A University System Makes a Big Push to Strengthen Diversity on Its Campuses

Mike Groll, AP Images

The State U. of New York is seeking to make its institutions more welcoming to underrepresented groups, and recruiting more minority faculty members will be part of that effort. “A diverse faculty is a magnet for a diverse student population,” said Nancy Zimpher, the system’s chancellor.
September 10, 2015

As growing numbers of Hispanic and first-generation students set their sights on college, the State University of New York is expected to approve a sweeping effort on Thursday to make campuses from Long Island to the foothills of the Adirondacks feel more welcoming to those and other diverse groups.

System trustees will vote on a policy that would place a chief diversity officer on each campus and provide a new tool that would allow students to voluntarily identify their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Over the past decade, enrollment among underrepresented minorities at SUNY campuses has grown from 14.7 percent to 23.8 percent of the total. While bringing a welcome blend to the university, the shift has strained the system because low-income and minority students have the lowest retention and graduation rates.

State funding formulas that base a portion of allocations on graduation and retention rates for minority and other students are putting even more pressure on SUNY to help diverse students succeed.

Meanwhile, universities like SUNY have been struggling recently to make inclusion a priority for an entire campus, not just the diversity officer or administrators confronted with a crisis.

That requires stepping up efforts to recruit more minority faculty members, SUNY administrators interviewed on Wednesday said.

“A diverse faculty is a magnet for a diverse student population,” said Nancy L. Zimpher, the system’s chancellor. And when a vacant presidency needs to be filled, “We will not let a search committee do an airport interview unless the candidate pool is diverse.”

SUNY’s new policy, which also calls for a range of programs to recruit and support a broad mix of students, faculty, and staff members, was developed by a task force appointed by the chancellor.

The panel met with SUNY and national experts, studied best practices at other universities, and mined the system’s data for clues to which groups were growing, which were struggling, and which needed more targeted supports.

Among the comprehensive diversity plans that influenced their work was one adopted by the University of Maryland at College Park.

“Inclusion goes beyond just making sure we meet our diversity commitments,” Alexander N. Cartwright, SUNY’s provost and executive vice chancellor, said in a written statement. “It also addresses the way that our students, faculty, and staff feel about being on campus every day. Are they respected? Do they feel supported? We want everyone who comes to SUNY to know that they are welcome and that they can succeed here.”

The policy’s sweeping definition of diversity covers race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and expression, age, and socioeconomic status. It also includes status as a veteran, first-generation, or transfer student, and whether or not someone has a disability.

‘We Can’t Wait Until Grade 13’

Getting minority and low-income students better prepared for college is one goal of about 50 early-college high schools the university system helps run. “To achieve the goals we want, we can’t wait until Grade 13,” Ms. Zimpher said.

The students filling that pipeline are also becoming more racially diverse. From 2008 to 2019, the number of Hispanic public high-school graduates in New York State is expected to increase by 13 percent, and the number of Asian or Pacific Island students by nearly 40 percent.

The system is also making a big push to make its campuses more welcoming to gay students.

Giving students the option of specifying their gender identity and sexual orientation “sends an important message that SUNY is a welcoming place for gay and lesbian students,” said Richard Socarides, a trustee who is nationally recognized for his advocacy on gay, lesbian, and transgender rights.

For gender identity, the new tool lets students choose from a list of options — man, woman, trans man, trans woman, genderqueer/gender-fluid, questioning, or unsure — or they can write in an identity. For sexual orientation, the options are straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, queer, and questioning or unsure. They can also write in an option for sexual orientation.

Once the university has a better sense of their numbers, Mr. Socarides said, “we can be smarter about making sure we have the right programs in place to support them.”

The challenges of diversity hit hardest at campuses far from major cities like New York and Buffalo, where many minority students grow up. The State University of New York at Potsdam is located in a rural setting near the Canadian border. The location can be a tough sell for a student from a close-knit Hispanic family in New York City.

The Potsdam campus sends buses to major cities in New York, bringing students and their parents up for orientations and offering transportation back and forth on holidays. A campus chef takes requests from students craving ethnic meals.

Such efforts appear to be paying off. The percentage of freshmen at Potsdam identifying as black, Hispanic, American Indian, Asian, or mixed race grew from 18 percent in 2010 to 42 percent this fall, campus officials said.

Thomas Mastro, president of the SUNY Student Assembly, said the new systemwide policy “allows all students to be counted and to have campuses held accountable for meeting their needs.”

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at