Higher Education’s Misguided Obsession with Diversity Officers Julio A. Rodriguez-Rentas, M.A. Ali Jackson-Jolley, M.B.A.
America’s higher education institutions have a consistent response to addressing race scandals— they throw a diversity hire at the problem. In the face of mounting racial tension, or in the event of a discrimination reproach, college and university leaders look to carve out space at their leadership table for chief diversity officers. But as nationwide protests and race riots bubbled up in response to the gruesome killing of George Floyd, exposing the vicious cycle of racist and deadly force at the hands of law enforcement, our nation’s top higher education leaders awoke to the stark realization that they too had failed to do their part in addressing systemic racism. From the annals of academia, the response was swift. A decisive call for societal change was needed. Though diversity officers have proven to be ineffective forces of change, more than a month later, they are still universities’ modus operandi. The verdict is still out as to whether anything will improve for black college students and students of color.
Growing Number of Diversity Officers Rapidly growing in numbers, diversity officers are put into place to support marginalized populations, including students who identify as Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). This creates more diverse, inclusive and equitable environments that benefit the entire college community. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, nearly two-thirds of all U.S. higher education institutions now have a diversity officer on staff—30 percent of these positions were created in the past five years. Yet, despite the trend toward hiring diversity officers, institutions have seen little change. For example, a recent study by the Hispanic Journal of Law and Policy found that U.S. colleges have not seen substantial growth in racial diversity among faculty members over the past decade. This is particularly jarring at research institutions where the number of
Black tenured faculty grew by one-tenth of a percent during that time. Similarly, the number of Latinx and Hispanic faculty members grew by less than 1 percent. We fully recognize one of the daunting hurdles in the way of improved faculty diversity is the dearth of BIPOC doctoral degree holders—particularly in the areas of math, science and research. Still, this woefully low representation of BIPOC Ph.D. candidates (which is being addressed at the K-12, undergraduate and graduate levels) is not the entire problem. To add a layer of complexity to the issue, among the colleges and universities without a diversity officer, university presidents have suddenly been bombarded with impassioned cries of “we need one, we need one now!” But in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic (and subsequent economic downturn and budget hardships), the calls for change have been answered with, “Although important, we simply don’t have the resources.” Herein lies the problem. The solution for real systemic change cannot be bought with a single salary. It cannot rest with one person. When universities fail to make change under the pretext of not having the funds or a diverse pool of candidates from which they can hire diverse staff members, they are blind to the fact that money is not the only solution.
Diversity Is Not a One-Person Job We are not arguing that having no diversity officer is better than having one. To be clear, the problem does not lie with the diversity officer. Rather the problem is with the unreasonable expectations placed on one executive. Unfortunately, no matter how much some may tend to think it doesn’t exist, racial-ethnic bias and equity issues are as American as apple pie—they are ingrained into the very fiber of American identity. Have we made progress as a nation? Yes. Have community colleges and public higher education institutions made some major gains in this area? Yes. But what about the social disparities that do not help BIPOC succeed? Do we all just sit back and say think, “that is bad,” but then do nothing about it? It is naive at best, disingenuous at worst, to rely on a diversity officer to single-handedly unravel centuries of bias culture. Creating an inclusive environment, facilitating multicultural content in curricula and campus programming, attracting and hiring a diverse staff, and recruiting a diverse student body is not a one-person job. The diversity officer is a bandage, a quick fix to assuage BIPOC students, faculty and staff. But over time, often, the diversity officer becomes the scapegoat: ill equipped and under supported, ultimately set up to fail at enacting the change necessary to move the needle. To truly address the enduring issue of systemic inequity, everyone across the university community needs to take ownership of the problem.