The Intersection: Jun 2016

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Diversity on Campus: Phase Two

The last two years may have brought high-profile news coverage of campus protests about the racial climate in America’s colleges, but we’re entering a new phase when it comes to diversity issues on campus.

Protests have spawned optimistic inclusion plans aimed at remaking campus culture. At Princeton, the University of Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Pomona and countless other schools around the country, college presidents have either announced or are preparing to announce ambitious initiatives that respond to high-profile student protests about race on campus. Promises are being made related to faculty diversity, tenure standards, student diversity, resources for student organizations, and new curriculum.

Set Realistic Goals

But as they set expectations with their constituents, college presidents and administrators need to be mindful about implementing those plans. Are the programs workable? Can administrators actually achieve the targets they’ve set for themselves?

These are the questions that will shape the next phase of coverage regarding the racial climate on campus. And despite the good intentions driving the goals inherent to these plans, the data—and political and economic landscape—would suggest that meeting them is going to be a challenge. Or at least will require creativity.

The ranks of soon-to-be faculty of color—that is the number of existing Ph.D. candidates of color—are insufficient to meet demand. To put this in some perspective: In 2014, African-Americans accounted for just 6.4 percent of all Ph.D.s, and black Ph.D.s were in even shorter supply in STEM fields than across other disciplines.

Complicating matters further, the very fact that this shortage exists is evidence to many of the structural inequities of our education system. As Colleen Flaherty writes in Inside Higher Ed, a successful diversity plan “will involve not only bringing more black faculty members to campus, but also address the climate issues that will influence whether they stay there.”

Impact of financial pressures

While the U.S. Supreme Court’s Fisher ruling alleviates considerable uncertainty about the future of race as a factor in admissions decisions, it is far from a panacea for those seeking greater diversity on campus. The financial pressures that colleges face demand tough choices from administrators trying to fill their classes, let alone shape their make-up. At the University of Illinois (where the state faces an acute budget crisis), international students particularly Chinese students with the resources to pay out-of-state tuition—outnumber in-state domestic students of color. And the net tuition pressure on independent colleges has forced discounting to record levels, an effort that often aids middle- and high-income students over need-based aid for low-income students—and students of color.

Amid these new realities, the most prestigious colleges and universities—those with robust endowments—have a clear leg up in their quest to meet inclusion goals.

Manage Expectations

For everyone else, administrators need to carefully manage expectations. Doing so need not equate to down-grading goals, but it certainly requires transparency about how they can be achieved, and what trade-offs may be required along the way.

Expect campuses to emphasize curricular changes and new programming. Some will seek out partnerships with other institutions. Still others will recruit visiting professors who can add new perspectives and points of view, if only on a temporary basis. And presidents will—and should—intensify their rhetorical emphasis on diversity and inclusion. The bully pulpit still matters when it comes to setting priorities.

But most importantly, it’s essential that campus leaders engage key on-campus constituents in the development of realistic inclusion plans. They will need to be transparent about the challenges faced in meeting demographic targets. And be selective and strategic when launching resource-dependent initiatives.

The question is not whether campus leaders should act on diversity and inclusion, but how they align their strategy to campus-specific realities of resources, culture and political environment.

Jonathan Coffin

Senior Vice President

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