What’s next for Diversity and Inclusion Officers: A Black Scholar-Activist’s Perspective

Many institutions have made large scale investments in diversity officers, offices and related programing. By investing money into the appointment of officers, these institutions assume the key reason for the negative experiences garnered by underrepresented scholars in academia is the lack of resources to support their recruitment and retention. However, these initiatives are a response to symptoms of the overall problem: the culture of racism that pervades American higher education.  The culture of racism and associated silence in the academy is prevalent even in those institutions that invest significant resources in diversity officers and related programming, claim diversity is the top priority,  invest in interdisciplinary scholarship, and in those who have created structures in place to improve the “chilly climate” crisis plaguing the modern American university.  These issues will not be remedied by creating offices filled with out-of-touch senior administrators, but rather with participatory action research and a sincere social justice commitment.

Before investing in diversity officers, the institution must: (1) acknowledge their role in the accumulation of traumatic academic experiences and (2) acknowledge the work of faculty, students, and staff from diverse backgrounds in creating a less hostile campus environment. Often times, these non-White members of the university are made to be hidden figures.  Their tireless efforts to organize, support one another, and continue to educate the culturally incompetent members of their community often comes at the expense of their socio- emotional health and general well-being.

Acknowledging their role:

The work of student affairs professionals and faculty from underrepresented groups often goes unnoticed; however, the cultural taxation they encounter in their work lends itself to socio-emotional challenges and harm. Due to their proximity with students, these educators have empowered and mentored using social justice focused civic engagement. With support from administration, these college constituents can continue working to create more culturally affirming spaces for various underrepresented groups. The grassroots approach these members have taken in combatting prejudice is remarkable and cannot be ignored as a catalyzing agent in strides for diversity in the higher education setting. Their work must be acknowledged; however, this work cannot be the work of few.

What ways can effective diversity offices operate?

         Diversity isn’t “just an office,” just like it shouldn’t be just one week in one’s curriculum or just one chapter in a book. Diversity has a place in the classroom starting with syllabi development and trickling over into who’s brought to classrooms as guest speakers. Diversity  has a place on campuses with diversity offices and related programming; however, it also belong in career services, enrollment management, selection committees, evaluation measures, office culture and social life on campus. Achieving a more diverse and inclusive campus environment is more than just a one-person job; one policy will not fix it and one junior faculty cohort from underrepresented backgrounds is not enough to compensate for the historical and moral debt owed these communities.

Diversity work is extremely under-resourced. It’ll take a lot of research and concentrated effort to tackle tasks such as improving faculty awareness of discrimination policy, training community members how to be inclusive, mentoring faculty from underrepresented groups, assessing the cultural competency of all current university structures, all while accounting for the immense exogenous variation stemming from the global political context. Institutions of higher learning have made financial commitments and now it’s time for cultural investments. Examples of such a cultural investment include:  (1) a town hall : to hear constituents’ needs; (2) focus groups to hear what different populations have to say; ( 3) researchers to analyze the results; and (4) student affairs professionals and faculty must also be equipped for culturally responsive pedagogy.

A financial investment in diversity offices and officers does translate to a certain commitment to diversity. However, if the investment is not large enough to have the system-level impact, the issues of equity, diversity and inclusion will not truly be ameliorated.  For example, many faculty and students from underrepresented backgrounds have been recruited but retention is a major issue. Retention is one challenge that diversity officers face; retention issues can be a symptom of various institutional ailments, including hostile campus climate, chilly classroom climate, bias-related incidents, and culturally exclusive curricula. To move forward, diversity officers may find it best to meet with students, staff and faculty to find out what their needs are because due to researcher bias,  research does not always reflect the needs of the diverse communities.

 

What will it take to achieve this: Shared Governance

Diversity work in higher education, as it exists now, is new;  scholarship in this area is very important. Officers are being appointed all around the country, but there are no best practices to lean on. We must begin conducting research in our communities assessing diversity policies to ensure they are, in fact, efficacious.

Affirmative action wasn’t enough and it didn’t benefit the people it was intended for; therefore, we must rethink diversity holistically and utilize established concepts we already know like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and culturally competent pedagogy. These goals can be achieved by diversity officers across the country by engaging in community-focused research and practices.

Diversity officers are not the end all, be all of diversity issues, we need cultural investments that leverage student buy-in. The campus climate protests during 2012-2017 at many universities started with students, thus, we deserve a figurative “seat at the table” as decisions are made regarding strategic planning. Universities should not act like gentrifiers or other appropriating bodies as they seek to improve problems for different constituents that they do not understand. Senior faculty and administrators may have the most expertise on their institution; nonetheless, because they are not omnipresent, they may not be aware of the various challenges happening on campus.

Recruiting underrepresented groups represents an olive branch to these communities, however, in addition to recruiting diverse candidates, the university must also be prepared to solve problems that they’ve never even talked about. They must be willing to call out injustice when they see it and  hold their community members accountable. If diversity is the “top priority”, institutions of higher learning cannot be silent in the face of oppression.

The experiences of marginalized students speak for themselves and if an office cannot support programs to support under-resourced groups, we must pick up where we left off when we appointed diversity officers but this time with more perspectives represented. University policymakers must be willing to be challenge their ideas about sex, gender identity, sexuality, class, race, nationality, ethnicity,  history, religion, mental health and wellbeing, ability and other topics that emerge as the college landscape becomes increasingly diverse.

Diversity work isn’t going to go away. To make sustainable changes in institutions of higher learning, it is critical that policies be crafted with shared governance in mind so that it’s well supported, implemented and evaluated repeatedly over time to accommodate different people and needs. So, as we are amidst a new era for diversity officers, the first lesson these officers will need to learn is how to listen to the needs and solutions that different communities have found viable.

Conclusion

The University is an exciting place to be. Many breakthroughs that effect and change the way humans live are formalized in university spaces. However, knowledge isn’t exclusively created here. Knowledge is created in churches, homes, schools on the streets and in other informal mediums. If institutions claim to embrace diversity, they must be willing to acknowledge the alternative avenues for learning as legitimate.  This era of globalization and technology demands that institutions recognize how the university infrastructure must be reimagined to truly give diversity, inclusion and equity a chance.  As a Black scholar working on a predominantly White campus, I realize these changes will take time, and I urge diversity officers to see that the time for equitability (not equality) is now. The journey to equitability must begin with your ears not your mouths.

 

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