Culture Shock: Alleged Racial Discrimination on Campuses Has Brought about a Call for Institutional Leadership on Diversity

By Stuart, Reginald | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, December 31, 2015 | Go to article overview

Culture Shock: Alleged Racial Discrimination on Campuses Has Brought about a Call for Institutional Leadership on Diversity


Stuart, Reginald, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Diversity, the elusive goal that has had its share of ups and downs over the last few decades as successor to the pioneering affirmative action steps taken by corporate America in the 1960s, is getting a boost from students in colleges and universities across the nation.

Higher education, which has been slower than corporate America in expanding its efforts beyond student enrollment to include staff and program diversity, got a stunning reminder this fall of the work still to be done.

The reminder came in the form of widespread student demonstrations for better institutional leadership on diversity issues. The marches, rallies, meetings with institutional officials, and threats of student class and athletic activity boycotts echoed student protests of half a century ago.

Then, college students played a big role in the 1950s and 1960s in the waves of peaceful, non-violent demonstrations aimed at pushing government and civilian leaders to make good on the promise to outlaw racial segregation and discrimination across the board, from schools to housing to employment.

Much of that protest was fueled by the pace of response by education and government leaders to the "all deliberate speed" mandate in the historic 1954 U. S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education outlawing so-called "separate but equal" local laws preventing racial integration of public education.

Now, society may consider itself legally light years beyond the era of legalized racial segregation. Still, todays demonstrations reflect a sense among many current students that vestiges of many past practices persist and are reflected in the absence of urgency to address discriminatory practices and embrace inclusion at every turn.

"There's a movement across the country," says Dr. Benjamin Reese, vice president of the Office of Institutional Equity at Duke University and Duke University Health System and national president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE), reflecting on recent developments around diversity and the University of Missouri. "Many who have never had a chief diversity officer (CDO) are beginning to recognize having a CDO is necessary but not sufficient.

"What needs to happen is institutions need to provide these new CDOs with resources and fully engage them with the chancellor, president and senior leaders to allow them to provide the value they are suited to offer," adds Reese.

Strategy needed

Indeed, the University of Missouri has emerged as the most prominent example, although far from the sole one, of what can go wrong when an institution lacks a well-thought-out strategy for inclusion and a go-to person like a CDO to help chart and execute strategies and help address real-time issues as they arise.

Missouri never had a formal chief diversity officer. Two years ago, it eliminated the job of the person directing diversity efforts along with a number of other officials, according to university records and officials. In the time since, complaints of all kinds ranging from employment practices and goals to administrative response to allegations of racial and ethnic discrimination steadily accumulated with no resolution.

During that same two years, the institution parted ways with the leader of its medical school and its athletic director. It reduced student health benefits. It downplayed or did not sufficiently address, according to protesters, the significance of racial incidents on campus.

As Reese and others say, having a chief diversity officer in and of itself does not guarantee an institution is protected from unrest among its population, as many with well-established diversity programs and officers have learned. It does help an institution become focused and achieve a better outcome when issues arise, say education advocates, current academics who have studied diversity in the corporate world and corporate veterans of the affirmative action era. …

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