Sensing a Moment, Diversity Officers Swap Tips on Improving Campus Climate

March 19, 2015

Put 300 campus diversity officers in a room, and they’ll have no shortage of topics to discuss.

But this week, when the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education held its annual conference here, one issue came up frequently: the racial climate on college campuses.

That topic has claimed the national spotlight, most recently after a video surfaced of several University of Oklahoma fraternity members’ singing a racist anthem. (Two of the students were expelled.) In North Carolina, the recent killings of three young Muslims and a backlash against the call to prayer at Duke University shocked students. And the Black Lives Matter movement, fueled by a recent wave of African-American men’s deaths at the hands of white police officers, also has found a place on campuses.

The incident at Oklahoma didn’t come as a surprise, diversity officers said. But it did provide an impetus for college officials to look more closely at race relations on their own campuses.

"Part of the charge of diversity officers is really to provide leadership to engage" people to respond to those incidents, said Benjamin D. Reese Jr., the association’s president and vice president for institutional equity at Duke University. "It’s really an opportunity for lots of people in the academy to think more clearly and be more decisive about what we need to do."

The Talk of the Conference

How can diversity officers do that? Several of the actions discussed by conference attendees — in panels and in interviews with The Chronicle — centered on the following themes.

Helping students with different backgrounds "intersect." Many students "come from a largely homogenous background," said Archie W. Ervin, the association’s second vice president and vice president for institute diversity at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "There’s little difference in their schools and communities, and you bring them into a large vacuum of a university setting, and you expect them to have full confidence in negotiating their differences. That’s not a realistic expectation."

It’s up to administrators like diversity officers to create opportunities for intersection, Mr. Ervin said. Classes, discussions and lectures, and diverse residence-hall communities can all encourage students to "reach beyond familiarity," he said, and "learn about differences." For example, diversity officers can encourage professors to pull students of different backgrounds to work together on projects.

Students who engage in racist speech or actions "might not fully understand how harmful, hateful, divisive it really is," Mr. Ervin said. The incident in Oklahoma has offered an opportunity for reflection.

"It’s a hell of a way for us to launch a conversation, but it’s certainly an effective way," he said.

Supporting student activism. Racially charged incidents, on and off campuses, have sparked a wave of student activism across the country. A number of student protests have specifically asked administrators to pay more attention to diversity-related issues on the campus.

Wright State University, for example, is only a few miles away from the Wal-Mart store where John Crawford III, a 22-year-old African-American man, was shot to death by police officers while holding a BB gun. Kimberly A. Barrett, vice president for multicultural affairs and community engagement at the Ohio university, said students protested the killing and engaged in acts of civil disobedience.

"It did cause us to think about how should we be supporting our students so that they can speak out," she said. "Certainly we didn’t want to rehash the legal part of it or anything, but we did want to support and make sure our students knew how to, in productive ways, engage in social activism."

"We want them to be engaged citizens," she said. "We want to support that."

Administrators set up a series of continuing community conversations about social justice, Ms. Barrett said. The first three are about race and policing, and feature both members of the police force and others.

Bringing white men to the table. Sometimes, using the buzzword "diversity" can make non-minority students feel as if that topic doesn’t pertain to them, several officers said. As one put it, "diversity is understood as an issue that black people care about."

Joanne G. Woodard, vice provost for institutional equity and diversity at North Carolina State University, discussed a recent campus-climate survey during a panel discussion. The survey showed that about half of white male students had never attended an event about diversity. They didn’t see the value in doing so, she said.

"How do we get those folks at the table to have that dialogue, who would probably benefit the most from it?" she asked.

North Carolina State offers a course, "Foundations of Cultural Competence for Professional Success," that fulfills undergraduate requirements. Couching the class in those terms has led to high enrollment. Once they have entered the classroom, students have been willing to engage in forthright dialogue, Ms. Woodard said.

"If they thought it would help their professional success, they were more likely to want to have those talks," she said.

During the panel’s question-and-answer session, one diversity officer asked how many people in the room thought students should take at least one course on diversity before graduation.

The entire room — hundreds of diversity officers — said yes.