Leadership & Governance

Video: Calculating the Return on Diversity

Benjamin Ola. Akande, Westminster College (Mo.)

January 07, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza

Singing "Kumbaya" with students and professors of every race and ethnicity doesn’t interest Benjamin Ola. Akande as much as does seeing results — on recruitment, for example, and retention. The population of even a small campus can reflect society, he says. For Westminster College in Missouri, where he is the new president, that means conducting a diversity audit, focusing on faculty members, and not buying talent but trying to grow it, cultivating young scholars “on the upside of their careers.” Mr. Akande, a Nigerian-born economist, visited The Chronicle's newsroom recently to share his constructive impatience and his eagerness to challenge the status quo.


SARA LIPKA: I'm here today with Benjamin Ola. Akande, president of Westminster College. The oldest Westminster is that right.

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SARA LIPKA: In Missouri. Thank you so much for being here.

BENJAMIN OLA. AKANDE: It's good to be here. Thank you for having me.

SARA LIPKA: Sure. So you are an economist. And you talk about the return on diversity. Tell me a little bit more about what you mean by that.

BENJAMIN OLA. AKANDE: I think institutions of higher learning today, as they look to reengage from a diversity perspective, or what I would also characterize as generational inclusiveness. That they need to think about what will be the return on that investment, on that change in strategy. And as economist I think is important for us to measure the impact of our actions. And when I think of return and diversity, I'm thinking of such things as how does it impact our retention? How does it impact the ability to attract students from diverse backgrounds? What impact does it have in terms of the kind of areas of research that we're paying attention to, and the publications that we have?

And diversity strategy, just to put it in place, should never be a kumbaya experience. It should always be focused on the kind of results that we want out of it. Does it strengthen us? How can it make us better as an institution? And that's why I believe that return on diversity is a very critical aspect of a diversity strategy for any institution of higher learning.

SARA LIPKA: Right. Now, Westminster is a small campus, about 1,000 students, about 70 faculty. Tell me how you go about building a diverse, inclusive community on a campus of that size.

BENJAMIN OLA. AKANDE: Well, we're small. And I think what makes it clear in terms of the microcosm of – we want to reflect what society is. And for us we have a significant number of students that are from very diverse backgrounds, literally over 70 plus, 75 plus countries represented on our campus. And I think that that is very special for us. And that's something that we've received US News and World ranking, something that we're very proud of as an institution.

But an area where we believe that we've got some opportunities is in the faculty and staff realm. And so clearly our goal is to first of all, we perform a diversity audit that validates essentially where we are. And then now we've got to put a strategy in place as to what that goal would be over the next couple of years. And so our focus is on that right now. And that means that we need to – we're having a conversation among our faculty and staff to help us articulate what those opportunities would be. And call for ideas from our faculty and staff in ways in which we can do both ends from a diversity perspective.

SARA LIPKA: A lot of campuses right now are talking about increasing faculty diversity. How do you think some places are going to achieve that?

BENJAMIN OLA. AKANDE: Well, I think you can do it two ways. You can buy it. For institutions that have huge endowments and the financial capacity, they simply do a search-and-find mission, and they go out and get diversity from other institutions. Which is fine, because those individuals bring to our institutions meaning, perspective, and make you better.

But I think the ones that the majority of us face, they don't have the capacity to just go out there and acquire talent. Is that in many instances we have to grow it. And growing it means that sometimes you have to find individuals there on the upside of their careers. And to give them opportunities to come to your institution either as visiting fellows, visiting lecturers, and to use that as a way of cultivating their interest, and bringing them into the fold within your institution. I see that also has as a viable option.

I think and the third option for us would be the possibility of perhaps doing a global search. I think oftentimes when we do faculty and staff search we tend to focus on just America. But diversity can be found in so many places outside of the geographical sphere of this country. Doing a global search, I think it's also a clearer opportunity of doing that.

SARA LIPKA: Right. Now Westminster is not far from Mizzou, the University of Missouri, which this semester has had a pivotal discussion of race. What do you think is happening there? And on so many other campuses where students are raising their voices?

BENJAMIN OLA. AKANDE: What happened in Mizzou, barely 20 minutes from us, is not unique in terms of the American university culture. It happened. And what happened at Mizzou will be replicated at other institutions when there's a confluence of situations, and challenges, and students recognizing that, and speaking up. I think that the reality is that we have raised a generation, often referred to as the Millennium generation, I refer to them affectionately as the iPoders. That describes the acronym of internet savvy, phone addicted, opportunistic, and digital natives, iPod-ers.

And this is a generation which we've given them permission to challenge the status quo. This generation that we've told over, and over again that you are good, and you can be better. This is a generation that we've assured that failure is just real-time feedback. And we've given them the courage and the audacity to challenge the status quo.

And so when they get to college they're doing exactly what we've empowered them to do, to ask questions, to seek solutions, to offer recommendations, or doing it in a new way. And my point is, we better listen to them. We better move forward and say, you have value, what you have to say make sense.

And essentially, we had a conversation shortly after the Mizzou situation on our campus, it was a dialogue. It was a no holds barred conversation about racism, issues of free speech, responsibility, and accountability. And that conversation was very important to us, because it enabled us to begin to think about ways in which we can strengthen the dialogue, we can find solutions to whatever challenges me await us around the corner.

And I think every institution deserves to have those candid conversations. And we did it then, it's just not going to be the end of it. For conversations will continue moving into the future.

SARA LIPKA: Well, thank you so much for visiting. We really appreciate hearing from you.

BENJAMIN OLA. AKANDE: This is a pleasure. It's good to be here at The Chronicle. And thanks for having me.