It has become fashionable to explore the "best practices" among diversity initiatives in
hopes that what works at one college can be transferred to others. But based on my experience over four decades with diversity programs, including participation in three national studies of best practices, it's apparent to me that those practices rarely are evaluated adequately or include contextual information needed to determine whether they would be effective elsewhere. For example, a faculty-recruitment program declared as a "best practice" may simply reflect a campus that already has a
welcoming climate and a critical mass of faculty members of color.
Thus, even though I usually frame ideas in a positive light, I have decided that it is more productive to identify what I think are the "worst practices" that colleges need to avoid. They include:
Giving the planning phase short shrift. To put a diversity initiative in motion, institutional leaders often appoint a committee representing various campus constituencies to generate recommendations. While that may seem to be a sensible approach, it has serious drawbacks because it skips or truncates the planning phase. Many people - department heads, faculty members, and administrators - will have to carry out the diversity initiative, and a sense of ownership among them, from the beginning, is essential. A broad consensus early on can prevent confusion and conflict later, and it can be easily accomplished by asking the committee first to develop a plan for how the diversity initiative will proceed before making specific recommendations.
Neglecting helpful expertise. Unfortunately, campuses tend to have a silo mentality when developing diversity initiatives and don't reach out to external experts. But colleagues from other campuses have planned and carried out similar efforts and are willing to share what they have learned. Authors of books and national studies about diversity would be happy to share their findings. Many higher-education associations and external consultants have worked on relevant programs with other campuses. Members of the diversity committee need to know that they have the resources to call on such experts, visit other campuses, and attend conferences that shed light on the issues they are grappling with.
Ignoring the campus climate. Analyses of campus diversity that are based solely on the demographics of underrepresented groups tend to neglect the environments in which the members of those groups must live and work. If a college's psychology or music department has no more faculty members of color now than it did in the 1970s, it is time to examine the atmosphere within each of those departments and how it may make them unattractive to certain groups.
Not establishing a clear rationale. The purpose of the diversity initiative should be connected to the college's mission; otherwise, the unmistakable message is that diversity concerns are not important. Forward-thinking campuses often take a page from the private sector and develop a "business case" that links diversity to institutional success. Other colleges focus on how diversity can enhance student-learning outcomes.
If the language of an institution's mission statement doesn't lend itself to supporting campus diversity, it should be updated. For example, one university discovered that its mission statement referred to promoting "tolerance for diversity," language that is unlikely to be attractive to members of underrepresented groups.
Proceeding without assessment. Often colleges put attractive "best practices" in place without first documenting what improvements are needed, where, and why. That makes it impossible to determine which factors are detracting from or enhancing diversity and whether new solutions are having their desired effects. A well-designed assessment program should generate benchmarks that allow an institution to regularly re-evaluate its programs and policies. Knowledge that reassessment will occur a couple of years after implementing new diversity programs also encourages people to maintain the long-term focus and resolve that are required to keep those programs working - or to change them if they are not.
Using faulty assessment methodology. Conducting a campuswide diversity assessment is a major undertaking, and if it fails to produce valid and useful data, people will not want to repeat the process anytime soon. In some diversity assessments, for example, students of color but not white students are surveyed, making it impossible to know whether the results are characteristic of students of color or of students more generally.
Other serious problems can arise from a lack of methodological expertise. One campus recently administered a thorough survey about the full spectrum of diversity issues, but, due to a heightened concern about confidentiality, did not ask respondents to identify their departmental affiliation. As a result, while the assessments did identify serious problems, it was impossible to know where corrective action was needed, and the larger initiative quickly fell apart.
Skimping on communication. How a college defines diversity and its importance to the campus needs to be explicit so there is no doubt about who and what issues are included. Colleges also need to communicate regularly about their diversity programs to multiple audiences in a variety of ways: presentations, written announcements, a dedicated Web site, posters, newsletters, and frequent reports to governance groups, unions, alumni, community groups, and so on.
In addition, top administrators should shape everyone's expectations about how long any new diversity initiatives might take, how much work they will require, what resources will be available, and how people can participate.
One large research university relied on memos to deans, directors, and department heads to communicate about a planned campus-climate survey concerning diversity, assuming that the information would be passed on to students, staff members, and faculty members. It was not, resulting in a low response rate to the survey and making any data that were obtained virtually unusable. Local teams had nothing to analyze and quickly disbanded; the larger diversity effort stalled and disappeared entirely over the summer break.
Underestimating the time required. A diversity initiative - including planning, assessment, analyzing and disseminating results, developing and carrying out corrective programs and policies, and then reassessment - can easily take four to five years. One challenge is to manage expectations about the long-haul nature of such an undertaking.
Another challenge is fitting all the activities into an academic year, especially when administrative staff members typically work on a 12-month basis and faculty members work on a nine-month basis. The consequence of those dissimilar work cycles is that campuswide diversity initiatives will proceed at different rates in different parts of the institution. Some people will be carrying out solutions while others are still collecting and analyzing data. As a result, administrative staff members can feel held back, while faculty members can feel rushed - and both groups feel as if their needs are being ignored by the larger initiative. Colleges should design the process so that the faculty members can begin their work sooner or participate on a 12-month basis. Alternatively, an initiative can begin with the understanding that various parts of the campus will move through the process at differing rates.
Not investing enough in staff and resources. Unfortunately, many campuses underestimate the effort that a major diversity initiative takes and assign the management of key aspects of it to the small staffs of those offices responsible for diversity programs and institutional research. One college, for example, used in-house staff members to administer a campuswide assessment and analyze the results, but then failed to add additional resources at critical times, leading to a long delay between the collection of the data and dissemination of the findings. As a result, the initiative lost momentum.
Diversity-committee members need to know that they will have enough staff support to organize meetings, arrange for presentations by off-campus visitors, and fulfill their other responsibilities. As the project progresses, a college should also consider adding staff members and resources, or outsourcing part of the work, to assure smooth coordination, well-crafted communications, competent assessments, and the successful completion of other tasks throughout the different phases of the initiative.
Overidentifying key leaders with the initiative. If diversity efforts are to have substantial impact, they should have the same time frame as a capital campaign - as long as five to 10 years. Unfortunately, the increasing turnover of campus leaders means that programs that one president begins can be undone by new leadership.
Top administrators must put their weight behind a diversity initiative to get it under way, but then must figure out how to imbed and build support for it over the long haul. That means that presidents must find a way to make a standing commitment to multiyear financial support, both for the initiative and for the staff members who will carry it out. They should also enlist the support of trustees to ensure that diversity efforts continue to thrive as a long-term campus commitment, even with the inevitable turnover in leadership.
The points that I've outlined are just some of the ways that a diversity initiative can unravel and fail. By recognizing and avoiding such bad practices - instead of striving for illusive "best" ones - institutions across the country will be more likely to create and carry out diversity initiatives that bring needed changes to their campuses.