Shaping an Institutional Narrative Around Diversity

Storytelling is central to how a cultural entity characterizes itself. Our stories define us, and the very process of telling our stories reinforces our identity. At Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), celebrating difference is at the very core of who we are and what we believe. Much of our progress in diversity has come from exploring answers to fundamental questions: Who are we? What is our story of diversity? Where have we been, and where are we headed?

Diversity is difficult to define and means different things to different people. As we looked to characterize our racial and ethnic differences at RIT, we began using a diversity index calculation for telling this aspect of our diversity story. Although this tool is most often used for assessing the diversity of an institution’s student population, by charting historical trends separately for students, faculty, and staff,  it has allowed us to capture a detailed picture of our diversity campus-wide.

From this, we have noticed some surprising differences, especially when we’ve disaggregated the data by faculty rank, tenure status, and exempt and non-exempt status for staff. For example:

Our student diversity has increased consistently over the past decade and continues to rise. This is a particular point of pride at RIT as we approach a celebratory milestone projected to occur sometime within the next several years, where it will become more likely than not that two students selected at random will be of a different race or ethnicity.

On average, our assistant professors are actually more diverse than our student body, and our associate professors are as diverse. If we can maintain the diversity we’ve built up at the assistant and associate levels, this bodes well for the future diversity of our full professors through the promotion and tenure process — an observation that drives institutional dialogue around retention efforts.

Comparatively, the diversity of exempt staff and non-tenure-track faculty provides opportunities for us to grow as an institution.

In essence, we have captured stories of success that warrant celebration and revealed areas of concern that require new levels of intentionality. Nonetheless, all stories have paved a path for a rich campus dialogue around who we are as an institution and who we hope to be.

This unique approach has allowed us to begin sensitive discussions from a place of inclusivity, where people from all racial and ethnic categories are represented. The sometimes-criticized focus of such conversations on persons of color is softened so that the opening dialogue reflects where we are together. It demonstrates that everyone is counted, and the result reflects our mutual diversity, giving us something that we can all rally around. From there, we can change the lens to look more closely at historically underrepresented groups and even single-race populations as necessary, thereby easing from the discussion on the attainment of compliance-level goals to establishing a path for the achievement of aspirational-level goals.

Diversity Indices
Different indices for measuring diversity have been proposed in different fields depending on the particular focus or goals. For our purpose, we chose the Gini-Simpson Index primarily because of how easy it is to understand. While all indices have pros and cons, this particular measure — which reflects how many different types there are in a dataset and accounts for how evenly the entities are distributed among those types — is easy for people to comprehend on a personal level. This diversity index is based on a probability calculation, the result of which answers the following question: What is the probability that two people selected at random from a given group would be from a different race or ethnicity? The greater the probability, the greater the diversity.

We include seven mutually exclusive categories in our index: white, African American and black, Hispanic and Latinx, Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, American Indian and Alaska Native, and two or more races. All groups are represented — not just those that are historically underrepresented — and, as such, we are able to be more inclusive and characterize our diversity broadly.

Individuals whose race or ethnicity is unknown were removed from the calculation, which is equivalent to distributing them among the other categories proportionate to the representation of each. We also excluded those who identified as international to maintain a measure of what we refer to as “domestic diversity.” We respectfully believe our international community of students, faculty, and staff add an entirely different dimension of diversity to our campus that is not reflected in this particular metric — as do differences based on gender, sexual identity, first-generation status, socioeconomic status, veteran status, and disability status, among others.

When sharing information with stakeholders, such as the Board of Trustees and Deans Council, we are careful to recognize that gaps exist and may even be expected in some cases. For example, it would not be surprising to find that faculty or staff diversity trails that of students. On average, most students are younger than faculty and staff, and younger age groups are known to be more diverse. Additionally, students turn over on a shorter time scale than faculty and staff. The real focus is on identifying how big the gaps are and considering how they are projected to change. It may not be realistic to expect faculty and staff diversity to exactly match or model that of students, but the comparative metrics permit a candid discussion around whether or not we are heading in the right direction.

The turnover rate is an important factor to consider. Since students turn over at a faster rate, it is more challenging to positively affect the diversity of faculty and staff. It takes much longer for change to occur and be reflected in the comparison — all the more reason for intentionality and careful planning.

This diversity index has limitations. It may not be the most appropriate for comparing your university to other institutions of higher education, as others may draw their students from specific areas of the country or may serve certain populations, such as historically black colleges and universities or tribal colleges and universities, which focus on attracting and supporting a narrower segment of the overall population. However, the index is a useful tool for characterizing an institution’s own profile of students, faculty, and staff and leveraging that data to generate meaningful discussions that ultimately guide or establish a path forward. In the end, the resulting dialogue is more valuable than the actual numbers.

A Final Thought
A diverse university is not necessarily an inclusive one. Climate surveys and assessments can shed light on a campus’s level of inclusivity and — collected regularly over time — can reveal evidence of progress or a lack thereof. Diversity without inclusion is clinical, but inclusion cannot exist and be cultivated without diversity.

Much like climate surveys necessarily provide an indirect measure of the environment, a diversity index is simply a proxy for diversity. When considered in parallel, however, even indirect measurements can provide valuable insight into the overall health of an institution.

David P. Wick, PhD, is assistant vice president for research and assessment in the Division of Diversity and Inclusion and an associate professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Keith B. Jenkins, PhD, is vice president and associate provost of the Division of Diversity and Inclusion and a professor of communication at Rochester Institute of Technology. Rochester Institute of Technology is a 2016 and 2017 Diversity Champion. This article was published in our March 2018 issue.