Learning to Listen as We Lead
By Matthew Reed, division dean of liberal arts,
County College of Morris
The County College of Morris (CCM) used its Bildner
Family Foundation grant to spur a campus-wide conversation
about ways to take diversity more seriously in every
aspect of the college’s operations. While the
primary focus was always curricular change, the project
quickly grew beyond that. The productive surprise of
the initial campus conversations was that it taught
us new ways of listening across silos.
Under the leadership of former Vice President for Academic
Affairs Cliff Wood, CCM’s project rewarded initiative
across the college. The most ambitious goal was curricular
innovation. Wood therefore established diversity task
forces in each of the three academic divisions (liberal
arts; business, math, engineering, and technology; and
health and natural sciences) to assess the current state
of diversity in courses and to suggest a plan of action.
He also used the faculty professional days at the start
of each semester to bring speakers on diversity-related
topics, such as religion and race, to campus.
As the grant continued, the task forces reported an
unanticipated state of affairs: diversity awareness
among faculty was relatively strong, but resentment
was building over a sense that diversity was being “shoved
down their throats.” Taking these findings to
heart, the administration shifted the strategy to cultivating
bottom-up initiatives, and used Bildner funding for
faculty stipends to undertake (and report on) diversity-related
projects in their own classes. This approach, which
bore fruit in the final year of the grant, resulted
in some wonderfully creative moments in the classroom.
Just as importantly, it decentralized the discussion
of diversity, allowing faculty in various disciplines
to figure out what it meant for them. The faculty projects
have been collected, compiled, copied, and distributed
to the entire CCM faculty.
On the student side, the division of student development,
under the leadership of Bette Simmons, hosted three
annual student diversity conferences, which are described
in another article in this Digest issue. The conferences,
in which faculty participated as facilitators and audience,
gave the faculty and the college community a window
into student perceptions of diversity at CCM. Among
other things, it became clear that some of the primary
concerns among students didn’t match those of
the faculty: students were more concerned with cross-cultural
commerce, for example, than the civil rights movement.
We also found that many majority students perceive the
absence of discussion as a sign of contentment, rather
than as a problem. These insights were invaluable for
faculty and administrators in bridging the generational
We also convened a community diversity advisory group
to gain some needed outside perspective. That group,
which drew on local community organizations, helped
provide momentum for bringing the diversity conversation
to bear on other elements of our operations, such as
tuition payment plans. The board also facilitated outreach
to local groups—for example, Bildner funds paid
for a CCM professor to address minority teens at a local
Despite changes in the leadership at top levels and
rotating leadership at mid-level project work, there
has been sustained support throughout. Nowhere is that
clearer that in President Yaw’s unflagging commitment
to diversity. Paradoxically, committed leadership at
the top made possible the diffusion of initiative over
time. By setting a direction and making resources available
for people to move in that direction, CCM struck a nice
balance between coherence and creativity.
What Can Other Colleges Take from Our Experience?
First, take seriously the issue of faculty (or other)
resistance. If a project is perceived as entirely top-down,
those at the bottom may simply drag their feet, rather
than internalize the priority. When we shifted focus
from large-group lectures to individual projects, the
quality of the conversation vastly improved, and issues
of coercion and resistance became moot.
Second, listen to the students. At our campus, one
of the refrains at every student diversity conference
was that extracurricular activities are great, but impractical;
our students have jobs, and they have to leave for their
jobs after classes. If we’re going to reach them,
it has to be in the classroom.
Third, there is a key difference between administrative
leadership and administrative ownership. If the faculty
and students don’t own meaningful parts of the
process, any gains will be ephemeral. Leaders need to
show a commitment to the general direction of diversity
efforts, but allow the college community to figure out
exactly how to achieve the desired ends.
Finally, even though what goes on in the classroom
is crucial, don’t forget to take a look at your
other operations. Some very frank discussions about
tuition payment plans and public bus routes emerged
in our community advisory board meetings. Classroom
instruction only matters if the students can actually
make it to class.
The Bildner New Jersey Campus Diversity Initiative
offered an opportunity to infuse diversity into the
curriculum, which we expected, but it also taught the
college to look at itself in new ways. The cross-silo
conversations engendered by the grant, and the new habits
of listening, will benefit CCM and its students long
after the specific grant-funded project ends.