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Three wooden blocks that read "Diversity, Equity, Inclusion."

Dzmitry Dzemidovich/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Institutions of higher education are facing widespread political attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and programs that, combined with last year’s Supreme Court decision banning the consideration of race in admissions, contribute to a seemingly persistent political and social climate that constrains DEI efforts. Some states have considered banning or opted to ban DEI programs altogether, likely forcing colleges and universities in these states to restructure their diversity units or dismiss the leaders who are tasked with overseeing these units and programs.

Dismantling DEI offices should not be the solution. Rather, to the extent possible under the law, college leadership should attend to creating and maintaining diversity-centered institutional structures (e.g., DEI offices and leadership) that promote the institution’s mission and goals. Fundamentally, I assert that it is imperative that institutions of higher education maintain and further support diversity programs and initiatives through an organizational structural commitment. This includes support for the leaders charged with developing and maintaining DEI initiatives.

Structure Matters

To understand the importance of diversity leadership in higher education, one must first recognize who is a diversity leader. As many diversity scholars, including me, assert, the answer to that question is, all of us. If a college or university has an espoused commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion for its students, faculty, staff, alumni and other stakeholders, then every organizational member ought to be a diversity leader.

However, for the purposes and simplicity of this essay, I focus on diversity leadership as it relates to formalized diversity leadership roles at institutions of higher education. This includes people who hold DEI-related administrative roles and responsibilities in different functional units of the organization—e.g., student and academic/curricular programming, policy development, equity compliance, human resources, and strategic planning—and across all its different constituent parts, such as within academic schools/colleges, health profession units and affiliated campuses.

I have argued before for the importance of colleges having a chief diversity officer. Based on my scholarship and experience, I have further maintained and emphatically continue to assert that structure matters for diversity leadership in higher education. It matters where diversity leaders are organizationally placed. It matters whom they report to (and who reports to them). It matters which meetings they get invited to. It matters, undeniably, how resources are allocated to their units.

Organizational structure and placement are associated with intrinsic and/or perceived power. Essentially, diversity leaders must be structurally placed within the institution in a position where they have the capacity to urge transformational change. I contend the optimal placement of the chief diversity leader, e.g., the senior diversity officer, is at a place where that person has a direct reporting line to the president or chancellor.

Thus, while dismantling DEI units and eliminating DEI positions may appease current external pressures from political stakeholders, it is not the answer. Similarly, I fear that the absence of a central leader is not an ideal strategy for colleges and universities. Fundamentally, if an institution is committed to having a diverse and inclusive environment, then just as there is a chief financial officer, chief technology officer or chief research officer, there ought to be a central leader and unit that is charged with developing, sustaining and assessing the institution’s diversity plan. At the same time, there should be diversity leaders throughout the organizational structure and at varying levels of the organizational chart with comparable responsibilities.

I wholeheartedly agree with the notion that it is everyone’s responsibility to adhere to the institution’s DEI goals; however, supporting the pursuit of these goals with structural and systemic commitments is also important. If an institution lacks a formalized and unmistakable diversity leader/unit, there are several potential negative ramifications. First, there may be an unclear definition and conception of diversity across different parts of the institution. Second, there may be ambiguity around how the institution is meeting its DEI-related goals, resulting in the implementation of surface-level actions and policies. Finally, without formal DEI leaders and units, programs and initiatives may be carelessly duplicated and unaccounted for across the institution.

Colleges and universities are social institutions. Too often, DEI programs and initiatives are mimicked by peer institutions without convincing attention to development and implementation. Formalized diversity leaders and units typically have the expertise, experience and networks to develop and implement authentic programs and initiatives for the campus community.

The Importance of DEI Leadership

Crucially, formalized DEI units also serve as a centralized resource for marginalized students on campus. Often, these students view leaders of DEI units (such as offices of multicultural affairs) as accessible administrative figures. Likewise, students tend to perceive DEI offices as a comforting and welcoming space. While programming could be implemented in other units on campus if DEI professionals were dispersed throughout the institution, having a core unit provides greater utility and capacity for diversity leaders to develop and coordinate programs. This is beneficial for students, as they are aware of a clear presence on campus that focuses on the institution’s DEI efforts.

From my experience, diversity leaders also tend to display certain characteristics of leadership—namely relational leadership, servant leadership and transformational leadership—that help to promote welcoming, equitable and inclusive college environments. Often, diversity leaders must help shift persisting negative perceptions and ultimately mend relationships with the campus community members who have been harmed by a legacy of exclusion at their institution. They are at the forefront of mending relationships while building and sustaining new ones that help to promote diversity goals.

One practical example of DEI leaders’ work is their tendency to facilitate difficult dialogues, an increasing area of focus across many higher education institutions. I am aware of numerous institutions with DEI leaders who actively coordinate and facilitate spaces to promote critical discussions, help train faculty about facilitating difficult dialogues in the classroom and initiate constructive dialogues among institutional decision-makers.

For all these reasons, this is not the time to dismantle DEI programs and restructure (and in some cases eliminate) formal diversity leadership positions. Colleges and universities must structurally commit to maintaining DEI initiatives in order to make progress toward welcoming campus environments and promote student success, particularly for diverse college students.

Eugene T. Parker III is an associate professor of higher education administration in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Kansas.

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