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Diversity Offices Aren't What They Used to Be

Brandon Wolfe

By Ben Gose

Photographs by Robert Barker

Rather than a chief diversity officer, at Cornell U. a team of five shares the responsibilities. Yael Levitte (left) focuses on faculty; Lynette Chappell-Williams, staff; A.T. Miller, undergraduate academic matters; Renee Alexander, the undergraduate student experience; and Sheri Notaro, graduate students.

Ronald Taylor, a sociologist who became a top diversity officer at the University of Connecticut, had built one of the broadest campus-diversity offices in the country by 2008. UConn's Office of Multicultural and International Affairs, a part of the provost's office, was responsible not only for cultural centers, ethnic-studies departments, and the equal-opportunity office, but also for several international units that typically aren't included under diversity programs. Among those were the European-studies department, other area-studies programs, and the study-abroad office.
Then Mr. Taylor retired from his position as senior vice provost; a new university president came on board; and the diversity office was largely dismantled. Damon A. Williams, co-author of a new book about the structure of the large diversity offices that have sprung up in academe in the past decade, recounts the UConn tale to illustrate how vulnerable those offices remain, even as more and more colleges create them.

"Put simply, the division was 'personalized' and not institutionalized as part of the university's infrastructure," he and Katrina C. Wade-Golden write in The Chief Diversity Officer: Strategy Structure and Change Management (Stylus Publishing).

Big campus-diversity offices, often headed by a chief diversity officer, are going through growing pains as they enter their second decade. To be sure, major universities aren't backing away. But the scope and tactics of diversity offices are changing.

Debate about how best to structure the offices often centers on three issues: Tight state budgets limit spending at public universities, and as a new kid on the block, diversity offices are particularly exposed, advocates say. Meanwhile, some insiders say the offices' very structure—with a high-profile leader who may be viewed as "responsible" for diversity—takes pressure off presidents and provosts to champion the cause. And longtime foes of affirmative action—groups like the Center for Equal Opportunity and the National Association of Scholars—argue that diversity offices aren't transparent about their spending and can point to precious few metrics to demonstrate what they've accomplished.

Amid the criticism, tight budgets, and administrative flip-flops, universities are likely to continue to innovate to try to find the best structure. "There's no clear mold," says Diana I. Córdova, a vice president at the American Council on Education, and an expert on diversity issues.

Last year Cornell University decided it didn't need a chief diversity officer at all. Instead it has a team of five diversity officers, each responsible for a separate unit: academics, undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs, faculty, and staff. Lynette Chappell-Williams, associate vice president for inclusion and work-force diversity, says Cornell adopted the model after hearing stories from campuses elsewhere about the challenges faced by an individual shouldering the entire diversity effort.

"It's easy to shoot the messenger," she says. "But when you have more than one person as the messenger, and you keep hearing the same messages coming from different voices, it's amazing what impact that has."

When a controversy or crisis arises, the five officers can be reached through a single e-mail address. Sometimes they'll chat online to reach consensus on a big decision.

The most scathing critique of diversity offices from an insider may have come in 2008, when Evelyn Hu-DeHart, a history professor who is director of Brown University's Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, argued at a conference that the very presence of chief diversity officers has allowed presidents and provosts to shed their own responsibility for a lack of diversity on campus.

"Walk away from your job as it is and renegotiate," she said, as quoted in a Chronicle article. Ms. Hu-DeHart was traveling internationally and was unavailable for comment.

Most campuses still have one person in charge of diversity—even if there is uncertainty about what that individual should be responsible for. The changes at UConn "dramatically destabilized" the diversity office and led some people to question the university's commitment to diversity, writes Mr. Williams, the author. (He was assistant vice provost at UConn before leaving, in 2008, to become chief diversity officer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.)

UConn changed the title of the diversity office's leader from vice provost to vice president in 2009—to reflect the office's no longer having much academic responsibility—and elevated the affirmative-action officer to the vice presidency. Last year a new interim provost overhauled the office yet again, appointing Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar, a historian of black nationalism, as vice provost for diversity. But the office remains a shadow of its former self, with the academic and international units now housed elsewhere.

Mr. Ogbar says the restructuring makes sense because it puts academic units, including ethnic and international studies, into the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, where most professors are tenured. Student cultural centers now report to student affairs, joining such groups as fraternities and sororities.

Many campus-diversity offices started back in the 1960s or 70s with a single minority-affairs director, whose focus was to get more underrepresented minority students on the campuses and make sure that minority candidates weren't discriminated against in the hiring process. But Benjamin D. Reese Jr., vice president for the Office for Institutional Equity at Duke University and president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, says the task for today's top diversity officers is much different.

"Back then it was all about breaking through structural and societal barriers," he says. "Now the work is much more strategic in trying to create an environment in which all students can gain the kind of skills they need to prepare for diverse environments."

In previous decades, diversity officials were often tightly linked with their colleagues in student affairs. But colleges are increasingly tapping faculty members for the top diversity job, since much of the work focuses on faculty hiring, changes in the curriculum, and evaluating research related to student surveys on campus climate and student engagement.

"If you don't have a faculty background, you're going to have some trouble," says Lisa M. McBride, who in May became the first diversity officer at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. She taught criminology at Tallahassee Community College before taking her first top diversity post, at California University of Pennsylvania, in 2009.

Ms. McBride acknowledges that she could run into trouble anyway, as do some chief diversity officers in newly created offices. "You have to produce," she says. "These are jobs where you see a lot of turnover because the expectations are so great."

Many diversity chiefs note that their primary role is to inspire, or, if necessary, cajole others into making diversity a priority.

Valarie King is retiring as director of the Office of Diversity Initiatives at the University of Central Florida this summer, after 19 years on the job. The university won an award for institutional excellence from the national diversity officers association this year, but Ms. King, unlike many newer diversity officers, doesn't have "vice" in her title. She has to build relationships to get things done.

She worked closely with the faculty over several years, pushing them to work 21 "cultural competencies" into the curriculum, with the expectation that each student would be exposed to all of them by graduation. Examples include "Recognize instances in which you have stereotyped others" and "Use inclusive language in classroom, social, and professional settings."

Ms. King is proud of that accomplishment, but she also realizes that the major decisions affecting campus diversity—whether to modify the curriculum, whom to admit, which faculty members to hire—are out of her hands.

"I would not feel totally responsible if things went wrong, and I wouldn't want to accept total credit if things went right," she says. "The way our structure is set up, it's a real collaboration."

But if diversity offices don't hold themselves accountable for meeting measurable objectives, say critics, how can colleges evaluate whether they're getting a good return on the money they spend each year on diversity programs?

"I'm constantly looking for this kind of information, and I've never been able to find it," says Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, which has opposed racial preferences in admissions. "That doesn't mean that there aren't colleges here and there that are doing this kind of examination, but if they are, they're doing it very secretively."

Ms. Córdova, of the American Council on Education, responds that most administrative units, including student affairs, face similar challenges. "It's very hard to track return on investment for any specific function or unit within a university," she says.

Diversity offices were among the first to take budget cuts when the economy fell apart, in 2008, she adds. But conservative critics argue that colleges continued spending on diversity even as other programs were cut during the recession.

Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative group, last fall denounced the University of California at San Diego for creating a new position—vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion—at a time when the institution was facing budget cuts. "Campus leaders established this post even as state budget cuts resulted in the loss of star scientists to competing universities, as humanities classes and degree programs were eliminated to save money, and as tuition continued its nearly 75 percent, five-year rise," she wrote in a magazine published by the institute.

Lee Hansen, an emeritus professor of economics at Wisconsin and a longtime critic of spending on diversity programs, estimated on his own Web site in May that the university had spent $500-million on programs for minority and disadvantaged students over the past 15 years.

"I've done numerous open-records requests, and it's hard to find much of anything to determine if these programs are successful," he says. "The question is, What have we achieved?"

Damon Williams, the university's vice provost for diversity and climate, says he can't confirm Mr. Hansen's numbers. But he says diversity spending should be considered in the context of the university's roughly $3-billion annual budget.

Trying to calculate diversity spending is "very complex," he says, since the money is spent by admissions, financial aid, student affairs, and various other entities. "It would become an abstract exercise to try to pull those things out," he says.

Mr. Williams declines to specify the annual operating budget for his own office, noting that it isn't broken out in the "red book," Wisconsin's budget document, from other spending within the provost's office. And some other top diversity officials are similarly reluctant to share such information. When Mr. Reese, at Duke, was asked for his office's annual budget, he responded, "I don't want to share the budget without presidential approval."

Mr. Williams says the conservative critics of diversity offices are too wedded to thinking from the 1990s, when the operations were more sharply focused on recruiting and retaining black and Hispanic students.

These days, he says, inclusion of diverse experiences is a main goal. He recently visited New York University, for example, which just spent tens of millions of dollars building a Center for Spiritual Life, which includes rooms for prayer, yoga, and meditation.

And as Wisconsin and other universities build out the infrastructure for offering MOOCs (massive open online courses), he says, they should ensure that low-income people, who tend to use the Internet via phones, aren't excluded.

Should such expenditures be considered part of a campus's diversity spending? Mr. Williams thinks so.

"Diversity doesn't reside in one office anymore," he says. "And those who try to make it as such are missing the point of the world we live in."