Having applied for many leadership positions in higher education, it has been encouraging to see that every position description listed diversity and inclusion as a priority. And yes, we have come a long way in developing strategies for increasing diversity and a number of institutions have had measurable success using these strategies. For example, I’m pleased that at my previous institution, we went from 14% of our faculty and managerial staff being people of color to 21% in just over two years. Like many others, I have openly shared the strategies we used with anyone who is interested.
However, reviews of those in leadership/managerial and faculty roles show we are still have a significant over-representation of those who are white and male. So, that leaves us with the question – if this is a priority and the strategies for success are readily available, why have we not made more progress?
I believe there are several reasons for the lack of success in increasing diversity. First, while everyone lists diversity as a priority, it is not really the case for all institutions and all leaders. To be honest, institutions, particularly the public institutions, have to say diversity and inclusion is a priority even if it is not true for those in leadership roles. While I certainly have had, and currently have, excellent support for my diversity efforts, in other cases I found I had to fight those above me rather than having the support I expected based on the position description.
Second, many working in higher education believe universities do a better job supporting diversity and inclusion than other areas of society. I believe some of this comes from the fact society often labels higher education as “extremely liberal” on diversity and many other issues, so those working in higher education believe the processes they are using must already be free of bias and racism. However, there is plenty of research indicating this is simply not true.
Third, almost every university has an example of an effort to increase diversity that was unsuccessful, so people say “we tried that before and it did not work.” This failed effort could include a diverse hire(s) who was not seen as successful or a diverse hire(s) who left after a short period of time. I have heard this many times in my career. My response has become, “well, you tried something before that did not work, but we are going to do something else and based on the success of others I believe it will work.” Also, it is important to recognize, when a white male is unsuccessful or leaves after a short period of time no one says “we tried that before and it did not work.”
Fourth, the hiring and promotion processes some of us say are biased and need to change are the same processes that were used to attract and retain people on search committees and in the hiring positions. They also might have been the same people who helped to develop these processes. Therefore, the attack on the process feels like an attack on them personally, so it is easy to understand their desire to defend the current approach.
Finally, while those working in higher education often advocate for change elsewhere, we suffer from the same resistance to change in our organizations as everyone else. Change is never as easy or as comfortable as maintaining the status quo. Over the years, I have seen considerable resistance to revisions of policies and procedures, even when the proposed changes have already become the norm at most other institutions. The changes being suggested relative to diversity and inclusion are sometimes not yet the norm, so the resistance can be even greater. However, I will argue we must be willing to change our approach if we want to change the results.
To conclude, for all of these reasons, I have found one of the most important factors for truly making a commitment to diversity and inclusion a top priority in a university are the actions of the leader. We know everyone says it is a top priority, but leaders need to be the one to take the actions necessary to show they truly believe it is important. They have to be crystal clear this is a priority for him or her both by words and actions and they must be willing to hold people accountable. Without this leadership from the top, making the changes necessary for progress is unlikely.