Mizzou Protests Raise Questions About Role of Diversity Officers

By Diane Lindquist Dec 17, 2015
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After student protests about the handling of campus incidents regarding race and religion led to the resignations of the president and chancellor of the University of Missouri System, university officials vowed to create a position for a diversity officer at the school.

But merely designating a diversity officer is no guarantee that cultural, ethnic, gender or religious tensions will be resolved, whether at an educational institution or a corporation, say numerous workplace experts.

“The degree of effectiveness is dependent on support and resources,” said William B. Harvey, distinguished scholar with the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE).

He suggested that the diversity officer needs a staff, funding and, most of all, the authority to explore issues and implement initiatives across all aspects of the institution’s operations. The position should be comparable to a White House Cabinet appointment in which the officer consults with and advises school leaders, he said, instead of being relegated to little more than window dressing.

“I think that’s where most institutions are falling down,” Harvey said, emphasizing that institutions need to take these officers and their efforts seriously.

The position of diversity officer has been in existence for as long as three decades, he said, created as more black and Hispanic individuals advanced to leadership roles at colleges and companies. Corporations worked harder to hire people of diverse backgrounds after the Hudson Institute’s landmark Workforce 2000 study forecast that the American workforce would become much more diverse in the new millennium, and that companies that couldn’t adapt would risk losing their competitive edge. Today, approximately 1 in 5 Fortune 1,000 companies has a diversity manager, according to Diversity Woman magazine.

Universities and colleges have been slower to implement this change, even though they were among the first to accept minority groups into their ranks. The number of chief diversity officers on campuses in the United States is not known, although the NADOHE is currently undertaking a survey.

The need for diversity officers on campuses appears to be great, Harvey said, given the considerable number of discrimination complaints that students file each year with the federal government.

Role of the Diversity Officer

Typically, diversity officers are charged with boosting diversity in recruitment and advancement, executing diversity training, reducing turnover and dropout rates among women and minorities, and building stronger relations among diverse populations.

While human resource officers operate across multiple regulatory and labor environments, diversity officers tend to focus on the conditions that have given rise to the profession—that is, changing demographics.

In both the corporate and higher education realms, diversity officers typically have a strong background in diversity, possibly with special training in the field. According to one survey of businesses, salaries for the position average $225,000. Titles can vary from vice president to chief diversity officer to senior vice president and director. The average staff size is about eight employees.

Once a diversity officer is hired, it’s advisable for him or her to start with a survey to identify the minority groups at an organization, their complaints, their courses of study (if at a university), their experiences and their expectations, said Michelle P. Wimes, director of professional development and inclusion at Ogletree Deakins, one of the nation’s largest labor and employment law firms. Do minority students, for example, have a higher dropout rate than the student body as a whole? “You’ve got to do your research. A lot of times there is no data.”

Next, she said, create a steering committee of dedicated people representing diverse groups who can meet regularly. If the panel is too large, it will be unwieldy and ineffective, she added. And, “You have to let them know that you are going to take their concerns to the faculty and the administration.”'

Commission ambassadors on campus or at the workplace to be your “eyes and ears”—and make them responsible for identifying troublesome issues that they can bring to the diversity officer.

“The infrastructure has to be in place if you’re going to accomplish anything,” she said.

The University of Missouri ran into trouble because it did not immediately address student and faculty concerns about certain racial and religious incidents. In fact, critics charge that administrators ignored concerns.

An important consideration is to dispel the notion that the diversity office is concerned only with minority groups, said Michael J. Hernandez, a partner in the Chicago-based law firm of Franczek Radelet. “We’re inclusive of everybody,” he said. “It’s not just diversity. It’s inclusion. … Everybody’s got a role to play.”

Even with a diversity officer on board, he said, results could take time.

“You can’t just sit there and say it’s going to happen,” Hernandez said. “It’s hard work.”

Diane Lindquist is a freelance writer based in San Diego.

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