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Doing DEI Better

Simply hiring a chief diversity officer will never lead to success if we don’t take three key steps to infuse diversity, equity and inclusion efforts into the fabric of our institutions, argues Kendall D. Isaac.

July 30, 2021
 
 

In 2000, I was working as a diversity recruiter for a Fortune 100 company. Our marching orders were to make our company demographics mirror our surrounding community, because, my employer said, diversity matters. A decade later, in 2010, I was transitioning into higher education and soon found myself attending minority student recruitment events attempting to encourage students of color to enroll at my institution, because, we told ourselves, diversity matters.

And then, after yet another decade, I saw in 2020 -- and continue to see -- countless job postings for chief diversity officers at colleges and universities across the country that again seem to suggest diversity matters. Indeed, in the wake of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery, Casey Goodson Jr. and countless other senseless killings, college and university presidents generally put out statements to their constituents condemning these acts and proclaiming to the world that they care and wholeheartedly believe that diversity matters.

So why, after all these years and decades, do we continue to purport that diversity matters but we rarely seem to see substantive and sustained progress? Because we fail to approach the problem strategically and with an eye toward infusing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts into the fabric of the institution.

Simply hiring a chief diversity officer has never been -- and will never be -- enough. We need to do more. And believe it or not, it does not have to cost anything extra, so saying “our budget cannot …” is not a legitimate response. In fact, if you take these three steps before hiring a chief diversity officer, I am confident that your institution will finally start to do DEI better.

Engage the Campus

The campus needs a collective focus on DEI efforts, and the best way to do that is through the creation of a campuswide DEI committee. It must include constituents from the vast majority of departments and academic units on the committee, so they can discuss campus issues and propose solutions, pass along best practice ideas among each other and to their colleagues not on the committee, and ensure that programming and training efforts are collaborative and not siloed and less effective. They can also become great sounding boards for institutional leaders who are charged with confronting and resolving issues of discrimination, bias and institutionalized privilege, as well as problems in enrollment, employee recruitment and retention resulting from the failure to ensure these Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) campus members feel a sense of belonging early and often.

Engage the Executives

Having a chief diversity officer sit at the senior leadership table is not enough. Giving a chief diversity officer a budget and a team of professionals to work with their colleagues and to encourage them to take DEI seriously is not enough. Having multiple BIPOC people in senior leadership positions is not enough.

Such senior leaders need to be personally invested in the DEI plan and initiatives, and one of the best ways to ensure people are personally invested is to hold them individually accountable. The president needs to require that every senior leader has at least one annual goal geared toward improving DEI within their division -- and preferably multiple ones -- whether centered on hiring more people, recruiting more students, creating and delivering more programming, reducing the number of bias-related complaints, improving retention or GPA outcomes, or any number of other initiatives. The president must then hold these leaders accountable for meeting and exceeding their goals.

Let me be clear: people’s annual salary increases and, after multiple failed efforts, their jobs should depend on their ability to meet and exceed these goals. When leaders are held accountable for outcomes, they work much harder pushing their direct reports to do more and do better. As a result, positive change is virtually guaranteed to happen.

Engage the Board

Just as the president should demand that institutional leaders have and meet goals, so too should the board require that the president do so. A failure of the president to move the DEI needle forward is a failure to more toward what we have been talking about yet not achieving for longer than I’ve been alive: a campus community that mirrors society and values the contributions of everyone, regardless of their age, race, sex, sexual orientation, religious background, physical limitations or any other immutable characteristic that tends to drive segments of our campus to mistreat other people rather than embrace their differences. In addition, the board should have a committee exclusively dedicated to DEI, or the executive committee of the board should have a subcommittee that evaluates institutional efforts in this regard and recommends changes to effectuate improved results.

Higher education thrives in a world of shared governance. By sharing the responsibility for DEI outcomes among the entire campus -- and, in particular, among an all-college committee replete with faculty, staff and student members -- as well as among senior leadership, the president and some subset of the Board of Trustees, we can finally do DEI better. Then, and only then, should we hire a chief diversity officer and empower them to hold the reins and improve on what is built, rather than charging them with the impossible: moving immovable and unmotivated objects toward an elusive goal.

Just these three budget-neutral steps can make all the difference. Now that you know better and realize such steps are available, please take them -- and do DEI better.

Bio

Kendall D. Isaac is vice president, general counsel and assistant to the president for special initiatives at Dickinson College. He has also held the positions of chief of staff, chief human resources officer and tenure-track faculty member in higher education institutions. In addition, he has been a diversity recruiter in the private sector, litigated hundreds of civil rights and discrimination cases, and served his campuses and communities on task forces and committees designed to improve diversity and inclusion on campuses.

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