higher education, it seems to be a growing pain for the increasing urgency of campuses to identify specific needs for diversity building, and to match resources with those needs.
Increasing pressure for campuses to prioritize diversity
Barnard’s institutional objectives for increasing diversity include changing organizational practices to ensure a diverse culture, valuing inclusion and social justice, and developing accountability for adherence to expectations of civility. Within those goals, the task force recommends hiring a campus diversity officer and 10 new faculty members from underrepresented groups, in addition to making changes to academic requirements to expose students to diverse topics and perspectives.
The recommendations were released just one week prior to Barnard President Debora Spar joining 46 other college presidents in writing an open letter to U.S. President Donald Trump, calling for an executive order banning entry into the United States by citizens of seven Middle Eastern nations to be rescinded.
"The order specifically prevents talented, law-abiding students and scholars from the affected regions from reaching our campuses. American higher education has benefited tremendously from this country’s long history of embracing immigrants from around the world. Their innovations and scholarship have enhanced American learning, added to our prosperity, and enriched our culture. Many who have returned to their own countries have taken with them the values that are the lifeblood of our democracy. America’s educational, scientific, economic, and artistic leadership depends upon our continued ability to attract the extraordinary people who for many generations have come to this country in search of freedom and a better life."
At community colleges, meeting the needs of underrepresented groups along socio-economic areas of diversity is beginning to draw executive attention and policy emphasis.
“We’re beginning to see a trend in that the position of campus diversity officers is slowly being infused into the community college leadership structure because of the importance of the diversity of our population and the changing demographics of our community,” says American Association of Community Colleges Senior Program Associate for Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Kevin Christian. “They’ve built a plan where diversity is infused throughout all areas of the institution.”
Christian says that a top-down emphasis on diversity is the number one way to see the benefits of diversity and inclusion because presidential or chancellor focus on the subject mandates for campus leaders among faculty and students to prioritize the effort in their own circles. But for presidents to successfully champion diversity, data must be at the center of the message.
“Most of the success is because the position in extremely visible and is supported by the board and presidents," says Christian. "So when you have the top-down approach and leadership is behind change as it is related to data-driven results, whatever program you touch will, more than likely, be successful.”
The cost of diversity
At the University of Missouri, the campus epicenter of protests organized by black students at predominantly white institutions nationwide throughout 2015, first-year student enrollment dropped by more than 1,500 students in the following fall semester. In the 18 months following the protests, colleges and universities hired more than 90 diversity officers, according to a 2016 piece published in The Atlantic. Those positions have increasing presence on executive cabinets, but often are not resourced with the funding to make seismic change in campus climate.
According to a 2016 survey of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, 61% of surveyed campus diversity officers indicated that they had six or fewer employees in their departments, and 45% of those offices had budgets of $100,000 or less.
Alphonse Keasley, an Associate Vice Chancellor at the University of Colorado Boulder in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement, says that it is not so much about budget as it is a focus upon the impact of programming created within the budget.
“It’s something that is now the topic of discussions,” he says. “It’s one of those areas. We’re using the funds that we have as efficiently as we can. But how do we work better?
When diversity programming works
Keasley says that associations for campus diversity officers frequently are the breeding ground for best practices and efficiency-increasing ideas for offices with low resources. As more students and families are beginning to pay attention to the work of these offices, the expectation of delivering sustainable programming to increase civility and understanding falls outside of what budgets do and do not allow.
He points to the UC LEAD Alliance, a program established in 1998 which allows student groups and academic departments to collaborate on diversity-building activities, curriculum support and scholarship provision under the umbrellas of cross-cultural exposure. Those intergroup dialogs, Keasley says, have yielded high results in participation, and even some positive unintended results.
“Instead of programs being siloed, they are trying to work together in the various colleges, schools and divisions," says Keasley. "If a student is participating, their probability of graduating in 4-5 years is extremely high. On the other hand, we certainly would like to impact the dominant culture in being able to engage in this understanding of the kind of society we’d like to create.”
“And that takes more effort for 25-30,000 students to bring about that kind of change. It is not to indoctrinate people into one mode of thinking but it is to engage people in the kind of intellectual, effective work we should be doing.”