A number of institutions across the U.S. are addressing diversity issues on their campuses through crisis management. When students protest, administrators respond. The University of Missouri and the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa are among those that created new chief diversity officer positions in the last two weeks.
But addressing race relations and other diversity issues as a form of crisis management is not the best way to get high-quality results — especially when administrators reach for the closest person of color or other minority candidate, rather than seeking someone with expertise on oppression theory and systemic change.
“Sometimes universities are looking for the most comfortable person of difference to put into these positions,” said Dionardo Pizana, diversity and personnel specialist at Michigan State University Extension. Pizana formerly served as an associate dean of students for minority and international students at Adrian College in Michigan, a position created after a sit-in by black students created a crisis to be managed.
Part of the reason why administrators continue to make such hires is because diversity education work struggles to be legitimized as scholarship. The decades of research about systems change, social identity development, oppression theory, and organizational development gets minimized in the face of an individual’s life experiences. And, in academia, Pizana said educators expect education to be the key: Teach people how to treat each other better and solve the problem.
This, however, only addresses part of the problem. Education does help people achieve greater understanding around issues of inclusion and equity. Training for students, faculty, and administrators is important. But the deeper problems are systemic, and institutions must address the policies and procedures that create them.
Pizana sees chief diversity officer hires in crisis management situations working like a safety valve that releases built-up pressure.
“Unless, in the process of releasing that pressure, there’s a vision, how this is all going to be important for a cultural shift on that campus, then I think anybody going into those positions is going to have limited success and limited impact,” Pizana said.
Besides a strategic plan, another critically important piece in the reform effort is high-level institutional support. A chief diversity officer alone cannot change an institutional culture. There needs to be buy-in campuswide, including from the college or university president and board of trustees. And it needs to come in the form of financial support as well as personal support.
Yale recently announced a range of initiatives that will expand its diversity efforts into the classroom, campus programming, student support systems, institutional structures, campus decorations, and institutional naming. The university seems to have allocated significant resources to address the multiple dimensions of change it seeks on its campus.
While diversity efforts in higher education do not have the direct line to profits that they do in the corporate world, any college or university not considering diversity in its strategic planning is missing something. And it’s not just about the student body. It is about faculty and staff and the culture in which they are asked to work.
Campuses that have not erupted in protests, perhaps because their population of students of color is so low to prohibit collective action, should not waste this opportunity to reflect on their own campus cultures and institutional structures.
“The unfortunate thing is that there are individuals in leadership that think because those groups aren’t on their campus, or haven’t been visible on their campus, then their campus doesn’t have those issues,” Pizana said. “I don’t think that’s ever been the right equation, as you look at equity.”
Would you like to see more education news like this in your inbox on a daily basis? Subscribe to our Education Dive email newsletter! You may also want to read Education Dive's look at how higher ed trails peer industries in peer recruitment strategies.