Author discusses new book on 'strategic diversity leadership'
College and university leaders talk all the time about their commitment to diversity. And, on many campuses, students and faculty question the depth of that commitment. A new book, Strategic Diversity Leadership (Stylus) considers the steps colleges can take to transform their campuses. The author is Damon A. Williams, vice provost and chief diversity officer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Williams responded via e-mail to questions about the book.
Q: People in higher education use the term "diversity" all the time, yet you devote a chapter to defining it. Why is it important to define it, and how do you define it?
A: While "diversity" has become one of the great buzzwords in the academy, it is rarely defined accurately, and rarely in ways that address its complexity. Once upon a time, diversity in higher education referred almost solely to the race and ethnicity of students; it now appears in discussions ranging from financial aid and curriculum reform to budget priorities and faculty recruitment. My discussion of what I call the "diversity idea" reflects an effort to capture the way our understanding of diversity has changed and deepened over the past several decades. In higher education especially, new communities have grown in number and voice, policy environments have changed, and language has shifted. Also, I wanted my book to model what it asks of leaders in higher education; any president, provost, chief diversity officer or committee looking to develop a new diversity strategy must address as its first challenge developing a workable definition of diversity.
Moreover, while for many the word "diversity" refers solely to issues of race and ethnicity, I take the perspective that college and university leaders must not only continue the work of racial and ethnic equity, but also embrace a broad and inclusive definition of diversity that engages gender and economic issues, as well as the needs of a range of historically marginalized communities, including immigrant, LGBT and disability groups.
Because the challenges that these groups face are not the same, the solutions cannot be the same. The challenge of increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of our faculty is not the same as creating an inclusive campus environment for members of the LGBT community. The challenge of expanding the participation of women in senior leadership and STEM is not the same as expanding diversity in the curriculum. For this reason, every new initiative should begin with a broad definition of diversity, but also move quickly into a more pointed discussion of goals and action steps for creating change in a particular institutional context.
Q: Just about every college says it is committed to diversity. What is "strategic diversity leadership"?
A: "Strategic diversity leadership" is not about making policy guesses, but tapping into the scholarship of more than 40 years of research and institutional experience to paint a clear picture of what works and what does not work in terms of advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Too often campus leaders ignore diversity issues until a crisis incident occurs. These crises force the institution into a defensive, reactionary posture, playing catch-up to a series of events that quickly spiral out of control. The institution ends up drawing its plays from a worn-out, tired playbook. Senior leaders offer a few high-profile statements, convene a planning committee, and the planning committee in turn produces a beautiful plan – which becomes the latest, greatest edition of that tired old playbook. What does this plan invariably lack? A.I.R.: the accountability, infrastructures and resources to drive a meaningful implementation effort over time.
Thus, "strategic diversity leadership" begins by examining why diversity efforts fail before moving to best practices that work, and the critical role of accountability, infrastructures, and resources in effecting transformative change. SDL also addresses the central issue of leadership: campus diversity champions must be willing to cut against the grain of tradition, while applying the best diversity science possible, to overcome an often deeply ingrained legacy of exclusion and a culture of symbolic diversity planning that may sound good but is poorly positioned to be effective.
In the final analysis, this means redefining and repositioning issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion so that they are fundamental to an institution’s organizational bottom line and educational mission. In other words, diversity work is not something we “do” in the wake of a diversity crisis, but a sustained, integrated endeavor that is central to an institution’s striving for educational and societal relevance. For this reason, the best chief diversity officers have a role to play as collaborative partners, working with their colleagues to create new possibilities grounded in the best of what we know about issues of improving academic achievement, creating an inclusive campus climate, and promoting the recruitment and retention of students, faculty and staff.
Q: Your book notes the various ballot initiatives and lawsuits designed to limit the way colleges can consider race and ethnicity in admissions. Those behind these efforts maintain that they are committed to race-neutral policies, and that they aren't against diversity, only some tactics to achieve it. What do you make of these efforts?
A: I term what is happening in our society today as a "perfect storm," one that has made diversity one of the most important educational issues of the 21st century. A major pressure point elevating diversity’s importance is our constantly shifting legal and political landscape. Strategic Diversity Leadership examines not only the history of affirmative action and other race-conscious policies, but recent ballot initiatives and court decisions designed to undo these policies. In addition, I seek to place these political debates in the context of our nation’s changing demographics, the emergence of a knowledge-based global economy, and the persistence of disparities in educational and income achievement.
Because so many of the challenges to diversity policies are ongoing, I wrote Strategic Diversity Leadership to provide relevant guidance whether or not the Supreme Court strikes down race-conscious policies in higher education. Today, more than ever, leaders in business, the military and the public sector are championing the benefits of diversity and the need for college graduates who are prepared to work – and thrive – in a diverse environment. This book offers a number of strategies to promote and strengthen diversity in both higher education and the work place, regardless of any impending legal and/or policy developments.
I continue to support a narrowly tailored use of race-conscious policies as part of a holistic admissions process designed to create a diverse learning environment for all students. But in higher education today, a strategic, effective focus on a wide range of variables – including high school grades, extracurricular activities, leadership experiences, test scores, and geographic and economic background – can and should play a vital role in building a diverse, inclusive academic community.
Q: If the Supreme Court imposes new limits on affirmative action, how can colleges and their diversity officers respond?
A: As the Supreme Court prepares to rule, I would argue that the most important thing for us is to be calm, measured, and above all, proactive.
It is for this reason that campuses should promote understanding with a number of readiness activities that might include hosting workshops with campus leaders and creating campuswide forums for students, faculty, and staff. Over the past year, we have implemented activities at UW-Madison to gain insight into these issues and welcome them into an institutional conversation about how to prepare ourselves for any changes.
Finally, it is important to establish a Fisher v. University of Texas strategic response team. This team might include leaders from institutional diversity, research, enrollment management, admissions, financial aid, legal, student affairs, and communications, in addition to leaders from the institution’s various academic schools and colleges. Ideally the president and/or provost should charge this group with gathering and analyzing a range of concerns, including campus admissions, financial aid, and diversity programs.
Q: What diversity initiatives in your career are you most proud of?
A: The last point I would make is that strategic diversity leadership is about building infrastructures for the long haul. Often the most powerful outcomes come to fruition years after they are initiated. If change is to be successful, campus leaders must be willing to innovate existing institutional processes, infrastructures, and resources, and advance campus diversity priorities as a collaborative and shared endeavor. As I look back on my career, I am proudest of the efforts I’ve facilitated working with colleagues in this way.
This has been my focus, both here at UW-Madison and during my time at the University of Michigan and also at the University of Connecticut, where we built strong National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) initiatives that 12 years since their inception have achieved a better than 90 percent graduation rate and have quadrupled the number of underrepresented students graduating with degrees in the STEM disciplines.
Over the past five years at UW-Madison, we have built a number of positive campaigns, including a partnership with the vice provost for faculty and staff to launch a three-year faculty diversity initiative; launched "Beyond the Game," an innovative new collaboration with leaders in the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics and the Wisconsin Equity and Inclusion (Wei Lab) Laboratory; and capitalized on our ongoing efforts to strengthen the various units within our newly constructed Division of Diversity, Equity, and Educational Achievement (DDEEA). DDEEA adds value to the lives of thousands of members of the UW-Madison community annually by leveraging high impact learning experiences, strategic advising, community partnerships, hip-hop theater pedagogy, and culturally relevant approaches in an effort to expand access, academic excellence, and leadership development.