Step by step: Create a plan for improving diversity

College leaders need to take a range of voices into account when developing diversity agendas

Colleges and universities must establish better diversity agendas to create inclusive communities and ensure that the needs of minority students, faculty, and staff are met, Beth McMurtrie reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Higher education experts have observed that colleges have historically been reactive, as opposed to proactive, when addressing diversity on campus. Small committees without real authority are tasked with making decisions that affect, but do not include, the people actually involved in such conversations.

According to data from the Education Department, three-quarters of full-time faculty members are white, while only 5.5% are black and 4.2% are Hispanic. And while 40% of college students are from minority backgrounds, they are underrepresented at the most selective institutions and often struggle with feeling marginalized and isolated.

Also see: High-impact strategies for recruiting low-income students

Diversity experts recommend the following steps for administrators to develop effective diversity agendas on their campuses.

1: Take responsibility

Many college leaders believe their campuses have strong race relations, but a recent survey from Inside Higher Ed and Gallup suggests they are out of touch with the racial climate in higher education. Eighty-four percent of college presidents said race relations on their campuses were "excellent" or "good," but only 24% said race relations on college campuses across the country were good.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that most college presidents are white and have studied and worked at predominantly white institutions. So when faced with diversity issues, they may pass the responsibility to someone else.

But top administrators need to be directly involved in campus diversity issues. Gregory Vincent, vice president for diversity and community engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, has worked with the school's presidents on programs that support underrepresented and first-generation students.

"Everyone has to strap in and say, OK, this is going to be at least a decade-long initiative to get going," he says.

2: Include all faculty members in decisions

Diversity plans tend to be hashed out by small groups of people with disproportionate minority representation and little power to enact change on campus. But faculty members do have a stake in hiring, curriculum design, and to an extent, admissions.  Last year, Brown University released a diversity and inclusion plan that took all departments into account.

"If faculty don't own an issue, it's impossible to make progress on it," says Brown President Christina Paxson. "If there's one lesson for college presidents, it's that."

3: Bring students into the conversation

College presidents miss out on important conversations when they ignore, dismiss, or take at face value students' demands that come off as too extreme.

"Their demands are often jarring, but they're meant to force a conversation," says Ajay Nair, senior vice president and dean of campus life at Emory University. However, "we are not very good as higher education institutions at listening very carefully to our students' concerns."

Following a series of student demands issued last fall, Nair created working groups to address student concerns. 

Empower students to support their own success

4: Call in the experts

Conversations about campus diversity initiatives tend to be too complex for administrators to handle on their own, says Mitchell Chang, a professor of higher education and organizational change at the University of California, Los Angeles. Sometimes it's best to invite diversity experts to weigh in on the issues. He also suggests conducting campus climate surveys to help institutions determine their priorities.

5: Practice accountability

If a diversity agenda falls through, administrators need to recognize their failings and come up with new solutions.

"There aren't any other areas where you would establish the degree of effort we put forth without accountability, except for diversity," says William Harvey, a distinguished scholar at the American Association for Access, Equity, and Diversity. "We pat ourselves on the back, say we gave it a good try, and move on."

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Brown is working to better address its shortcomings with review procedures and accountability processes (McMurtrie, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5/15).


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