Recent student demonstrations protesting lingering and persistent racism on college campuses have called attention to the fact that diversity progress in higher education remains at incipient stages. Student voices have called for structural changes such as the hiring of more diverse faculty, inclusive leadership, the creation of chief diversity officer positions and greater diversity in the student body, as well as a more welcoming climate for minoritized students. In essence, the call for change requires systemic attention and integration of all the components of a campus ecosystem rather than through short-term, cosmetic adjustments to individual departments, courses, or programs.
Surprisingly in a review of diversity strategic action plans conducted for Are the Walls Really Down? (2007), the chief diversity officers that my co-author, Alvin Evans and I, contacted told us that the plans developed at their campuses and that were showcased prominently on their campuses websites had not really been actualized. Similarly, in interviews for Diverse Administrators in Peril (2012), chief diversity officers and affirmative action officers expressed frustration regarding their roles and real uncertainty about the degree to which their work was supported by their institutions.
Recent college graduates we interviewed for a forthcoming study, Rethinking Cultural Competence in Higher Education, reported the same gap between the institution’s stated diversity mission and the curricular and co-curricular experiences they had on campus. Most of their experiences related to diversity learning outcomes were accidental and the students had to seek such experiences out themselves. And adding to this composite picture of disconnection between espoused institutional goals and day-to-day realities, interviews with department chairs for The Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader (2015) reveal the fractionalization around diversity issues in the academic department, the isolation of the one or two faculty members who are perceived to be the perennial diversity advocates, and the difficulty faced by chairs in moving beyond the emphasis on disciplinary specialization to “border-crossing” dialogue or cross-cultural discussions. As a Black chair of Hispanic background in an elite predominantly white university reported,
Most White colleagues assume ‘diversity’ is for people of color and do not do much in recruitment (p. 79).
Bringing together the strands of research across these different domains of the university or college environment, certain common themes emerge that can yield practical steps on the pathway to successful diversity transformation. A precursor of such transformation is the willingness and desire to move forward collectively and collaboratively on the pathway to more inclusive institutions. This willingness cannot be taken for granted as diversity remains a contested topic on many college campuses and even discussion of “anti-racist” training programs can be considered controversial. Developing a common understanding of what diversity means to an academic institution and why it is important (i.e. the “business case” for diversity) is critical.
Our investigation of the integration of diversity and human resource programs across the private and public sectors and in higher education in the New Talent Acquisition Frontier (2014) reveals 10 prominent themes that characterize successful diversity transformation across all sectors.Among these themes are
1) an actionable leadership commitment to diversity;
2) a power structure that supports the attainment of strategic diversity objectives;
3) creation of a systematic, phase-based approach;
4) cultural change that builds trust-based relationships and eliminates fear-based working and learning environments.
Using the metaphor introduced by Ralph Kilmann to describe organizational change, diversity is not a quick fix. Instead, it will require long-term, sustained, and systemic attention to infrastructure, culture, systems, and processes across the multiple, intersecting domains of a campus environment.
Like the widening ripples that result when a stone is thrown into water, diversity transformation can remain elusive and disappear from intentional consideration or it can take hold through the progressive and practical action of institutional leadership, faculty, staff, administrators, and students.
Dr. Edna Chun serves as Chief Learning Officer for HigherEd Talent, a national diversity and HR consulting firm, and has over two decades of strategic diversity and HR experience as Chief Human Resources Officers in public higher education. Two of her co-authored books have garnered the prestigious Kathryn G. Hansen Publication award from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR) and she is the recipient of a silver medal in the Axiom Best Business Books Award (2014) for another publication.