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'Doing Diversity in Higher Education'

January 12, 2009

What is the faculty role in promoting diversity on campus? A series of essays, all by authors who see a major role, make up Doing Diversity in Higher Education: Faculty Leaders Share Challenges and Strategies, which was just published by Rutgers University Press. The editor of the collection -- Winnifred R. Brown-Glaude, assistant professor of Africana studies at the College of New Jersey -- responded to questions about the themes of the book.

Q: What is the faculty role in promoting diversity and how does it differ from the roles of colleges' diversity officers or student affairs officers?

A: Faculty members are in a unique position on college campuses. Their presences and activities in the classroom and in their departments provide them with a perspective that colleges diversity officers or student affairs officers simply do not have. For example, faculty are better able to see, first hand, how diversity benefits students in their classrooms, that is, the kinds of discussions that are generated in a diverse classroom and how they enrich student learning. They are also better able to detect how campus climates enhance or deter student and faculty development and retention, in other words, they are better able to identify welcoming or hostile micro-climates in their departments (see, for example, chapter 4 on micro-climates at Smith College).

While it is important that colleges establish and support diversity officers or student affairs officers, we must understand that their reach across campuses is limited. Most are not privy to the internal workings of departments and classrooms, and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which barriers to diversity are created. Diversity officers and student affairs officers are often part of a "top down" strategy by college and university administrations to address diversity. It is equally important, however, to view faculty as part of a "bottom-up" strategy. Most have been working on the ground and under the radar to create a more inclusive environment using a variety of strategies from curriculum development, strategically placing themselves on departmental search committees, mentoring (informally) underrepresented students, creating academic institutes, among others.

Q: How does the role differ if faculty members are in traditional departments vs. departments that by their very nature diversify the curriculum (ethnic studies, gender studies, etc.)?

A: Traditional departments make diversity work a bit challenging. We see this, for instance, in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines and departments that are predominantly white and male, and are often resistant to change. However, faculty members in these departments have been creative by developing programs aimed at training underrepresented students from K-12 and beyond, and preparing them for success in these disciplines. In other words, many faculty use these strategies to fill the pipeline with future students and faculty (see, for example, chapter 10, which provides examples from UC Santa Barbara). So while traditional departments can be challenging, faculty have been creative and much of their success has been the result of their ability to seek financial support outside of their departments.

Other departments like ethnic and gender studies face different challenges. While these departments are more successful in attracting diverse students and faculty, and have played integral roles in diversifying their campuses, many grapple with what we refer to as "incomplete institutionalization," that is, they receive minimal support from their university administration. This lack of institutional support has meant that many faculty members have had to spend most of their time seeking outside support and this severely constrains growth (see chapter 7 for an example at Rutgers University).

Q: How can a college tell if its faculty are sufficiently involved in promoting diversity?

A: This is a challenge because many faculty are engaged in diversity work under the radar out of fear of a backlash from their colleagues. One faculty member at a university actually chose not to participate in this study out of fear that the important work he was doing, and the creative ways he was able to secure support for this work, would be exposed, leaving him vulnerable to criticism and potentially curtailing the support he needs to continue his work.

The first step by a college to identify whether or not its faculty are sufficiently involved in promoting diversity must involve the college itself taking a stand on this issue. That is, a college/university must be explicit in its support for diversity and treat it as a priority. This entails doing more that simply creating a diversity statement on its website and creating a diversity office. Instead, colleges/universities must send a clear message to its staff, students and outside community that diversity is a priority and find creative ways to celebrate those involved in diversity work.

At one university the administration held an annual dinner event to publicly recognize and celebrate faculty who had been identified by their department chairs as individuals doing diversity work. Events like these are small institutional gestures but they send a clear message about the importance of diversity to the campus community, and in doing so faculty will be less reluctant to continue their work in hiding. There is no doubt that faculty members across the nation are actively involved in diversity work on their campuses. As a follow up to this study our faculty team from UC Santa Barbara conducted a national online survey of faculty to learn how engaged they are on their campuses. Part of this engagement includes diversity work. Although we are still mining through the data, there is strong evidence that faculty are convinced that diversity enhances student learning and are actively engaged in making their campuses more inclusive.

Q: Should commitment to diversity be a criterion in faculty hiring?

A: Yes. If colleges/universities are given the charge to train students to succeed in the global economy, then we fail our students if we do not provide them with faculty who take diversity seriously. Our global community is diverse. If faculty are to prepare students to flourish in this global community, diversity has to be an integral part of that training.

Q: Conservative critics say that many faculty members, in the name of diversity, are seeking to politically indoctrinate students. How would you respond?

A: Diversity work is not about political indoctrination. It is about training our students for success in a diverse global labor force. To ignore diversity is to do our students a serious disservice.

Q: What diversity efforts that you have been involved in give you the most pride?

A: I would say that mentoring students, especially those from underrepresented groups has been the most rewarding. I’ve mentored female students of varying racial backgrounds, and men and women of color. A large number of these students have been first generation college students, like myself, and have grappled with feeling out of place on campuses and in departments where they were a numerical minority. Many of these students have gone onto graduate school, have mentored others, and a few have kept in touch. I firmly believe that mentoring is an important part of the faculty-student relationship, and the rewards far outweigh the challenges.

 

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