Hiring a Diversity Officer Is Only the First Step. Here Are the Next

First published by Martin León Barreto for The Chronicle. Hiring a Diversity Officer Is Only the First Step. Here Are the Next 7. By Yvette M. Alex-Assensoh 

In today’s season of #MeToo, Dreamers, Black Lives Matter movements, and radical-right backlash, colleges are adding chief diversity officers to the list of essential employees. However, hiring a skilled diversity professional is just the first step. To be most effective, chancellors, presidents, and provosts must join with diversity officers to build campus environments where equity, inclusion, and diversity become a part of everyday campus life. Otherwise, they are only setting up their chief diversity officers — and their institutions — for failure.

I hope the following strategies will help college leaders better position their diversity officers for success:

Go first. It’s unreasonable to hold others accountable for diversity when your own staffers look just like you. So if you want more diversity on your campus, start by diversifying your own staff at the highest levels and treating its members with respect. If you do that, others are more likely to follow, and your campus will be better for it.

Manage expectations. When it comes to chief diversity officers, there are almost as many expectations as there are constituencies. Don’t assume that everyone knows what the chief diversity officer’s duties are. Develop a good relationship with the officer as a basis for establishing ground rules and a mutually agreed upon agenda to promote a culture of equity and inclusion. Then, make that agenda clear and accessible. It should include the scope of the officer’s responsibilities and a reasonable timeline for achieving benchmarks. Communicate the diversity officer’s work broadly and frequently through routine campus communications and encourage the officer to push back when the scope of duties is inappropriately constrained or expanded by others.

Develop meaningful measures of success. Just as chancellors, presidents, and provosts are assessed by standards that are linked to campus success, it is important to develop objective measures of performance for chief diversity officers. Those standards should be aligned with campus strategy and designed to provide incentives for faculty, staff, and students. After adopting the necessary structures and processes, assess the diversity officer’s role in working with others to create a more diverse culture, promoting innovations in programming and policies, and providing support for underrepresented people on campus. Additional guidance is available through the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, the pre-eminent voice for best practices, standards of professions, and programming in diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Engage faculty members. Faculty members are often among the most powerful constituents on campus. They virtually own the curriculum, and, with students and staff, they produce the knowledge upon which many campus rankings are based. They share responsibility for guiding various aspects of campus policies and governing processes; therefore, any sustainable change in diversity requires the cooperation and support of the faculty.

Fix systems, not people. For decades, well-meaning college leaders have invested money in programs aimed at "fixing" and "orienting" underrepresented faculty, staff, and students. Workshops and programs on mentoring, climate, and service are just a few. While these efforts are admirable, they focus on only one aspect of the issue. After all, when underrepresented faculty and staff leave campuses, they rarely complain about a lack of training or workshops; instead, they point to unchecked discrimination, harassment, and unfairness that are often part of the day-to-day campus culture.

That is why the most effective way to enhance diversity is to "fix" the systems that undermine success for underrepresented groups. For example, fix the performance-review processes that are blind to issues of departmental climate so that managers, department chairs, and deans are better able to develop respectful working environments for all. Replace antiquated tenure and promotion processes that discount innovative research and teaching in favor of the status quo. Dismantle personnel processes that wink at sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and ADA violations, while penalizing underrepresented students, faculty, staff, and administrators who are trying to navigate hostile campus climates. Crippling systems have to change, but the chief diversity officer’s success in making that happen begins with the community’s recognition of these barriers and partnerships aimed at eliminating them.

Provide adequate support. Effective results in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion take time and resources. Leaders must provide both for effective staffing, programming, and innovation. They should bring innovative diversity ideas to donors, who are often overlooked as a resource for endowed faculty positions, lectureships, and student spaces. And diversity offices should be in locations that signal their importance in daily campus life. In addition to money and space, access is equally valuable: Diversity officers need regular access to senior leaders for education, planning, and information sharing.

LACE up. Create environments based on trust, in which the values of love, authenticity, courage, and empathy — LACE — are in full view. Here’s how:

  • Love: Be kind in the face of spitefulness, forgiving in the midst of pain, hopeful when all seems lost, and patient with people, but not with ignorance or injustice.
  • Authenticity: Authentic leaders have a firm grasp on their personal strengths and weaknesses. Admit your missteps and acknowledge when you are looking to others for support. In doing so, you invite others to be authentic as well, creating a more welcoming campus in the process.
  • Courage: Acknowledge fear, but move forward anyway. When the going gets tough on the diversity front, take a stand and defend it, rather than using the chief diversity officer as a shield.
  • Empathy: Take time to feel alongside the students, faculty, and staff that you serve. Seek to understand other perspectives, even when you disagree.

Creating more diverse, equitable, and inclusive campuses is a transformative process. Hiring a chief diversity officer is a good first step, but without the proper infrastructure and genuine support from an institution’s top leadership, it’s little more than a doomed public-relations stunt.

Yvette M. Alex-Assensoh is vice president for equity and inclusion and a professor of political science at the University of Oregon.