Union College: Where Diversity Always Has a Seat at the Table

A lot of change can happen in 10 years; Dr. Gretchel Hathaway knows this well. She’s in her 10th year as chief diversity officer (CDO) of Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., which also coincides with President Stephen Ainlay’s tenure.

[Above: Nott Memorial on Union College’s campus in Schenectady, N.Y.]

In that time, she says she’s been impressed by the increase in diverse student enrollment and the “huge change in the culture” on the private liberal arts campus of 2,200 undergraduate students.

“Students now know whom to go to when they are uncomfortable about something or when there’s a national or international issue — something like the Black Lives Matter movement or global issues such as the conflict in the Middle East or a national disaster,” Hathaway says. “We’re a very diverse campus, and our students have many different issues they care about.”

Since 2006, the percentage of incoming students from diverse backgrounds jumped from 12 to nearly 20 percent. International student enrollment has also increased from 2 to 7 percent in the same period, and the overall number of students applying to the college has skyrocketed since President Ainlay took office.

Much of this success can be attributed to Ainlay’s direction. After his appointment, he immediately made diversity and inclusion his top priority.

“It was clear to me when I arrived that Union needed to become more diverse,” he says. “I wanted to create an atmosphere and an environment where everyone can feel like Union is their place.”

Ainlay’s first order of business was appointing Hathaway as CDO and making her part of his senior leadership team. He says his intention in doing so was to give her a seat at the table, with the rest of the board of trustees.

“By having her there, she is able to keep diversity at the forefront of all decisions regarding spending money and creating programs,” he says.

In a similar way, Union’s 2007 and 2013 strategic plans include initiatives for increasing diversity.

“Making sure that diversity is written into our institutional priorities and goals informs how we make decisions about how money is spent and about governance decisions,” Ainlay says. “It doesn’t just sit on a shelf.”

Having spent a portion of his 23 years in higher education as vice president for academic affairs at the College of the Holy Cross — a role that included working to increase faculty diversity — Ainlay saw firsthand how a diverse campus leads to a richer educational experience.

“Students these days expect a campus to be diverse and look like the world they’re living in,” Ainlay says. “Increasing the numbers is not the critical part — it’s creating an inclusive culture.”

Shortly after becoming president, Ainlay also appointed Matthew Malatesta to vice president for admissions, financial aid, and enrollment, and made him a member of the senior staff as well. Hathaway says Malatesta has played an important part in bringing diverse students to Union through the cultural competence training sessions he conducts for admissions staff, which are aimed at ensuring prospective students feel welcomed when they arrive on campus.

From left to right: Mary Suttie, Camille Harris, Jenny Surinach, and Cydnee Somera at Union College’s 2015 commencement ceremony
From left to right: Mary Suttie, Camille Harris, Jenny Surinach, and Cydnee Somera
at Union College’s 2015 commencement ceremony

“For example, we tell people to look someone in the eye and give them a firm handshake, but for people from some religions, these [actions] can be disrespectful,” Hathaway says. “In certain religions, it’s inappropriate for people to take the hand of someone who is of a different gender. [Malatesta] really gets the diversity work we’re trying to do … and his team is really engaged — they want to do it right and make sure that everyone feels included.”

Ainlay says the partnership Union has had with the Posse Foundation since 2006 also helps attract diverse students to the college. The Posse Foundation selects and trains student leaders from diverse, urban backgrounds and provides them support throughout their college careers. Ainlay says Posse scholar graduates have become some of the school’s greatest ambassadors.

“They do a lot of recruiting for Union because they feel good about the environment here, and they let other students know,” he says.

The annual Presidential Forum on Diversity is another initiative Ainlay established; its purpose is to foster conversations about diversity and inclusion across campus. The forum includes a main event held in Union’s Nott Memorial and smaller events throughout the year led by faculty and student leaders. Past event speakers have included Maya Angelou; journalist Soledad O’Brien; South African civil rights activist Eddie Daniels (who was imprisoned with Nelson Mandela); and more recently, John Quiñones, a journalist and news anchor who spoke about his show “Primetime: What Would You Do?” to enhance Union’s new Bystander Intervention educational program.

Ainlay says his motivation for establishing this yearly event was to “symbolically commit the weight of the presidency” to the issues of diversity and inclusion. He carefully helps choose a theme each year that reflects current global issues. Hathaway says that theme is always the topic of great excitement when students, faculty, and staff return to campus in the fall; the theme for this year’s Presidential Forum on Diversity is social justice movements.

Union takes great care to stay in tune with current issues happening locally, nationally, and globally — and for Hathaway, this means being flexible.

“Every year, I do one type of campus climate survey, whether it’s for gender, LGBTQ, or race,” she says. “And then I use assessment tools to decide on a plan for the next two to four years — what kinds of programs and events we will initiate with assistance from our students and faculty. I say ‘every two to four years’ because I know I will have to adjust my plans based on global dynamics [like the Black Lives Matter movement] … and I love that.”

Hathaway is currently preparing a 10-year evaluation report to assess how far Union has come during that time and to plan for the future. She says she could not do the work she does without the support of Ainlay or the board of trustees.

“I truly got lucky. I know this is not an easy job for a lot of my colleagues at other schools,” she says. “I am honored and blessed to be doing the work that I am doing as [Union’s] CDO.”

While Ainlay is grateful for the progress they’ve made, he believes there is always room for growth. Currently, Union is working to expand its population of Latinos and students from regions outside of the Northeast.

“At Union, the assumption is that diversity is valuable; it’s written in our DNA,” he says. “We want to continue to bring more people to the table.”●

Rebecca Prinster is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. Union College is a 2013 and 2014 HEED Award recipient.