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How Colleges Measure the Return on Diversity

Brandon Wolfe

By Ben Gose

One would think the booming diversity industry in academe might lead to a surge in demand for consultants, to help colleges design strategies and deliver programming.

But campus officials say diversity consulting in higher education remains a niche business provided by a slew of small operators. There is no equivalent of McKinsey & Company, the management-consulting firm, in what many in academe have come to call "the diversity industry."

When Cornell University began to craft a comprehensive diversity plan several years ago, it brought in Estela Mara Bensimon, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California who studies racial equality in academe. Cornell used the Equity Scorecard assessment that she had developed to look broadly at areas where underrepresented minority students were lagging behind others, says Lynette Chappell-Williams, associate vice president for inclusion and work-force diversity.

"She created the foundation for what we have in place now," Ms. Chappell-Williams says.

But while Ms. Bensimon's work focused on undergraduates, Cornell decided it needed to take a broader approach to diversity. So the university conducted surveys to look at the experiences of minority professors, staff members, graduate and postdoctoral students, even nearby residents.

That analysis led Cornell to create a five-person team to oversee diversity, an unusual approach at a time when most universities have a single chief diversity officer. Through this "grass-roots model" of diversity management, Cornell now has 150 people, in three groups, who meet regularly to discuss diversity issues.

Meanwhile its reliance on consultants has waned, Ms. Chappell-Williams says. "Our feeling is that we have enough expertise at this stage."

Consultants can help colleges figure out what they're getting for the money they spend on their diversity efforts. Alan Richter, president of QED Consulting, which has developed benchmarks to help companies and colleges measure their diversity initiatives against best practices, says diversity goals should be part of campuswide strategic plans. Surveys can then determine how welcoming the campus is—not only to underrepresented minority students, but also to disabled, gay and lesbian, and international students.

"It's hard to measure the effectiveness of a diversity office in isolation," Mr. Richter says. "But you can measure the whole initiative by assessing the stature of the university in the community."

Edward E. Hubbard, a diversity consultant who works with companies and some colleges, has developed a formula for calculating a "return on investment" from diversity work. But the majority of his clients are corporations, and some college officials say his formulas don't always translate well to nonprofit higher education. "The challenge for universities is that we don't have a traditional bottom line, so it's difficult to connect some of his principles," Ms. Chappell-Williams says.

The evolution of diversity work on campuses—from the narrower task of helping minority students get into college and succeed, to the broader one of preparing all students to succeed in a diverse society—has prompted changes at a number of higher-education groups.

Eight years ago, the shifting landscape prompted Black Issues in Higher Education, a magazine that had been publishing for more than two decades, to change its name to Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and broaden its reporting accordingly. The American Council on Education reframed its diversity efforts a year ago, replacing the Center for Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity with the Inclusive Excellence Group.

"We wanted to have an organizational structure that reflected the richness and broadness of diversity these days," says Diana I. Córdova, a council vice president and an expert on diversity issues.

Many diversity executives say their most significant source of information for staying current in the field is the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. It was founded in 2006, shortly after the trend of hiring chief diversity officers began to take off. The association and the American Psychological Association jointly publish the scholarlyJournal of Diversity in Higher Education. The diversity-officers' group also holds an annual meeting that coincides with the that of the American Council on Education.

"It's really the think tank for diversity in higher education," says Lisa M. McBride, chief diversity officer at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. She especially enjoys the round-table discussions at the annual meeting, where diversity officers share what's working and what isn't.

The networking and leadership opportunities provided by the diversity-officers' group may eventually help increase the persistently low numbers of college presidents who are black and Hispanic. In 2012, only 9.7 percent were black or Hispanic, down from 10.5 percent in 2007, according to the American Council on Education.

At least two former top diversity officers have gone on to become college presidents. Glen Jones, who became president of the diversity-officers' association while he was senior associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at Arkansas State University, was named president of Henderson State University, in Arkansas, last July. Nancy (Rusty) Barceló, a former vice president for equity and diversity in the University of Minnesota system, became president of Northern New Mexico College in July 2010.

"Those two hires have been critical," Ms. Córdova says. "It's a pipeline issue, and we're beginning to see some movement from the chief-diversity-officer position into the presidency."