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The Attributes of a Diversity President

A college or university in search of a chief executive officer has the opportunity to make a statement regarding diversity.
University Business, Aug 2006

At a recent meeting of chief diversity officers, a few of us reflected on the attributes of a "diversity president." In my contribution, I noted that a university president who champions diversity, who personifies the ideals of diversity, and who strives to make diversity a reality for his or her institution qualifies as a diversity president.

That conversation led us to ask what it is about diversity that a university community should look for in candidates aspiring to the top position.

This question is important particularly in an environment characterized by changing student demography and increasing diversity. It is important in an institution that is genuinely searching for ways to bring about concrete progress on its diversity agenda. The question is also important at an institution where leaders and constituents are tired of erratic, pendulous returns on investment in diversity initiatives. As I was reminded at the meeting, concern about what to look for in a presidential candidate is important in a society with increasingly sophisticated, but superficial, textbook answers to critical questions about human diversity.

Diversity progress will depend upon the courage, the commitment, and the determination of the institution's CEO.

It is to be expected that most, if not all, candidates for the president's position would profess their beliefs in and commitment to diversity, confess that society has not done enough, and pledge to bring about significant progress on institutional diversity initiatives. But how do we sift the chaff from the wheat?

Somewhere in this country today, a new leader is making the pledge to advance institutional diversity, perhaps with a deep conviction, perhaps just to placate the naive. Admittedly, the goal of and the means for achieving a vibrant diverse university are difficult and challenging. However, diversity progress in higher education institutions depends very much upon the courage, commitment, and determination of the chief executive officer who practices self-accountability and holds other unit leaders to the same level of accountability.

Institutions looking for a diversity president may find the following guidelines useful:

1) Definition of Diversity. Diversity presidents have a comprehensive definition of diversity. If we cannot define it, we certainly cannot measure it. There are many interest groups on every campus, with each group striving for institutional attention and resources. Almost always, each group complains that diversity progress on campus has not sufficiently included its agenda. Therefore, it behooves a university leader to have a working definition that is inclusive and that addresses societal needs.

2) Diversity Vision. Diversity presidents embrace inclusive excellence as their diversity vision. By inclusive excellence, I mean the continuing efforts to integrate the human family toward greater knowledge generation, knowledge transmission, and service that is directed toward world peace and elimination of poverty, prejudice, and injustice. Inclusive excellence also entails the promotion and realization of the best that only human diversity provides.

The presence of diverse populations on university campuses is only the beginning of the journey toward an inclusive community. Diversity presidents have a vision of societal progress that is based on a better integration of the human family and a greater focus on humanity as a whole. Also, diversity presidents communicate this vision in a manner that is believable and persuasive.

3) Diversity Commitment. Diversity presidents confess their commitment to diversity with every opportunity available to them. In the interview process, they can produce several public statements, lectures, and keynote addresses that reveal the importance of diversity to them. College presidents have track records either as deans, provosts, or other senior administrative positions. Usually, these positions provide abundant opportunities for public communication of values and vision. Hence, a leader's commitment to diversity can be deciphered from the repeated emphasis on this course.

4) Diversity Knowledge. Diversity presidents have undertaken diversity workshops and conferences. They are familiar with materials and books on diversity issues. They can recall inspiring speeches and lessons learned from them. No one obtains diversity knowledge through osmosis, and the fact that a presidential candidate is a member of an underrepresented group is not a sufficient indication that the candidate possesses diversity knowledge.

5) Curricular Leadership. Admittedly, the current environment of higher education, characterized by increasing financial constraints, the increasing call for accountability, the increasing agitation about college tuition, and the increasing expectation for presidents to raise funds from private sources compels university presidents to focus more attention on the business aspects of their institutions. Consequently, today's generation of university presidents seems to focus less attention on curricular issues as compared with university presidents of many generations ago.

Therefore, institutions that are successful in developing diversity courses and integrating diversity content into the existing curricula demonstrate effective leadership, of which presidential leadership is a critical component. Hence, diversity presidents can attest to their curricular reform efforts and they can describe obstacles to watch out for and strategies that would lead to success in new settings.

6) Organizational Achievements. Diversity presidents have evidence to substantiate their commitments. They have personally hired staff with diverse backgrounds. They have mentored and promoted people with diverse backgrounds. They have set up diversity committees, established or approved diversity plans, and held unit leaders accountable for diversity progress. They can attest to the level of resources they have allocated toward diversity agendas.

Diversity presidents confront the comfortable to make room for the uncomfortable.

Diversity presidents can point clearly to organizational changes they have initiated and implemented to further a diversity vision. In short, these presidents have evidence to show. They can talk about where they have failed and what lessons they have learned.

7) Diversity Transformation. Diversity presidents have personal stories to tell about their transformation. They can recall their own narrow socialization while growing up and point out experiences that forced their minds open. They can describe their personal struggles from being a single-issue diversity believer to one who embraces humanity in all its shortcomings, glories, and promises. They can show how their diversity agendas expanded over time.

In addition, they can discuss how they moved from concern about inequity among groups as the sole determinant of their diversity efforts toward concern for educational excellence and institutional effectiveness as the basis for their investments in diversity initiatives.

Of all the characteristics of diversity presidents, personal transformation is perhaps the most important in demonstrating credibility and invoking followership. Diversity presidents are culturally aware. They are comfortable in interacting with people from diverse cultures and economic backgrounds and they are active in promoting and supporting an inclusive and a welcoming environment.

8) Diversity Courage. Diversity presidents demonstrate an unusual courage to challenge the status quo. They confront the comfortable to make room for the uncomfortable. They become a voice for the voiceless and offer hope for the hopeless. Their focus is on the emancipation of humanity as a whole, not only justice for one group of people.

The temptation to adopt cultural events on campus to placate interest groups is great in higher education. Some ceremonial diversity events have little or no substantive impact on institutional diversity. It takes courage to redirect funds from these events toward activities that bring about real progress and do so without de-emphasizing the importance of cultural events. In some institutions, it may take courage to challenge diversity event planners to make their events relevant to all students' educational experiences.

As an ACE fellow at Carnegie Mellon University (Pa.), I was amazed by the courage of the president, who canceled a popular holiday in favor of a campuswide cultural/educational program that made the observation of the holiday a "day on" rather than a "day off." When the university observed the public holiday, only a few people attended the cultural events. But under the new arrangement, a great number participated enthusiastically. President Jared Cohen's personal involvement in the program and his desire to make the event a truly cultural/educational one led to the success of the change effort.

Of course, the list of attributes provided above is by no means exhaustive. But understanding the questions that may reveal key attributes in candidates will be helpful to a university community in search of strong diversity leadership.

Indeed, what is said about the diversity president is also true for all unit leaders: provosts, deans, department chairs, and vice presidents. Those who aspire to major leadership positions in an increasingly diverse society, and certainly all of us who are expected to function as professionals in this type of setting, should find the list a starting point. It allows us to ruminate over our preparedness to be allies, advocates, and diversity change agents dedicated to the creation of a more welcoming and inclusive institutional environment.

Steve O Michael is vice provost for diversity and academic initiatives and a professor of higher education administration at Kent State University(Ohio).

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