Diversity Engagement in the Largest Comprehensive System of Higher Education in the Nation

Managing a system-wide diversity office in an enterprise as large as The State University of New York (SUNY) is a unique and sometimes daunting challenge, but I always remind myself that it is not a one-person job. Creating and sustaining communities defined by diversity, equity, and inclusion is a collective responsibility. As the system’s chief diversity officer (CDO), I have worked to ensure that the 64 colleges and universities across New York State that make up SUNY — the largest comprehensive higher education system in the country — live up to our commitment to access and equity and continue to reflect our system’s core values from its founding almost 70 years ago.

[Above: The SUNY System Administration building in Albany, N.Y.]

SUNY Cortland students on the central New York campus

Since the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI) was created in 2007, we have broadened its scope from managing a portfolio of grant programs to developing leadership for inclusive excellence. Its expansion grew out of several precedents. In 2013, the University Faculty Senate issued a position paper titled “Making Diversity Count,” which enumerated recommendations that supported SUNY’s overall strategic plan, The Power of SUNY, and focused on diversity in each of the plan’s six “Big Ideas,” in areas such as the education pipeline, business and industry, health, the environment, and both community and global relations.

To ensure that diversity was represented in each of these six platforms for SUNY’s future, Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher established a system-wide Diversity Task Force and with it, in 2014, the position of system-wide CDO as part of the chancellor’s cabinet. Based on the recommendations of the Diversity Task Force, SUNY’s Board of Trustees approved a system-wide, comprehensive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Policy in 2015. It is important to mention that the system-wide Diversity Task Force included approximately 35 representatives from each of our sectors — university centers and doctoral degree-granting institutions, university colleges, colleges of technology, and community colleges. We made sure that faculty, students, staff, and senior leadership, including members of the Board of Trustees, were represented.

SUNY’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Policy
Notably, SUNY’s diversity policy — the most aggressive of its kind in the nation — requires that each of the 64 colleges and universities has a CDO. This individual is responsible for carrying out at the campus level the core goals of the policy: to help create inclusive campus cultures by working collaboratively with offices across campus — academic affairs, enrollment management, admissions, and human resources, among others — paying particular attention to the following focus areas:

● Undergraduate and graduate student recruitment, admissions, retention, and completion

● Faculty and staff diversity through improved recruitment, retention, and support practices

● Creating and sustaining through programming and education campus atmospheres that are welcoming of cultural differences

● Introducing cultural competency programming as a central aspect of the orientation for new employees and a regular program for all continuing employees; this focus was taken from the SUNY Board of Trustees’ Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Policy

Additionally, the policy required that each of our campuses develop and implement strategic diversity plans to achieve SUNY’s inclusion goal — to make SUNY the most inclusive higher education system in the country. All of these action items have provided campuses with an impetus to review and refine programs and policies, as well as enable diversity and inclusion measures to be tackled strategically so that we know our efforts are paying off. To support this, ODEI is charged with reviewing the strategic diversity plans for all 64 campuses, with an eye toward improving their baseline metrics and providing guidance and feedback on each one to help create a more sustainable diversity framework that reflects the priorities of the Board of Trustees’ Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Policy.

Given the many programs and activities administered by ODEI over the years, along with these groundbreaking measures, the office has earned national recognition. ODEI received its fifth consecutive national INSIGHT Into Diversity Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award and, in 2015, a New York State Legislative Recognition Award for exemplary public service.

Diversity-Centered Leadership as a Key to Success
The commitment to diversity as a staple of institutional success has empowered the university, and ODEI in particular, to orchestrate initiatives that have made SUNY an exemplar of diversity and inclusive excellence. In writing this, I’ve reflected on how critically important senior leadership is in how diversity is perceived, implemented, and strengthened. The collective strengths and support of SUNY System’s top leaders, who are all visionaries and public servants in the highest degree — Chancellor Zimpher, Board of Trustees Chairman H. Carl McCall, and Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Alexander N. Cartwright — have driven SUNY’s transformative accomplishments in system-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Students on the campus of SUNY Old Westbury on Long Island

Our vision for the educational attainment of underserved populations is focused on ensuring academic success for 21st-century students, closing opportunity and achievement gaps in New York State public higher education, and building equity in and access to programs that lead to meaningful and timely college degrees — all necessary accomplishments toward rebuilding the nation’s educational prowess. Working collaboratively has been instrumental in forging a path for a system-wide leader in diversity; at the same time, it has encouraged our campuses and other systems of public higher education to network and create new partnerships. At SUNY, our office has worked in partnership with the University Faculty Senate, Board of Trustees, Chancellor and Provost’s Office of Academic Affairs at the system level, and across senior leadership at all 64 campuses.

Together with a dedicated team in ODEI, the SUNY System CDO works to support campuses through a variety of resources and programs. In March 2015, the Office of the Provost and ODEI created “A Campus Guide for Strategic Diversity and Inclusion Plan Development,” which provided a framework for campus self-assessment, as well as links to campus plans illustrating the process and product that campuses are striving to achieve throughout the nation.

ODEI has also instituted system-wide professional development with the help of experts from the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE). The one-day program created a platform for strategic diversity planning aimed at breaking down silos on campuses across the system by presenting opportunities for collegial cooperation among departments such as enrollment, faculty leadership, and residence life — offices that traditionally have not worked together — to set shared goals around diversity and inclusion. Campus diversity and affirmative action officers who participated in this program reported that it helped them recognize the need to overcome institutional barriers preventing the development of a cohesive and integrated strategic diversity plan for their campuses.

Creating Partnerships to Build Diversity
In 2016, SUNY’s ODEI and the University Faculty Senate co-sponsored and hosted a statewide conference featuring national experts on inclusion, faculty diversity, and racism. This program, titled “Awareness to Action: Building a Culture of Inclusive Excellence,” offered workshops that fostered discussions on teaching and pedagogy, cultural competency, affirmative action, disability programs, and successful campus interventions. A pre-conference program for senior leadership provided administrators with the opportunity to recognize and overcome unconscious biases.

The ODEI is located at SUNY System Administration headquarters in Albany, N.Y. Its closeness to the New York State Capitol and Legislature is instrumental in forming partnerships with state government. The New York State Assembly and Senate Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force has helped ODEI build a Model Senate Project, through which students debate a proposed legislative bill on the floor of the state Senate chamber, thereby learning the dynamics of the legislative process and affording them the opportunity to develop leadership skills and test their mettle against other students representing the City University of New York.

Furthermore, networks and coalitions among faculty leaders fostered by United University Professions and the SUNY University Faculty Senate provide transformative connections and bring together diverse and powerful state and national entities to address the challenges to equity and access in higher education.

In another vein, national and local incidents on SUNY campuses have drawn attention to the communication strategies used to address sensitive issues affecting diverse student and faculty groups. Working collaboratively across sectors, ODEI has helped to frame the steps needed to respond directly to the issues at hand, including unrest due to racial profiling and aggressive acts targeting students or faculty. Where campuses struggle to satisfy the needs or expectations of targeted populations during these crises, having a system-wide diversity office has been invaluable in providing guidance and support when it’s most needed.

SUNY STEM and Diversity
Broadening STEM engagement has been another of SUNY’s many diversity and inclusion goals. For 10 years, ODEI has supported faculty in STEM fields and sponsored four biennial STEM conferences to always be on the cutting edge of finding the best strategies for the recruitment and retention of students in these fields. A related initiative, The Replications Project, which pairs our community colleges with our four-year institutions, offers summer bridge programs to help recruit, retain, and connect STEM students with mentoring and collaborative undergraduate research projects. Another mechanism for the growth of diverse scholars in STEM is our Doctoral Diversity Fellowships, which create a stronger pipeline for highly talented STEM graduate students.

ODEI’s participation in many national forums hosted by the Association of Public Land Grant Universities’ Commission on Access, Diversity, and Excellence; NADOHE; and the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity (NCORE) has spurred our creativity in reimagining campus diversity and our overall work in this area. We are confident the result will be systemic change not only in diversity offices on each campus, but across the entire 460,000-student system as well.

The goal is to get everyone to practice broad-based engagement so that our students, faculty, and staff feel welcome and safe, respected as individuals, and treated fairly. Achieving and sustaining this requires cultural awareness and the understanding that we live in an interconnected, increasingly diverse world.

As a proud SUNY alumnus, I always look forward to coming into work knowing that I’m contributing to the enterprise that helped transform my life and that of so many others. The journey now involves continuing to work collaboratively across the university and building systemic change toward inclusive excellence with the hope of preparing our students to become the equity-minded and cross-culturally knowledgeable leaders of tomorrow.●

Carlos N. Medina, EdD, is the vice chancellor and chief diversity officer for the SUNY System. He is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board.