Essay on the evolving role of diversity director
A black and white photo taken in 1860 had been recently discovered and was a mystery at my campus, Union College in New York State. The image shows a young black man with his professor in what looks like a lab. We had a pretty good idea that the professor was Charles Frederick Chandler, who taught chemistry at Union from 1858 to 1865. But we couldn’t quite pin down the identity of the student. What we did know was that around the same time, Union College had admitted its first black student, David Rosell. According to our records, before being allowed to enroll, Rosell was subjected to, of all things, a hair examination to determine his race. An accurate chemical or genetic procedure for this kind of identification was still many years away. As a chief diversity officer, I have to marvel at how far we’ve come as a society. But I also have to consider what still needs to be done and more importantly, what we can do to get there.
It has only been recently, in the past four decades, that colleges have instituted administrative positions that focus specifically on equity, affirmative action, diversity, inclusivity and cultural competency. At Union College, founded in 1795, we hired our first African-American professor in 1958, and, 30 years later, our first affirmative action officer. For many colleges, initial efforts to define positions were developed around federally mandated affirmative action policy and equity related to employment issues. This included the hiring process, promotion procedures and harassment policies. Administrative positions and job descriptions have expanded or changed as college presidents, senior administrators and board members considered the immediate and long-term effects of campus climate and cultural competency on the education of students. Our concept of diversity has broadened considerably since diversity programs began. But unfortunately, some institutions haven’t broadened their programs to match the concept as we define it today.
Many administrative positions on diversity were initially created in a reactive fashion to comply with the federal mandates. Now institutions are beginning to see these programs as a tool for enriching the educational experience of students. Fulfilling an obligation had the side effect of bringing to light important deeper issues and needed changes. That raises a central question: How does and should the modern diversity professional balance both the role of compliance and "educational experience enhancer"? The answer is quite clear: institutions must rethink the role and responsibility of diversity and inclusion to ensure that a diversity officer’s title, reporting structure and support resources encompass the different kinds of responsibilities now required of them or at least reporting to them.
As diverse populations increased on campus, women and other diverse cultural groups began to identify issues related to campus culture and climate that were detrimental to the education of students and the morale of the employees. Examples include students hosting parties "celebrating" certain cultures in a derogatory or demeaning manner, or employees confronting gender or racial bias in hiring practices. It became very apparent that institutions of higher education, some having a long history of equity issues, had to begin thinking about broadening the constructs and concepts of diversity. How should higher education re-examine and determine the appropriate definition and title of the administrative position that shapes colleges’ and universities’ diversity missions?
We should start by exploring the history of affirmative action and diversity and examine the changes that take place when the concepts of inclusivity, religious fluency (learning about other religions besides one’s own), and cultural competency are added. Affirmative action focuses on fair hiring procedures and includes ensuring a diverse hiring pool of historically underrepresented applicants based on gender and race, thereby reducing discrimination and allowing equal access to opportunities in higher education. In the early stages of affirmative action, many employers established policies that moved away from quota systems and toward percentages of demographics for their particular region. Some institutions established affirmative action plans but did not monitor the efficiency of the plans unless scrutinized by the federal government. Others developed affirmative action policy and plans that led to search committees adhering to strict policies in order to complete a fair and just search process.
These institutions increased the percentage of historically underrepresented employees, but as the numbers grew, they also had to examine the culture of their environment to ensure their campus was welcoming and inclusive to all. Many had difficulty retaining employees because their campus climate was not welcoming to diverse populations. There was compliance but no cultural shift. One can spark the other, but the two goals require different approaches. They take different amounts of time and require different strategies and initiatives, different types of leaders, different support structures and skill sets.
At the same time, higher education institutions also had to consider the student experience. We could not ask for a student to engage in four years of education and not be appreciated, respected and able to interact with people from diverse backgrounds. We could not send students on terms abroad without having them develop an understanding of the culture in which they would engage. We could not graduate our students without adequately preparing them for the cultural diversity in our global market.
Institutions need to take a broader view of the diversity officer’s role, responsibilities and support network – and need to be bold and purposeful about it by equipping the position with the proper tools, resources and authority. When diversity offices and positions began to develop around the 1970s, they carried narrowly focused titles such as vice president for minority affairs, director of multicultural affairs, director of diversity or a combination title that might include the term affirmative action. Recent titles used by colleges include chief diversity officer and vice president of diversity and equity. Areas of responsibility have also broadened, reflecting not just on race, gender and culture but on blending the goals of the institution with efforts to be more inclusive. By embracing marginalized groups, diversity offices are tasked with addressing a myriad of topics and issues such as LGBTQ populations, disability etiquette, transgender culture and campus climate, and "interfaith vs. multi-faith paradigms."
Reporting structure is pivotal. In the past, many director positions reported to vice presidents in either the student or academic affairs division. This situation sometimes narrowed the focus of the diversity initiatives – limiting work to either faculty or student populations. Institutions that show the strongest commitment to diversity initiatives and provide documentation of improved campus climate changes are those that place the diversity position in a more senior rank position -- reporting to the president, as an active member of the president’s staff and participating in board procedures. This structure provides the chief diversity officer with more power to cultivate change. I can vouch for the success of this approach as I report directly to our president and serve as part of his senior leadership team. This structure allows me to ensure that diversity and inclusiveness are part of our strategic decision-making and our collective dialogue, and most importantly, that they remain an integral part of our campus culture.
An example of this kind of discussion included the need to design gender-neutral restrooms in public buildings of our campus. Senior cabinet members understood the importance of offering this alternative and agreed on the locations where restrooms could be enhanced to make this accommodation. Besides adding new restrooms, through some creative efforts on the part of our director of campus operations and director of religious and spiritual life, we will also be dividing one large restroom into a gender-neutral restroom and separate entrances for two "wudu" or ritual washing stations for our Muslim students and employees.
In addition, diversity directors must be provided with a network of staff and sufficient budget. "In order to be transformative institutions, colleges and universities had to be very solid and serious about diversity and inclusion and equity as a priority in the baseline of the budget,” notes Lawrence T. Potter, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Jackson State University. Colleges and universities must provide programs and courses that offer safe and engaging discussions around sensitive issues including religion and the concept of religious fluency.
In addition, establishing ongoing assessment of the goals for diversity on the campus is necessary and requires planning and monitoring. Diversity positions that are defined too narrowly or don’t have sufficient authority will have difficulty performing a thorough assessment of their progress and challenges.
Once a campus has identified diversity as a commitment of their mission, established a cohesive planning process, and allowed for accountability across the institution, it will have developed a climate of understanding and respect. Leveraging diversity to ensure the growth of an individual – employee or student -- means developing a more culturally competent student body and employee base. And as we keep redefining and broadening the topic of diversity, we need to redesign the solutions as well. This may lead to more innovative research, as well as insights into diverse cultures and religions.
In some respects, institutions of higher education are playing catch-up when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Colleges need to follow in the footsteps of other industries who have worked much more quickly to address diversity and inclusiveness. Workplace expert Tammy Erickson, founder and CEO of Tammy Erickson Associates, discusses the issue in her July 2011 newsletter, stating, "The strongest business benefit of diversity unquestionably comes through the combination of different ideas and views to create new insights – to innovate."
The photo of former student David Rosell, who went on to become a physician, is all the more moving when I consider the importance of his role in Union College’s diversity journey. Union College is more inclusive than we have ever been before, but it has taken intentional work, strong leadership and strategic vision to create a campus climate where everyone can succeed. I believe David would be proud.
Gretchel Hathaway is senior director of campus diversity and affirmative action at Union College, in New York.