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You’ve heard of chief diversity officers, but what about academic diversity officers? Four years into its innovative plan to put diversity officers into every academic and administrative unit, to carry out program-specific diversity plans, the University of Michigan has some thoughts.

More precisely, the campus’s National Center for Institutional Diversity just published a report on the experiences of these academic diversity officers, or ADOs. Beyond making various recommendations for academic deans and academic diversity officers, the report finds that ADOs require special skills.

ADOs in the study also had a wide variety of personal and professional experiences, with some common threads. Most had experience in faculty work, student affairs, general administration or community organizing.

Based on their backgrounds, ADOs tended to draw on different “logics,” according to the report. Community organizers-turned-ADOs generally valued accountability and even some tension to create diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) change, and used language that was “value laden and personal.” Faculty ADOs in the sample, meanwhile, worked on issues of representation, such as faculty and student recruitment and retention, and inclusive pedagogical training. They prioritized data collection and “uniquely understood from firsthand experience the difficulty of encouraging behavioral change due to academic reward structures.”

ADOs from general administration had “latent qualities about methodically addressing issues through structure, processes and rules.” The inherent risk in that way of thinking, however, is not thinking outside conventional systems, according to the report. Student affairs-minded ADOs made personal connections and focused on promoting inclusive communities.

Whatever their backgrounds, knowledge of DEI concepts, interventions and best practices were “necessary to create change,” the authors found.

As one ADO reported, “I feel like we will do DEI work a disservice if people that don’t have proper training come into doing this work, because then it leads to this assumption that anybody can do it, or we can just hire a grad student, and they can lead this charge. When really, I feel like it requires specific skills and competencies.”

DEI work is “complex, difficult, always changing and rigorous,” reads the report. “The hiring process and ongoing professional development necessary to sustain and increase DEI competency should be encouraged by supervisors of ADOs.”

Establishing “legitimacy” for their positions and in the eyes of colleagues concerned ADOs interviewed. The officers generally found two ways of building it: connecting with their units through a shared discipline, or by being a faculty member -- what the authors call "academic standing legitimacy."

As one staff member ADO observed about working with faculty members, “It’s different when you have students or staff where you can say, ‘Here’s what we expect from you,’ whereas with the faculty it’s a very different dynamic. How do you engage with a group that has a lot of leeway in terms of how they do their work? That’s where I think it’s helpful to have a faculty member be that champion.”

These officers also rely heavily on interpersonal skills. That’s regardless of their academic backgrounds. They respond to individuals’ needs and concerns, build alliances with strategic partners, and establish connections with those colleagues who may be “hesitant or resistant” to DEI aims, according to the paper.

As one diversity officer reported, “It’s really just general leadership, change management, listening. In many ways I feel that I would benefit from degrees from the business school. A Ph.D. in diplomacy … I’m using a different part of my brain that I never used before.”

Plans for Change

In 2015, Michigan began an institutionwide, five-year diversity strategic planning process. It came up with centralized goals for improving diversity, equity and inclusion, but also tasked all 51 academic and administrative units with developing DEI plans. As a result of this process, academic units created diversity officer positions to “lead, coordinate, support, execute and create structures of accountability" for these plans. 

Michigan’s central administration funded half of the officers’ salaries in colleges and schools. The academic units paid for the rest. Sometimes those units combined half-time positions, such as lecturer appointments, with the new role as a way of controlling costs. For reference, the report defines ADOs as full-time staff or faculty members who devote at least 50 percent of their work to coordinating DEI initiatives for their academic units.

The report’s authors tracked down 20 academic diversity officers from the academic schools and colleges at Michigan, and interviewed 16 of them. Of those, six had teaching responsibilities, eight held terminal degrees and six had degrees related to their academic units.

ADOs' roles are unique to their academic context, but the authors found some organizational similarities: the officers are supervised by either the academic dean or associate dean in each unit, or both. Three of the 16 units represented also have separate ADOs for faculty and staff initiatives.

There is no “right” way of doing things, the report says. “Each academic unit has a unique culture with unique needs, histories, resources and expectations that should be accounted for when creating organizational structures.”

While all academic diversity officers report directly to in-unit supervisors, an important element of Michigan’s embedded strategy, both they and their plans are overseen by Michigan’s chief diversity officer, Robert Sellers. He and his staff review annual unit-level reports and monitor progress. In an interview, Sellers said that, in general, “there’s a problem-focused view of DEI.” Michigan wanted something different.

“DEI provides added value to what you’re already attempting to do,” he said. “By having these plans, we’re not attempting to address a problem -- we think DEI are key strategies to academic excellence.”

He added, “We wanted to create an infrastructure that would allow us not to simply prevent or address problems that have already occurred, but to create space and opportunity to be better in everything we do. DEI is a core strategy to that … Our argument is that this is an institutional responsibility.”

This model works particularly well at Michigan, which is sprawling and highly decentralized, Sellers said. And having different plans for different academic units only makes sense, given their different needs. Engineering and nursing, for example, both have gender-diversity concerns, but obviously different approaches to balancing the scales.

Michigan's approach also comes with challenges, in that it takes a long view, Sellers said. Successes aren't immediate or easy to measure, particularly regarding climate goals. Still, Sellers said that the university has some preliminary, "promising" data to suggest that things are changing for the better.

Beyond Michigan 

Gene T. Parker III, assistant professor of higher education administration at the University of Kansas, recently published a qualitative study of how chief -- not academic-level -- diversity officers were appointed at two unnamed research-intensive universities. While the study was limited, it found that these positions were “structural” responses to what were really “cultural” issues and related crises.

Parker said this week that many institutions have created or are introducing unit-level diversity leaders. Kansas has a diversity leader for its School of Education, for example, he said. But Michigan's system is unique in that all academic units have one, following a directive from the central administration.

That Michigan developed this model was unsurprising to Parker, as he said it has a “long history of embracing an organizational structure that attends to diversity.” As for the report, Parker said it captured the current discourse about the formation of chief diversity offices -- such as whether diversity officers should have a faculty background.

“In many ways, the span of control, division of labor, job responsibilities and duties will help to determine this,” Parker said, “but search committees should have critical conversations about if the ideal candidate should be a faculty member.”

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also has diversity officers in individual academic units. Gretchen Bellamy, senior director of education operations and initiatives for the university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, said she and her colleagues are reviewing their DEI strategic planning process, which will be aligned with the university’s overall strategic plan. The office will work with various academic units across the university to review their current DEI plans or strategies as part of that effort.

Individual diversity officers with each unit will then serve as “culture catalysts,” Bellamy added, working in conjunction with her office toward creating a diverse and inclusive environment for all students, faculty and staff members.

Academic deans should consider diversity officer candidates' relevant skills and experiences before hiring them, the Michigan report recommends. These positions also must be developed in a way that “specifies boundary conditions, realistic expectations and appropriate matrices of success.” And academic leaders should provide appropriate administrative, program and other support to help diversity officers meet the “vast demands” of their roles.

As for academic diversity officers, the report encourages developing strategic relationships with necessarily players inside the unit and out, along with making relationships with one’s dean and executive leadership council. “Understand the unique nuances and norms of academic disciplines/fields related to DEI,” the paper also advises.

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