Higher Education’s Misguided Obsession with Diversity Officers

August 13, 2020

Higher Education’s Misguided Obsession with Diversity Officers

America’s higher education institutions have a consistent response to addressing race scandals—they throw a diversity hire at the problem. In the face of mounting racial tension, or in the event of a discrimination reproach, college and university leaders look to carve out space at their leadership table for chief diversity officers. But as nationwide protests and race riots bubbled up in response to the gruesome killing of George Floyd, exposing the vicious cycle of racist and deadly force at the hands of law enforcement, our nation’s top higher education leaders awoke to the stark realization that they too had failed to do their part in addressing systemic racism. From the annals of academia, the response was swift. A decisive call for societal change was needed. 

Though diversity officers have proven to be ineffective forces of change, more than a month later, they are still universities’ modus operandi. The verdict is still out as to whether anything will improve for black college students and students of color. 

Growing Number of Diversity Officers

Rapidly growing in numbers, diversity officers are put into place to support marginalized populations, including students who identify as Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). This creates more diverse, inclusive and equitable environments that benefit the entire college community. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, nearly two-thirds of all U.S. higher education institutions now have a diversity officer on staff—30 percent of these positions were created in the past five years. 

Yet, despite the trend toward hiring diversity officers, institutions have seen little change.

For example, a recent study by the Hispanic Journal of Law and Policy found that U.S. colleges have not seen substantial growth in racial diversity among faculty members over the past decade. This is particularly jarring at research institutions where the number of Black tenured faculty grew by one-tenth of a percent during that time. Similarly, the number of Latinx and Hispanic faculty members grew by less than 1 percent. We fully recognize one of the daunting hurdles in the way of improved faculty diversity is the dearth of BIPOC doctoral degree holders—particularly in the areas of math, science and research. Still, this woefully low representation of BIPOC Ph.D. candidates (which is being addressed at the K-12, undergraduate and graduate levels) is not the entire problem. 

To add a layer of complexity to the issue, among the colleges and universities without a diversity officer, university presidents have suddenly been bombarded with impassioned cries of “we need one, we need one now!” But in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic (and subsequent economic downturn and budget hardships), the calls for change have been answered with, “Although important, we simply don’t have the resources.” 

Herein lies the problem. The solution for real systemic change cannot be bought with a single salary. It cannot rest with one person. When universities fail to make change under the pretext of not having the funds or a diverse pool of candidates from which they can hire diverse staff members, they are blind to the fact that money is not the only solution. 

Diversity Is Not a One-Person Job

We are not arguing that having no diversity officer is better than having one. To be clear, the problem does not lie with the diversity officer. Rather the problem is with the unreasonable expectations placed on one executive. Unfortunately, no matter how much some may tend to think it doesn’t exist, racial-ethnic bias and equity issues are as American as apple pie—they are ingrained into the very fiber of American identity. Have we made progress as a nation? Yes. Have community colleges and public higher education institutions made some major gains in this area? Yes. But what about the social disparities that do not help BIPOC succeed? Do we all just sit back and say think, “that is bad,” but then do nothing about it? It is naive at best, disingenuous at worst, to rely on a diversity officer to single-handedly unravel centuries of bias culture. Creating an inclusive environment, facilitating multicultural content in curricula and campus programming, attracting and hiring a diverse staff, and recruiting a diverse student body is not a one-person job.

The diversity officer is a bandage, a quick fix to assuage BIPOC students, faculty and staff. But over time, often, the diversity officer becomes the scapegoat: ill equipped and under supported, ultimately set up to fail at enacting the change necessary to move the needle. To truly address the enduring issue of systemic inequity, everyone across the university community needs to take ownership of the problem.  

A social media post by influencer and entrepreneur Brandi Riley read, "Thank you for your Black Lives Matter graphic. May I please see a picture of your executive leadership team and company board?" Higher education institutions, whether due to accreditation bodies or social pressure, all highlight the diversity of their campuses in admissions marketing collateral, but only look at the student body. What about the diversity of a university executive suite? Rather than one diversity officer, it is more important to have people of color across the boardroom, the classroom and the faculty.

Part of the solution is to look at practices across an institution. It doesn’t cost money to assess one’s behavior, looking at the empirical data and making the necessary adjustments. For example, in recruiting, higher education institutions often use outdated methods, like classifieds in print newspapers, which result in non-diverse hiring pools. It is time to cast a wider net, using more targeted channels—websites, social media, and digital and print publications with a readership among the BIPOC community. By assessing where and how to recruit, we can improve our diversity without necessarily increasing our costs.

The Time Is Now

In a recent letter to the Columbia University Teachers College community, President Thomas R. Bailey, Ph.D., wrote, “The battlefront isn’t simply a protest, march or petition, it can also be a classroom, or a community health clinic, or a food cooperative, a clinical trial, a standardized test design. Wherever we find ourselves at work, or in any interaction, that can be the place where we make change happen.”

Everyone can do something. All of us are the change. We have a responsibility. We can all do something wherever we are. It is our job to go beyond the niceties and affect meaningful change.

To quote noted inclusion strategist and thought leader Vernā Myers, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” 
 

The Authors: 

Ali Jackson-Jolley, M.B.A., is a communications specialist for New York Medical College and a freelance journalist. 

Julio A. Rodriguez-Rentas manages integrated marketing initiatives for New York Medical College, and is an assistant professor of communications and media arts at the State University of New York–Westchester Community College. 

The opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and not of New York Medical College or of Westchester Community College.