Reframing Diversity as an Institutional
By Daryl G. Smith, professor of education at
Claremont Graduate University
Loyola Marymount University
Diversity on college and university campuses is no
longer a projection: it is a reality. In the context
of compelling issues in the United States and abroad--changing
demographics, immigration, health disparities, civil
rights, and diversity in the marketplace, to name only
a few--diversity provides powerful opportunities and
serious challenges. In approaching these challenges
and opportunities, institutional stakeholders must ask:
How can we build our institutions' capacity to be effective,
high-performing places where diversity thrives?
As we search for an answer, technology provides a
useful parallel. Decades ago, institutions understood
that their future viability would rest on their ability
to build capacity for technology. They understood technology
to be central, not marginal, to teaching and research:
to how the institution communicated, built infrastructure,
spent money, and hired faculty and staff. Over the past
forty years, technology has changed continually, and
institutions have adapted with it, developing the human,
physical, fiscal, knowledge, and cultural resources
to respond effectively to a technologically sophisticated
world. As a result, technology is now part of every
corner of institutional life.
Diversity, like technology, is a powerful presence,
and institutions will not be credible or viable if they
do not make diversity fundamental. Corporations, the
military, and even political parties seem to understand
that diversity must be central to institutional effectiveness,
excellence, and viability. It is time for our institutions
of higher education to realize this as well.
Today's diversity imperative extends far beyond student
success (although student success remains critical).
Now the fundamental question is, are our institutions
building the capacity to support their missions in a
diverse society, and how? Building capacity for diversity
means setting diversity at the center of the institution's
mission. It means broadening the discussion beyond admissions
or undergraduates and varying it according to the institution's
mission, location, and context.
In a September 2008 article for the Chronicle
of Higher Education, Sheila O'Rourke described
how the University of California at Berkeley's mission
has driven diversity efforts. As a land-grant institution
and a major research university, the school has identified
three high-priority research areas to help it serve
the state of California: diversity and democracy, racial
inequities in schools, and race-based health disparities.
These areas have affected hiring, resources, and community
engagement. Their prominence has placed diversity at
the center of the school's research mission.
But putting diversity at the center of the mission
is not enough. We must also determine how we will define
diversity. Access and success for historically underrepresented
populations remains diversity work's legacy and soul.
Diversity also means addressing the growing and differentiated
issues reflected by different groups across the country,
whether related to race, class, gender, disability,
sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration, or
religion. And instead of seeing diversity as a laundry
list or as dichotomous--where one has either gender
identity or racial identity, for example--we
must address the intersections and multiplicities of
identities and recognize how campuses must now engage
the complexity of diversity.
In thinking through our institutional missions, we
must also consider the general rationale for diversity,
especially faculty diversity. According to conventional
wisdom, since student bodies are more diverse, faculty
should be more diverse. But this reasoning is not sufficient
to move our institutions forward. Instead of justifying
diversity through student demographics, institutional
stakeholders must ask: What expertise and talent will
our institutions need to be credible, effective, and
viable in a pluralistic society? This was the question
when technology emerged as central. Today, it is the
context for the diversity rationale and must be communicated
clearly to scientists, senior administrators, board
members, and academic departments. The arguments for
faculty diversity are numerous and include:
- Faculty diversity--in both hiring and retention--represents
the institution's values concerning equity. Any institution
that describes itself as committed to diversity while
having a faculty demographic that suggests otherwise
should be seen as disingenuous and hypocritical.
- Faculty diversity is central to the academy's ability
to develop diverse forms of knowledge. A diverse faculty
brings diversity themes to scholarship, increases
diversity in the curriculum, and introduces different
forms of pedagogy, including those that better engage
- Faculty diversity helps the institution develop
vital relationships with diverse communities outside
and across campuses.
- Faculty diversity is essential to the institution's
capacity to make fully informed decisions at all levels.
When faculty members from diverse racial and ethnic
backgrounds participate in decision making, their
decisions are not only more informed and credible,
they are also more likely to address power inequities.
- Faculty diversity is essential for creating an
environment that will attract persons from diverse
backgrounds. Until sufficient diversity exists in
campus departments and divisions, members of underrepresented
groups will struggle to be seen as individuals and
not as tokens.
- Faculty diversity supports future leadership diversity.
Since most academic administrators come from faculty
ranks, a relatively homogenized faculty limits the
future development of diverse leadership.
- Faculty diversity provides role models for all.
Undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty
members must be able to envision themselves in the
roles to which they aspire. The absence of diversity
in so many departments and fields sends strong signals
about the degree to which those fields value diverse
These arguments have both broad and deep implications.
They apply to any higher education campus, but they
are best engaged in each institution's specific context,
with a focus on its mission, purpose, and culture.
Engaging Dialogue and Monitoring Progress
If higher education is to build its potential to identify
talent and excellence, it will have to interrupt its
usual processes and engage in difficult dialogues about
challenging issues. Higher education literature has
explored the optimal conditions for bringing students
together to realize the benefits of diversity. Now we
must apply the lessons about students' difficult dialogues
to creating the conditions necessary for dialogue at
the institutional level. We must bring people from diverse
backgrounds together at every level on campus, from
the president's cabinet to administrative units, to
student affairs, to ethnic studies, to women's studies
As we pursue this vision, we must also monitor progress
and engage change in strategic ways. The question guiding
our institutions should be, "How can we know if
we are making progress, and in what areas, so we can
focus our resources and our attention?" We will
need to monitor data related to conventional measures
of student success, including disaggregated graduation
rates, to identify and aggressively address achievement
disparities. We will need to monitor faculty hiring
for diversity, compared with faculty turnover, to avoid
losing a significant opportunity to diversify the next
generation of faculty. And we will need to monitor the
diversity of the graduate student population, which
will become our labor market. Monitoring these and other
indicators will help ensure that diversity, like technology,
is an imperative that can both transform and facilitate
our campuses' core missions.
Higher education has a role in building a pluralistic
and equitable society--a society that thrives because
of diversity. But too many campuses and too many diversity
task forces are paralyzed when it comes to engaging
these difficult topics and politically charged data.
Nevertheless, we are at a critical juncture for diversity
efforts, a juncture that will require us to elevate
our work to an institutional level. We must help higher
education play a role in achieving democracy's promise:
a pluralistic society that works. Few of us have lived
or worked in that kind of setting. But achieving it
is one of the challenges of our day--and one to which
we must individually and collectively respond.
Editor's Note: This article originated
in a presentation at AAC&U's Diversity, Learning,
and Inclusive Excellence meeting on October 17, 2008.
A podcast of the presentation is available at www.aacu.org/meetings/diversityandlearning.
O'Rourke, S. 2008. Diversity and merit: How one university
rewards faculty work that promotes equity. Chronicle
of Higher Education, September 26, 55 (5): B41.