Reflections on Changing a University’s Diversity Culture

February 15, 2016
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I have been in academia now for  35 years. Looking back, I see how my experiences as a student, faculty member, naturalized citizen, and administrator have shaped — and continue to shape — my ability to influence change.

My life’s journey began in Jamaica and led me to Texas, Ohio, and then back to Texas. I treasure the experiences I had as a student in Jamaica — where I was schooled under the British system of education — and equally, my experiences in the United States in a historically black college and two large public land-grant research universities with the Association of American Universities. This varied landscape has been nothing short of picturesque and the terrain laden with unparalleled opportunities for personal and professional growth. From my current position as the vice president and associate provost for diversity — otherwise known as chief diversity officer (CDO) — at Texas A&M University, leading change efforts within a complex university culture and during a challenging time for higher education, I offer the following reflections.

On many college and university campuses, CDOs are often appointed to provide strategic leadership for diversity and inclusion efforts. They work within a university culture, yet this culture is rarely examined when considering how mission statements that espouse diversity and inclusion are enacted. Even the research literature on university culture typically focuses on issues such as academic reputation, internationalization, corporatization, commercialization, management, and stakeholder perceptions, with little attention paid to how university culture may shape diversity or inclusion.

However, a 2012 article by Joseph Simplicio titled “The University Culture,” which points to the important role of university culture, resonates with my own observations. He notes that each university has a unique culture “born from the institution’s history and … steeped in tradition,” which “provides stability and continuity.” He further notes that universities have guardians of this culture who are “veteran faculty members, entrenched staff members, and others with longevity and seniority” who “stand watch over the status quo, … begrudgingly allow only the most necessary of changes, and … usher in newcomers and indoctrinate them into the fold.”

Thus, changing a university’s culture with respect to increasing diversity requires learning to work effectively with the guardians of its culture.

When I reflect on my responsibilities as CDO, the work would be daunting, exhausting, and isolating if I were doing it alone or without fully understanding systemic aspects of the institution that inevitably influence diversity efforts. Changing a university’s diversity culture is challenging. It occurs neither at a rapid pace nor within a vacuum. If we consider the cherished traditions, historical legacies of exclusion and inclusion, and the faculty, staff, student, and administrator attitudes and behaviors — and those of other groups, such as alumni, legislators, and others who proclaim a stake in higher education — then it becomes clear that changing a university’s diversity culture is not going to happen solely from the leadership of a CDO. It can only occur when there is intentionality and collective ownership and decision making.

In my mind, there are 10 areas that require attention to bring about impactful change in a university’s diversity culture:

● Increasing high school to college readiness and access

● Breaking the individual and collective silence to engage in more public dialogues around racism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and homophobia

● Owning and learning from our institutional histories and legacies of exclusion and inclusion, no matter how painful

● Increasing funds, including financial aid, for higher education institutions to meet enrollment and access demands

● Investing equitably in our public school systems and teachers

● Requiring all in our campus community to be culturally responsive and competent to educate and work in a changing pluralistic college environment and workforce

● Providing and rewarding educational development opportunities for all in our institutions to better engage in conflict and difficult dialogues

● Developing stronger accountability and assessment measures to track diversity progress

● Continually assessing campus climate to develop robust, actionable accountability plans

● Illuminating and adapting successful recruitment and retention practices

As already noted, a foundational aspect to changing a university’s diversity culture is cultivating relationships with key culture holders. As an example, an administrator — who was at the time the dean of our business school — once said to me during a conversation about diversity efforts at the university, “The burden of proof is on you, Christine.” Five years later, this same administrator is now our CFO and someone who regularly engages his leadership team on issues regarding inclusion, shares research about diversity, and looks closely at climate assessment survey data to improve workplace climate. Therefore, the burden of proof can shift.

This leads to some important questions: Where do the culture holders inside, as well as outside, our institutions reside? Where does the entrenchment lie? Are we evolving and adapting to change? What are we fearful of? How can we work proactively and effectively together to change policy and practices to meet the challenges previously mentioned?

Joseph Simplicio’s statement about learning to understand and work with the guardians of a university’s culture (our colleagues) cannot be overstated. Change is a constant in higher education. We have only to look at what is occurring daily in this country and beyond to know that colleges and universities are microcosms of broader spheres of change. To bring about meaningful change in a university’s diversity culture, one has to be strategic. Being strategic means having a plan of action for desired goals or outcomes. But strategic plans and diversity plans are only effective if they are actionable, measurable, accountable, and appropriately resourced.

CDOs are successful change agents when challenged as well as supported. These positions cannot be marginalized or treated as mainly symbolic; they must operate within an organizational structure that ensures effective communication, honesty, trustworthiness, openness to change, collaboration, and allocation of resources. The research on this is clear. Diversity is about excellence, and a university that is welcoming and inclusive has the potential to enhance student learning, faculty research, idea generation, and social and civic responsibility.

Working to change a university’s diversity culture is not something that is achieved by a single individual or by proclaiming certain goals on a mission statement; it is a collective, moral responsibility for which we are all, ultimately, accountable.●

Christine A. Stanley, PhD, is the vice president and associate provost for diversity and a professor at Texas A&M University. She is also the editor of Faculty of Color: Teaching in Predominantly White Colleges and Universities.