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With all the racial unrest in the country, many of our students, faculty and staff are engaged in protests and activism both off and on campus. In this era, college presidents must be responsive to the new paradigm for diversity, equity and inclusion in order to be aligned with the institution and the surrounding community. No matter where they stand politically, every president must be able to provide leadership for successful DEI work on their campus.

In fact, it is now routine for institutions to list experience leading DEI efforts as a required qualification when searching for new presidents. Six of the most common expectations for presidential leadership are:

  1. Personal understanding of and fluency about equity in higher education. The president must be able to speak to the value of equity and why it is important to the mission, vision and goals of the college. They must also be able to articulate how DEI aligns with their personal values as a leader.
  2. Establishment of DEI as an institutional priority that is integral to mission fulfillment. The president has to work collaboratively with campus constituencies to include DEI in strategic planning and accreditation reports. Because DEI is articulated as a required qualification for presidents, boards of trustees should include it as part of presidential performance reviews. Successful presidents keep their boards engaged in the work through periodic reporting and/or planning efforts.
  3. Strategic communication about equity-related issues to both internal and external audiences. The president is expected to communicate broadly about what the campus is doing related to DEI. Silence on crucial equity-related efforts happening on the campus and in the broader community can be perceived as not caring about those issues and can lead to fierce criticism by faculty, staff and students. Issuing statements on everything from immigration policy to police brutality and gender identity is expected and must be carefully managed.
  4. Development and implementation of policies related to national politics and free speech on campus. Even as the president is called upon to issue statements, they must ensure that the institution remains a place where differences of opinions can flourish and be expressed. As the nation has become more polarized politically, vocal conservative and liberal organizations jockey for a place on college campuses. To deny one over the other can lead to legal challenges and negative social media directed toward the institution and its leadership.
  5. Active management of campus, community, business, donor and alumni expectations for engagement. The campus has many constituencies, and they all have different understandings of why DEI matters to the college. The president is often the only person at the institution who has relationships with each of the constituencies and must manage conflicting expectations about work on DEI. Strategic engagement with constituents before an equity-related crisis occurs helps the college be proactive in problem solving.
  6. Accountability and metrics for progress, in collaboration with the chief diversity officer (if one exists). Articulating DEI as important to the institution consequently means that presidents must be able to report on progress of the work. Qualitative and quantitative metrics beyond anecdotal evidence are required, and the president must know where the institution stands on each of them. Collecting and analyzing data on student completion, faculty/staff composition and campus experiences disaggregated by race, gender identity, sexual orientation and other identities should be standard practices.

As a president, knowing where you yourself stand is also a critical first step in this work. You must have a clear understanding of what your stance is on something like defunding police or dismantling institutional racism before you can lead the campus on these issues. I cannot express how important this is when you are confronted by a student, faculty or community member who asks you to express your opinion about, for example, why racial equity should be elevated above other dimensions of diversity like gender, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status. You have to know where your personal views diverge from those of the campus community you are entrusted to lead. They will not always be in alignment, and you will struggle with that dissonance in this role.

Understanding where your campus is on DEI issues will help you considerably in the role of president, as you will quickly need to assess the depth and breadth of such activity at your institution. Who are the leaders for the work? Does the campus lead with racial equity, and how is that manifested in programs and other activities? Who is being held accountable for advancing the work? What does your governing board expect, and how much are they engaged? Is your campus community more liberal than the town in which you are located, and how will you address that in town-gown relationships?

As president, you are expected to walk the walk of DEI, not just talk the talk. That means you will need an actionable plan and path for moving the institution forward that is inclusive and responsive to where it and the surrounding community are willing to go. The process of assessing that most likely started with your application for the presidency. If the institution and its board have declared that DEI is important in the president’s job profile and interview process, then they are most likely ready for an aggressive and bold plan from the president. if the application process was silent or timid about DEI expectations, then that is a signal that the campus may still see DEI as optional or student-focused rather than as a necessary component to institutional excellence. it doesn’t mean the college cannot shift to the new paradigm, but it will require more intensive work by the president to help it get there.

Personal Reflections

I became a chief diversity officer just after the ruling in the 2003 University of Michigan affirmative action case, and I left the role as the Black Lives Matter movement was starting. As chief diversity officer at a large, predominantly white research institution, I managed a portfolio of student support services, worked with deans and other senior leaders to improve the diversity of the faculty, partnered with community-based organizations to address equity-related priorities, created new organizational structures to improve the university’s use of women- and minority-owned businesses, and engaged with the board on their interest in DEI.

When I moved to the role of president at Seattle Central College in 2015, I had no idea that DEI work would continue to be a significant part of my portfolio. After all, community colleges are open-access institutions, the racial diversity of the student body far exceeds that in large research institutions and the credentials needed to become a faculty member are more flexible. I assumed that the college would already have structures in place to support students of color and that the faculty would reflect the students in our classrooms. Fortunately, nine years in the diversity officer role prepared me to be very successful in meeting expectations related to fluency about equity and promoting DEI as vital for mission fulfillment and accountability. As a new president, however, I struggled with the strategic communication, free speech policies and the conflicting priorities of constituents.

Very early in my first year as president, it became apparent that issues concerning faculty diversity, curricular inclusion and student opportunity gaps related to race were prevalent at my institution. Those were not issues I expected to find in my urban community college, with its long history of social justice and activism. As I examined the work of DEI on my new campus, I found it to be focused primarily on student representation and multicultural student support. The college had not reflected enough on its own role in opportunity gaps and lack of racial diversity in its faculty.

By the end of that first year, I’d created the chief diversity officer role and provided resources to establish an office that would help me as president address such issues. I had an advisory committee help craft the job description and benchmark what other community colleges in the state were doing. Using data to highlight the dissonance between what we espoused to be as an institution and the actual experiences of our students and faculty of color was fortunately received well by faculty and staff members, and I experienced no pushback for creating the chief diversity officer role.

Since then, we have been able to make progress on faculty hiring and academic offerings that are inclusive and meaningful to communities of color. All faculty searches now include training on implicit bias in the search process, and we have seen better racial outcomes in hiring faculty as a result. We launched a social justice emphasis in our transfer associate degree that allows students to get transcript acknowledgment for taking five or more courses focused on race, power and privilege in the context of the United States. Just recently we partnered with the local school district to develop a grow-your-own teacher diversity program that won national recognition and promises to be a new model for increasing the racial diversity of teachers in that district.

As a new president, I have much to be proud of, but my ongoing struggles with strategic communication, free speech policies and the conflicting priorities of constituents remind me that I still have much work to do. The constant calls for me to make statements about our institutional stance on equity-related things on the local or national stage are overwhelming at times. My communications team has had to develop criteria for us to determine when we issue statements from the president. Yet even with those criteria, the pressure to speak to everything within hours or days of it happening continues to come from students, faculty and community members. When I stood up as a Black woman speaking out against anti-Black policing recently, I was bombarded with negativity from both the conservative right and liberal left for either taking the institution too far or not far enough. Even now, we are examining our free speech policies after a three-week takeover of part of the campus by Black Lives Matter activists and unhoused individuals.

As I have negotiated the role of president, I’ve found it helpful to continue to examine our institutional capacity for DEI work. I constantly query what resources and partnerships I can leverage to further advance our goals. And I have learned that establishing an advisory committee on equity broadens the innovation of the college’s work. Our committee includes faculty, staff and students who push us to do more.

I have also learned that the learning never stops. Always pursuing my own education—and that of my team members—is crucial to continued fluency about educational equity and our campus work. My advice to new presidents—as well as more seasoned ones—is to do the same. Diversity, equity and inclusion work in higher education continues to change, and presidents must keep up with the field in order to effectively lead that change.

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