Interim Placements as Agents of Change to Enhance Diversity and Inclusion

Dr. Dorothy “Dee Dee” Campbell 
Interim Dean of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Nevada State College and
Dr. John Graham
Associate Provost for Student Affairs and University Life, SUNY Administration 

[Editor’s note: This article is the culmination of ideas and discussions between Dr. Campbell, Dr. Graham, and Chronicles’ editor Galen Hench following the recent Registry Annual Seminar.]

Registry interim administrators are often sought out because of the depth of their career experience and professional expertise, for their perspective as unbiased outsiders, and for their preparedness to serve as change agents. Perhaps as a result of these attributes, Registry interims are uniquely able to bring awareness to and act on sensitive matters during their placement that a permanent administrator may not. Examples that we will explore in this article relate to the sensitive matters of diversity and inclusion including unconscious bias, underexposure, and cross-cultural competency. The goal of this article is to enhance awareness of these and other topics so that our colleagues on assignment might be better prepared to serve as advocates on behalf of underrepresented minorities, and to bring about positive change that will extend beyond the interim’s period of service.

Speaking on a panel at the most recent Registry Annual Seminar, Registry member Dr. John Graham remarked that “diversity is about being invited to the dance, while inclusion is about being asked to dance once you get there.” This simple yet evocative metaphor reinforces what many underrepresented minority faculty and senior administrators may experience on college and university campuses. Chiefly, that diversity and inclusion programs may too often be only surface level: you might go to the dance, but you may be left sitting on the sidelines once you get there.

 Registry member Dr. Dorothy Campbell and others have labeled this phenomenon in part as unconscious bias. Acts of unconscious bias may be carried out by the very faculty and staff who are themselves advocating for greater inclusion of underrepresented minorities in the administration’s ranks. Colleges and universities often emphasize the importance of diversity and inclusion in their written and spoken statements; language about the importance of both may appear in the institution’s vision statement, in the strategic plan, in faculty handbooks, or in various informal communications. Yet despite those affirming messages, underrepresented minority staff and faculty may find themselves unintentionally marginalized. For example, minority faculty and staff may be excluded from impromptu social events such as happy-hours or other after-hours gatherings. As a result, those faculty and staff are omitted from insider information and networks, limiting their potential for professional development and growth within the institution. This could leave underrepresented minorities who have been omitted to congregate among themselves and to form independent social and professional groups, which they may then be criticized for doing.

Unconscious biases may also negatively influence the institution’s success in hiring new faculty and staff from underrepresented groups. It is commonly known that people tend to hire those who are more similar to themselves than not. Although the goals and objectives set by hiring managers may be clear, hiring committees may default to selecting finalists who may look like them or share a similar cultural background, who have experience from a similar institution or research field, or who can fit the needs of a specific member of a department as opposed to the college or university at large.  Attracting, recruiting, and onboarding diverse candidates must be intentional, and the negative influence of these “affinity factors” must be addressed continually so that their influence is mitigated.

In addition to unconscious bias, Dr. Graham highlights a second pervasive phenomena that undermines the efficacy of diversity and inclusion programs: underexposure. Broadly, underexposure can be thought of as the lack of awareness or knowledge of other cultures. The consequences of underexposure are most often felt by members of the underrepresented minority groups because they are most often left out of campus decision-making processes. As a result, even policies which are meant to have a positive effect on the campus community may inadvertently cause harm to underrepresented minority groups within the institution.

Consider the case at one college where a Registry interim was serving. At this college, the campus administration conceived of a policy designed to help students feel safer when they traveled home after evening classes. The policy called for members of campus security to follow students home, akin to a security detail. The Registry interim, who themselves is an underrepresented minority, raised concerns about the program. As a result of further investigation by the interim, the college’s leadership team learned that although the policy made most white students feel safer, the policy made most students of color feel less safe and more marginalized.

As more and more campuses become diverse at the student level, we should be alarmed that the hiring of diverse faculty and staff have not kept up. According to a 2016 CUPA-HR study, the proportion of college and university graduates who were members of a minority group was approximately 26.7%. However, the survey also revealed that just 14% of senior administrators in academia were members of an underrepresented minority group (Seltzer, 2017)[1]. The divide between the proportion of underrepresented minority students and their representative faculty, staff, and administrators looms as an ongoing concern in higher education, particularly at a time when student retention is so critical.

How then can colleges and universities expect to meet the needs of their underrepresented faculty, staff, and students? Within the scope of this article, one recommendation that we make to current and future interim leaders is to adopt the philosophy of the “Triple-C”, or cross-cultural competency. At the heart of this philosophy is a mindfulness that we are all primed with an inter-cultural bias, which is influenced by factors such as where we grew up, where we went to school, where we work, and what media we consume. Developing cross-cultural awareness is rooted in the practice of shared experiences and seeking out new perspectives that may not necessarily align with your own presumptions.

At times, we may make assumptions that simply because administrators, faculty, and staff look alike on the outside that they must share similar cultural backgrounds, which is erroneous. As higher education administrators, it is vital that we recognize the distinctions among all in order to bring the institution forward with a refined sense of self-awareness and cross-cultural competency.

Interim leaders are not expected to completely reinvent institutional culture in their short time on assignment. However, the interim can change the conversation by introducing vital discussions in a strategic and non-defensive manner. Registry interims can bring awareness to cross-cultural competencies within decision-making processes and can instill that philosophy among the teams they inherit and subsequently leave them stronger.

[1] Seltzer, R. (2017, March 2) Failing to Keep Up. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/03/02/racial-gap-among-senior-administrators-widens

 

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