Diverse — Convergence: Diversity and Inclusion March 8, 2013
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Who’s in Charge?
Angela P. Dodson

A dialogue about how the support systems for diversity, inclusion and equity efforts contribute to their success.

Diversity is hard work, and somebody has to do it. At most colleges and universities, one or more people are charged with the job of implementing it, but no uniform standard applies to how that job is structured. Whose job is it? Is it the president’s? Is it a cabinetlevel, vice president reporting directly to the president? Is it a lesser-ranking administrator stuck off in a corner of campus with no real access to top administrators? Are various functions of diversity spread among several offices with little coordination or strategy and no one clearly in charge? Does the appointed diversity officer have the training and the power necessary to get things done? Or do the top officials keep the diversity officer hidden, then shove him or her out front when an incidence of discrimination or offensive behavior on campus goes viral on the Internet? Is he or she also in charge of enforcing anti-discrimination and affirmative-action policies, as well as creating a diverse, inclusive campus for students and faculty? Is the office properly funded? Is it the first to see cuts when the university budget takes a hit? To explore these questions, as editor for this special supplement, I convened a teleconference with three diversity officers at leading universities.

Participants were Christine Clark, Ed.D, professor and senior scholar in multicultural education and founding vice president for diversity and inclusion at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Mark Brimhall- Vargas, Ph.D., deputy chief diversity officer, Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Maryland, College Park; and Kevin McDonald, J.D., vice president and associate provost for diversity and inclusion at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Clark and Brimhall-Vargas (along with Kenneth J. Fasching-Varner) are also editors of Occupying the Academy: Just How Important Is Diversity Work in Higher Education? (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012), which explores some of these questions.

All three used to work together at the University of Maryland. Following are excerpts of our conversation:

CONVERGENCE: Who should be responsible for seeing that diversity gets done at a college or university?

CLARK: It makes sense for a campus to try to establish a person that is in charge of diversity at the senior levels of the institution, a cabinet-level position, so that diversity and inclusion are empowered in the same way that other aspects of university governance are empowered — like administrative affairs, student affairs, academic affairs. That said, there are different ways that this work is in fact configured and that it can be successful. A key component is that the person works in a collaborative role, maybe sometimes within the existing hierarchy. Instead of necessarily realigning real estate under this person by transferring aspects of the university over to them, this person might work with those units located elsewhere in the university and then work in a more collaborative way to facilitate the process.

I’m not convinced that there’s one right way to structure diversity and inclusion. It stands to reason that if diversity and inclusion are empowered and funded in the way that other quadrants of the university are empowered and funded, that they have a good chance or maybe the best chance of being successful, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s a recipe or a guarantee of success. One of the things I often say is that it’s important to structure diversity and inclusion in the area of the university where they have the greatest possibility of being supported and, therefore, successful.

MCDONALD: It [diversity] has to be viewed as a shared responsibility on campus. To look at one in this role as the savior for the diversity and inclusion efforts of the campus community is a setup for failure for one in that role. You need cross-functional partners in order to be successful. Empowering the role is extremely important. Having the resources is going to be a key to success, but really recognizing that a shared-responsibility model and a collaborative spirit are going to be important in the work and are vital for it to progress in a positive manner.

BRIMHALL-VARGAS: One of the things that we also know about the educational benefits of diversity is that in addition to bringing about numerical diversity, formal and informal interaction have to occur among students. The institution certainly needs to provide venues and programs and offices and staffing and support for those experiences; but in some ways, we also really have to remember that students are often the best messengers for diversity to each other. So those informal interactions are really important.

CONVERGENCE: Could each of you describe how diversity is structured at your own university?

BRIMHALL-VARGAS: At the University of Maryland, we follow a portfolio model, which means that we currently have a chief diversity officer; and that office is called the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. It has many of the university offices under it that are responsible for different areas of diversity. For example, we have a LGBT Equity Center that reports to this office; we have an Office of Multi-Ethnics in Education, the Office of Diversity Education and Compliance. The portfolio approach is one that is attempting to address [diversity] in addition to having a really important, influential person in the role, but also to make sure the systems and structures are in fact underneath this person’s supervision so that that person also has structural support and movement in the institution.

MCDONALD: At RIT, it’s built off a similar model. We have an Office for Faculty Recruitment and Retention. We have a Future Stewards Program that supports our Native American student population. We have a Multicultural Center for Academic Success, which really focuses a lot on first-generation, underrepresented student populations, and a scholarship program based on socio-economic status in the city. We have an overarching operational function of a diversity and inclusion office that does everything from programming to overseeing budgets and HR needs of the respective units in the division. Then we have a relationship through academic affairs that builds off some of that, but also connects with regard to curricular transformation and some of the global efforts of the institution with an associate provost for global initiatives, as well. So it again tries to take that portfolio approach by providing some level of structure and resources attached to that, to the role.

CLARK: At UNLV, the office was originally established as a small office that has to report directly to the president, a cabinet-level position, with some areas that were direct reports to the vice president for diversity and inclusion, but mostly a collaborative model working with other units that may have specific responsibilities for diversity and inclusion. Because of pushback actually from national and local media, when the budget got difficult here and after Obama’s first election, the office was to some extent relationally demoted, by having the person in that position not be solely responsible for diversity and inclusion, but to also be responsible for government relations and to have diversity and inclusion be somewhat of an add-on. That position also gave up some of its direct reporting, as a way of reducing the external pushback against the idea that the university was dedicating resources in tight fiscal times to something that people often viewed in the community as superfluous to the core responsibilities of the university.

CONVERGENCE: Does it really matter — in terms of how well the work gets done — how the function is structured at a given school?

BRIMHALL-VARGAS: It definitely matters. If diversity structures are literally an appendage to a part of the institution that really doesn’t have a history of understanding the complexities of the work, then leaders in that particular part of the organization won’t understand its value and won’t know how to support the unit. It’s divorced from leadership that would actually have some type of understanding of the background, the research, the history of diversity in higher education. That’s actually a crucial component. Locating it correctly really does make a difference.

MCDONALD: It’s very important to take an intentional approach with regard to the structure of a diversity office. Where it’s situated and ultimately how it’s structured are going to be very important. Quite honestly, quite often, diversity efforts can be really minimized and devalued in a campus community. It’s very important to take the time to make sure that it’s structured in a location that, regardless of whatever kind of people are coming and going, there is still a message that diversity is important to this campus community.

CLARK: It has a lot to do with the perception of the implied importance of the work on campus, but it also has to do with the actual importance of diversity and inclusion on campus, whether or not it’s perceived as window dressing or it actually has teeth. It doesn’t really make sense to give the function this window-dressing important role but not actually give them the ability to hold people accountable for issues of, for example, equity. So with regard to complaints of discrimination and harassment, is the function actually empowered to do something about that? Or are they given responsibility but then beholden to other entities on campus to carry that forward, which may or may not happen? Often people attracted to diversity and inclusion do the work because of a heartfelt commitment and because they are often conditioned to do more for less or to do a lot for very little.

BRIMHALL-VARGAS: Like they are happy just to be there for nothing in some ways — CLARK: The expectation is if we have a seat at the table, we should be happy with that and not necessarily have an expectation that we’re actually going to be fully included or fully empowered and woven into the fabric of the university.

MCDONALD: One of the things that I’ve often said is that it doesn’t make sense if we’re allowed to sit at the table if we’re not permitted to eat. It’s really important to recognize that, because for far too long, there have been structures set up on campuses that really didn’t have teeth behind them.

CONVERGENCE: Christine, in our previous interview (for DIVERSE: Issues In Higher Education, diverseeducation. com, Oct. 11, 2012), you touched on something about having the enforcement of equity function in the same office or structure with other aspects of diversity. Can you touch on that again?

CLARK: Sure. Part of this philosophy came from the structure we had when we all worked together at the University of Maryland, College Park. One of the ways that I came to think about the work that we did was that the equity piece came first and then the diversity piece came later. I think again of equity as the work that we do because law and policy require it, and diversity is the work we do that goes beyond law and policy because we institutionally value the importance of it. But in some ways, the diversity piece is the work that we do to create an inclusive and welcoming and affirming campus climate for both students and the educational side and for faculty staff and the workplace side. They work very hard to carry the ball down the field and to score a goal to promote this affirming campus and workplace. But if, for example, some of the things that “diversity” does don’t go as planned, then the important part of having the equity piece or the campuscompliance officer pieces, is that that person is there to attempt to operate as a goalie to keep the ball from going in the net — to keep diversity and inclusion from deteriorating into things like oppression and discrimination. And if they’re unable to prevent it, if there is a score made, then at least that function is also there to provide redress, to help somebody who has been the subject of discrimination in the context of the workplace setting or educational setting. If they can’t prevent the ball from going in the net, at least they can help that person to consider filing a complaint of discrimination and harassment. [That] also protects the institution from possible future vicarious liability by an external complaint being filed — because it can be handled internally and at least we can attempt to make that person whole by addressing this negative consequence. The other piece is that by understanding the nature of equity complaints that are coming in, if we know, for example, that there are many complaints about issues of disability that are coming in through the equity function, then the diversity functions of a particular office can then focus on proactive education.

MCDONALD: The nice thing about having those compliance and proactive inclusion efforts in the same organizational structure is that it’s also seen as more of a neutral place and a neutral home because your diversity efforts are seen as advocates, if you will, for the issues and the resolution of the issues or the highlighting of the issues.

BRIMHALL-VARGAS: I have heard some folks say that they want to move diversity and equity as far apart from each other as possible because of questions about perceptions of neutrality and of equity. Does putting equity too close to diversity give it a different flavor to people? What we found is that the further apart diversity and equity are from each other, the less effective both of them are.

CONVERGENCE: Occupying the Academy mentions the post-Obama backlash [against diversity efforts], not only in human terms or social terms, but in that it gets tied up in the public funding and people don’t want to fund public things because they don’t see that as being their problem really. Can you address that?

CLARK: Clearly, this was not as big an issue until we had elected President Obama in the first election. To some extent, the pushback against diversity and inclusion was perceived, and in actuality may have also been a manifestation of people’s lack of comfort, especially again on the conservative side, with this idea that he represented, what his election represented. It was perceived to empower, rightly or wrongly, the work of diversity and inclusion. The folks that did diversity and inclusion work in public quadrants were viewed to some extent more hostilely because of people’s lack of comfort with this idea of this person whose own narrative, his own story, was really an embodiment of the work of equity and diversity in public higher education.

CONVERGENCE: Part of that question related to the premise of the book Occupying the Academy that the diversity community or diversity workers at colleges and universities were taken by surprise at the backlash after the Obama election, that they expected the work to get easier, but it got harder instead? Now that he has been re-elected, what do we predict is going to happen? Is the backlash over and are people going to just learn to live with it, or are we finally going to have that “post-racial” era, or is it going to get worse?

BRIMHALL-VARGAS: Well, I’m someone who thinks that it will be very, very, very difficult just by virtue of the election of a president to see a post-racial society. We’re not anywhere near that. In the same way that when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister in the United Kingdom, that didn’t end sexism, right?

There are certain elements of our society that are worried about what our country is becoming or already is, and it creates a fear response. What we as diversity workers need to do is not pretend that that isn’t happening and seek to provide more information about what our society actually looks like in a way that involves everyone and brings people in because that by simply saying, “Deal with this” is not bringing people along. Diversity workers can play a huge role in bringing us closer to that post-racial society.

MCDONALD: We also have to operate with the recognition that we’re not in that post-racial society; it’s another argument to try to dilute the importance and effectiveness of the work.

BRIMHALL-VARGAS: We’re going to continue to experience some resistance. I don’t think that’s dissipated. I mean, we have entire segments of the population that would like to secede from the United States right now due to his re-election. The lesson learned from the first election is we need not be naïve about the resistance that’s likely to come.

CLARK: I would also say that his re-election is actually a good thing for the nature of our work. It will give people who have been uncomfortable with him in this leadership role an opportunity, for better or for worse, to have to adjust to the real or imagined concerns they had about what was going to happen if he got a second term of office, especially with respect to the racial narrative. What people are going to see is that many of the negative and/or to some extent paranoid perspectives that people had are not going to come to pass. This is my hope, that that [recognition] will allow people to adjust and that this will enable us to move forward with respect to continuing to promote and to make progress on racial understanding in the United States.

CONVERGENCE: Other than funding, describe some of the forms that backlash takes? What are some of the things that people actually do to block the work or not to engage?

BRIMHALL-VARGAS: When you look at, for example, student population, one of the examples that we saw, the latest Internet sensation, was the sorority that took a group photo featuring very racially insensitive stereotypes of Mexican people. When you are trying to provide an environment for students where they actually get to interact with very diverse peers, some students simply don’t see the value in that and sometimes create a cocoon around themselves of sameness. Despite diversity being very present in their midst, they seek out a particular environment that excludes that diversity and move through their entire time at the institution in those environments. That’s one way that I see resistance happening. When you actually look at, for example, faculty and staff and administration, sometimes it’s about the rhetoric that is used around characterizing access. They might ask, “If we seek to include more people, will our standards have to fall?” — where diversity and excellence are pitted against each other. When that comes up in a particular meeting, when that’s floated as a legitimate idea, then that’s how I see this occurring.

CLARK: There also [are] some more subtle, structural things that happen. There’s still this really hard-core weddedness to SAT score and/or GPA as the primary ways to assess whether or not students coming into the institution can measure up. That tension between equity, diversity and excellence, and the reality is that we know that things like SAT scores are not good predictors of graduation rates for students. Yet we still want to use those as measures of excellence. If we’re being assessed on graduation rates, why are we wedded to measures that aren’t going to help us? It also shows up as either being passive or the absence of mentorship of faculty and staff of color. We bring people in, and there may be covert or even sometimes overt dissatisfaction because of affirmative-action efforts, or just because of institutional values around diversifying the workforce or diversifying the student body. There’s a sinkor- swim mentality: “I’m not going to go out of my way to help this person be successful in the way that I might do for a white person.”

The informal networks that often support majority faculty and staff and their success, unless they’re codified and made formal, don’t operate for faculty and staff of color. Then, when those faculty and staff of color have more difficulty being successful in the job, then we want to blame that on the failure of diversity, rather than the failure [because] of racism or, the structure of the institution.

One of the points that I often make is that it should not surprise us that white students tend to do better because the way that we organize the curriculum reinforces norms for white students. They’re taught primarily by people who look like them, and they’re taught curriculum that typically, either covertly or overtly, talks about the contributions that people who look like them have made to that discipline. If we were to do that for people of color, it stands to reason that they would be successful, right? I mean it shouldn’t really surprise us, and yet there’s backlash against this idea of curriculum transformation that who teaches and what they teach is somehow unfair to think about. Those are other more subtle ways that a lot of these manifestations show up.

CONVERGENCE: The Supreme Court heard the arguments in the Fisher v. UT Austin case and at some point will rule on that. Basically, the suit asks that the court kick out this admissions policy that allows for race to play a part. What’s going to happen if the plaintiff prevails? How would diversity be affected in public colleges and universities particularly?

CLARK: Kevin, you want to answer as a lawyer, or do you want me to jump in?

MCDONALD: When we go back to the kind of Gratz and Grutter cases [Gratz v. Bollinger, 2003, and Grutter v. Bollinger, 2003] that in and of itself has impacted institutions. So this would ultimately continue down that road. So what we recognize in the Michigan case, organizations that had been traditionally attempting to impact their compositional diversity through either racebased or ethnic-based notions had to look at other means. Many looked at socio-economic status in areas that were heavily populated by underrepresented populations to ultimately fall within the legal parameters. You’re going to continue to see that constricted if this case prevails. I’m attempting to look at things “the glass is half full,” and I’m hopeful that they won’t, but I’m a bit nervous. This is another precedent-setting case, and many had thought after the Michigan decision that we knew it would come back up. I don’t think that many thought it would come back up this soon.

CLARK: We need to start looking at strategies we can use that are in fact race neutral to help us identify, recruit and retain a diverse workforce and a diverse student body. There have been some really innovative measures taken in that direction. One that’s interesting is the zip code idea, holding a particular percentage of slots for students from the local geographic community from different zip codes. So you take the top 10 percent from each zip code. There’s a real relationship between zip code, race and socio-economic class background. If you’re looking at top 10 percent, then you’re going to get a diverse population of students; and it’s race neutral because you’re not actually identifying people on racial or ethnic background. That tends to work better than the top 10 percent of the graduating class because you actually had majority parents that were re-enrolling their kids in lower-performing schools so that they had a better opportunity of being identified as in the top ten percent than in more competitive schools. They could get around that, and it would reinforce to some extent the white privilege. When you look at the zip code piece, it’s highly unlikely that people are going to move to locations where the zip code communicates a particular socio-economic and/or racial narrative that people find negative. Now, they may lie to get around that, but it’s more likely that it will create the structural changes that we want to create in the populations that we’re trying to recruit.

CONVERGENCE: In the arguments that I have seen from the court, or some of the questions that the justices were asking, it seems that one of the sticking points is going to be, “What constitutes a sufficient critical mass of diversity, and how do you know when you get to diversity?” Do you see that as a big issue?

CLARK: Educational benefits of diversity research embodies this idea that there needs to be enough demographic diversity, and really, the research shows that race matters. All forms of diversity matter, but race matters more. While the research doesn’t suggest a specific quota, which can make people kind of crazy, it does say that there has to be enough demographic diversity that in informal interaction, you can’t avoid the diversity. So wherever you go, whether you go to the rec center or you’re in a class or you’re in the dorm or you’re just walking across campus or you’re going to the library — that you are confronted with this robust racial and ethnic diversity such that it becomes a part of the air that you breathe. It becomes a part of the expected, the normative interactions for everybody on campus.

CONVERGENCE: Are there any closing thoughts, anything else that you wanted to address?

BRIMHALL-VARGAS: It’s important that there is an understanding of movement. I don’t want to sound Pollyanna-ish about this, but there is hope in the work and we actually are making progress, and in some ways, the resistance we find is evidence of that. There is evidence that we are making progress because the resistance has increased to it. So, in some ways, it is, as Kevin suggests, a glass half-full kind of question. The more resistance you see perhaps may be telling you that you’re becoming more effective.

—Angela P. Dodson, an independent journalist and consultant, is chief executive officer and founder of Editorsoncall LLC. She was formerly a senior editor for the New York Times and executive editor of Black Issues Book Review.
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