Higher ed diversity initiatives must change with the times

More colleges hire chief diversity officers to oversee range of initiatives
By: | Issue: May, 2017
April 26, 2017

With skilled workers in demand by industry and student enrollment declining, ignoring diversity initiatives is impractical, even unproductive. Students, employees and job candidates can easily see through an institutional façade that claims to embrace diversity but makes little effort to promote it.

By expanding the definition of diversity and frequently introducing new programs or events that celebrate people’s differences, some institutions are shifting their culture to honor people on and off their campus.

Reasons to hire a CDO

Over the last several years, more schools have been hiring chief diversity officers (CDOs). Based on results from a survey conducted by the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, 77 percent of the 196 CDOs who responded stated they’re part of their school’s executive or administrative staff.

Jason Kirksey, vice president and CDO at Oklahoma State University, says supporting a CDO position sends a strong message about the school’s commitment to diversity. “I can share my experiences as a black faculty member in the classroom as well as with others on campus who don’t have that experience. My input is immediate and direct.”

Another reason to hire a CDO is to provide both oversight of diversity initiatives across the institution and alignment with school goals, says Lisa Coleman, CDO and special assistant to the president at Harvard University.

The institution has supported diversity and inclusion initiatives since the 1960s. In recent years, it introduced diversity resource groups and implemented strategies for its postdoctoral pipeline to draw faculty from a stronger and more diverse pool of candidates.

How to generate awareness

Familiarizing employees with the concept of implicit bias or hidden discrimination is among the most important parts of any diversity program.

At Clemson University, human resources and the office of inclusion and equity are developing a variety of educational opportunities—including courses, online training and trips to hear speakers at national summits—to help faculty and staff recognize their implicit biases, says Michelle Piekutowski, associate vice president and chief HR officer at Clemson.

Last fall, the school launched a cloud-based system that provides real-time aggregate data about job candidates who have applied for positions. “If we’re not getting enough females or people in this group or that group, then we have social media packages in place that enable us to go out and target specific, diverse groups,” she says.

“We’re seeing much better candidate pools, and it makes people think about diversity.”

Programs have to be flexible

At some schools, diversity initiatives are narrowly applied, typically focusing on just race and gender, says Cecil Hicks, assistant vice chancellor and human resources director at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. But to create a truly diverse culture, schools need to develop a campuswide infrastructure that affects all areas of the institution, he says.

Hicks says a core group of employees in human resources and other related departments have completed Intercultural Development Inventory training to learn to adapt behavior to cultural differences.

The school has also extended its diversity initiatives beyond campus. Faculty and staff who work in the sciences promote STEM-related occupations to diverse employees, students and other members in the community—especially women and people of color.

Earlier this year, for example, they screened Hidden Figures (the Oscar nominated story of African-American women mathematicians who played a vital role in the early years of the U.S. space program) and followed the film with a discussion about career opportunities in science.

All these schools demonstrate that initiatives surrounding diversity and inclusiveness must be fluid to be impactful.

Diversity and inclusion initiatives need to transform and adapt to current times. Otherwise, they may be labeled as just another traditional human resources program, quickly losing their appeal, value and effectiveness among your workforce.

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in human resources issues.