6 higher ed leaders sound off about diversity and civility on campus


Diversity and civility as concepts have been difficult for higher education to reconcile. There are varying definitions on each, and the terms can be politically loaded. For some, they represent an attempt at blanketed oppression.

As the U.S. population becomes increasingly less white, higher education, an industry which was not built on inclusion, must figure out how to become more inclusive — and quickly — if it is members are to thrive and survive in a highly competitive market, experts agree.

Part of supporting a diverse group of students is hiring a critical mass of non-white faculty members and administrators. But when the University of Missouri experienced protests by black students demanding the hiring of more black faculty members in 2015, some questioned the feasibility of the request

As of this year, 76% of American faculty members are white, and many institutions are still struggling to recognize the importance of recruiting more faculty members of color, incorporate more representative texts into the curricula and better support faculty and staff of color, many of whom report similar stresses as the student population, various groups say. 

Education Dive caught up with six industry leaders who participated in diversity and civility institutes recently hosted by the Council of Independent Colleges to try to leverage collective thinking power to solve challenges being faced on campuses across the country. Here are the things they had to say about their institutions mainly on the topic of diversity. Comments have been edited for clarity.

Theodore Mason, associate provost for diversity, equity and inclusion and special assistant to the president, Kenyon University

One of the challenges to doing work on questions of diversity and civility at liberal arts campuses is that sometimes you begin to think about what you want to do in strategic ways, and what that means is that the desires are framed at a relatively high level of abstraction.

We’re really interested in the connection between diversifying the curriculum and diversifying the faculty, recognizing that really can’t be top down nor do we want it to be.

I do think that sometimes at postsecondary institutions, the idea of civility demands a level of hyper-rationality that is not appropriate to some of the things that we are talking about. So then you have to ask what work your insistence on civility does in that moment. Is it there being invoked as a way to get us deeper on a certain topic, or is it there being invoked to keep us on the surface?

The demand for civility becomes a kind of premature cloture that forecloses discussion precisely because if you imagine that civility as a conversation without much emotion, because everybody has to be in control, then that’s really a way of ruling out responses to racism, sexism, misogyny or homophobia, which can be really emotional things. We really shouldn’t be debating racism.

Gerardo Ochoa, assistant dean for diversity and community partnerships, Linfield College

We had a big incident on campus spring 2017 where we had Jordan Peterson, a professor from Canada who was identified as transphobic. This speaker was invited by a group of students that, in a lot of opinions, were not really trying to advance civil discourse; they were trying to instigate. That prompted a need to have more intentional conversations, so we provided an opportunity for learning and also to explore whether in some ways incivility is needed as well.

There’s no agreement that diversity and civility have to go hand in hand. [But] we’re getting some pushback on the subject of civility. We don’t have a solution [but] we do believe that we need to be able to provide different types of learning institutions for students.

I don’t think we’ve been able to define what civility means. Was it a term that was created by white people to keep people of color in their place? There is no agreement. We’d like to think that everybody understands what civility means, but it doesn’t mean the same thing for every person, particularly for marginalized communities. It depends a lot on who’s demanding civility and who’s not.

We want critical thinkers, right? We have diverse pedagogies, we have diversity plans, but we want civility and we challenge students to think about this.

Debbie Cottrell, vice president for academic affairs, Texas Lutheran University

We haven’t had a holistic effort to diversity and inclusion on our campus. We want to increase the diversity of our faculty. Like many schools, our faculty is not as diverse as it should be.

We’re a [Hispanic-serving institution]. Just a little bit more than half of our students are historically minority students, but the diversity of our faculty has been mostly flat.

To this point, my work with our search chairs over the last six years, every year, [has been] done more around diversity. I’ve asked search chairs to read articles, I’ve talked to them about goals we should be mindful of.

I’m going to shift and strengthen our guidelines for search committees so that we really do take some steps that will be a required part of the process to make sure our pools are more diverse. My appointee on the committee is going to take the role of being the diversity advocate, implementing more training for the search committee to really institutionalize diversity within our search process.

Ultimately, our goal is to influence the institution’s strategic plan…working and preparing to have diversity have its appropriate place in that. [But] there also needs to be more curricular input to address not just diversity and equity but also civility issues.

Julia Jasken, provost and dean of the faculty, McDaniel College

The biggest ‘aha moment’ … was the importance of place for students, and sort of the importance that students feel regarding the physicality of spaces for themselves. We don’t have a space that is a multicultural center. We have a diversity office and a wonderful staff member in that office, and students hang out in his office. But we don’t have a physical space on campus, and hearing from other campuses how much that’s meant to them was eye opening for us.

This fall, we have a day scheduled where we are going to be doing some professional development opportunities with our entire faculty, and we’re working on moving forward with some training that’s going to happen for all of the employees at the college. There is a significance in how faculty engage students of color, certain ways of responding, holding them to high standards, and letting them know that you have the confidence that they can meet those standards, and how impactful even small interactions with faculty in positive ways were for those students.

The other thing that we are planning on working on over the course of this year is a value statement that really focuses on diversity and free speech institutionally. That’s not something that we have, and we really feel that developing the whole process is almost as important as the final product, in terms of the opportunity for people to come together and think about free speech on campus and develop a campus culture that we’re really proud of.

We’re discovering the importance of being proactive and taking the time to think through what will we do as an institution, what would we do as an institution in certain situations. The importance of not waiting until something happens to figure out how to move forward.

Anne Skleder, senior vice president and provost, Wilkes University

We’ve had a focus on access since our founding, and in recent years, we’ve really been focusing on inclusion, equity and diversity.

What we’ve realized is students don’t see as much diversity in our curriculum as we think we have, and we think that’s partially because we don’t articulate it as well as we could, in our course descriptions, etcetera. It’s there, but if they don’t take the class, they never know it.

We’re working with faculty and HR to make sure our pools are as diverse as possible better advertising and more intentional recruitment, but also focusing on retention.

Our surveys have shown that while the students feel that faculty and staff for the most part are welcoming to them, respectful of them, that sometimes the challenge that they have is with their fellow students and that’s a really thorny challenge. We have to engage our student government, our many, many clubs, including those specifically designed around multicultural identity.

Michael Nixon, vice president for diversity and inclusion, Andrews University

One of the things I’ve noticed is that a lot of our different campuses have gone through similar things over the last three to five years, particularly as it relates to having student uprising on our campuses. Not being the only person who doesn’t have answers to some of these things I thought was encouraging. 

We’re working on making sure we have a framework for resilience in our framework for civil discourse. It’s important to also empower our students to understand that although we are going to make sure that folks are respectful in sharing their viewpoints, they will come across, either professors or peers, who disagree with them. That’s a component that we weren’t thinking about as much as an institute, but we are thinking about that now.

It’s important to allow different people on your campus to affirm their identity first making sure we’re creating every opportunity to celebrate diverse people and groups and giving them an opportunity to affirm their identities can help them feel more a part of our bigger community.



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