Welcome to Race on Campus. Nearly every corner of the internet has a headline about the great resignation. Workers are quitting in staggering numbers in nearly every industry, including the diversity, equity, and inclusion field. This week I sought to understand what it is about DEI work that seems to burn workers out.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write to me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

DEI Staff Are Burnt Out

Nicollette Mitchell’s work has always involved supporting students of color.

She started her career at Oberlin College, as director of the Center for Learning, Education, and Research in the Sciences. Among other things, she helped improve retention rates for students of color, especially in STEM fields. But she says she ran into problems — like faculty members who didn’t want her advice on making the classroom more equitable, or the time she was told it wasn’t her place as an administrative staff member to suggest curriculum changes. Meanwhile, she watched other Black staffers leave as they were assigned more work while their pay remained stagnant. (In an emailed response to my request for comment, Josh Jensen, vice president for communications at Oberlin, did not address Mitchell’s complaints. He wrote that the Ohio college is proud of its equity work, including a presidential initiative that began in 2020.)

In September 2020, Mitchell took a new job, as director of equity and inclusion education at Bates College, in Maine. It was a new position, like many of the others in her department, that began just after that summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. At first, she was enthusiastic that she could help people think through systems of oppression in a way that she says she couldn’t at her last job. In an email, Mitchell wrote that at Bates she spent lots of time organizing training for departments that had or continued to have a history of racially biased incidents. Then, it happened again — the resistance. “There was pushback,” she said, “when we started to talk about long-term structural changes.”

Mitchell ended up enrolling in a doctoral program this fall, instead of deferring as she had originally planned. You might remember from our previous newsletter on Bates that several of her colleagues left, too.

In an interview, Malcolm S. Hill, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Bates, disputed the idea that faculty members had resisted incorporating antiracism work into their teaching, and pointed to the biology department’s 2018-19 revamp of its curriculum as an example of the college’s commitment to antiracism.

“It’s challenging work,” Hill said. “There’s no doubt about it because you’re asking people to change decades-long — centuries-long — practices in their fields.”

‘Under Attack’

Mitchell’s story is familiar for many diversity, equity, and inclusion professionals. At institutions across the country, they face pushback from faculty members and limits on what they can do, even amid mounting demands for progress. Some have been driven to join higher ed’s “great resignation.”

Though we cannot pinpoint how many DEI administrators and staff members have left their jobs in the last year, it is clear that some job requirements uniquely position DEI workers for burnout. Staff members told me that they were often the first people at their colleges to hold their positions, that they were charged with combating racism even as they experienced it, and that their work sometimes wasn’t considered a priority.

Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, said DEI officials face challenges unlike those of other campus jobs. They’re expected to shift the culture at an institution, and sometimes they have goals they need to meet by specific dates. But there are no quick fixes for complex societal problems, she said.

What’s more, DEI work is “under attack,” Russell said. In some states, new legislation now bars K-12 teachers and some college instructors from teaching critical race theory, which makes DEI officers’ work only more challenging. Many must now figure out how they can do their jobs without becoming targets.

To combat those and other stressors, the association developed standards of professional practice that define the role of a diversity officer and set expectations for the position. The standards outline critical features of the job, such as “Chief diversity officers are committed to planning, catalyzing, facilitating, and evaluating processes of institutional and organizational change.” The standards also describe best practices, including “Chief diversity officers are committed to drawing from existing scholarship and using evidence-based practices to provide intellectual leadership in advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion.”

Roger L. Worthington, professor and executive director in the department of counseling, higher education, and special education at the University of Maryland at College Park, was on the task force that drafted the standards. He’s also worked as an interim chief diversity officer, or CDO.

Worthington and his colleagues are conducting a national study of CDOs, and they’ve found that some officers say they lack the resources they need, he said. Spending on inclusion work often comes from the margins of college budgets.

“You wouldn’t slice off the margins for your IT department — your institution would fall apart,” Worthington said. “If you have a single-person office for DEI in an institution, would you have a single-person office for IT? No.”

Institutions must fund this work as if it were a central part of the college, he said, because it is.

Before accepting a job, Worthington said, DEI professionals should ask themselves: Is the position window-dressing, or does the college want institutional change?

Mounting Pressure

Eeman agrama minert, who spells her name all lowercase, spent 11 years as director of residential life and associate dean of student affairs at Thurgood Marshall College at the University of California at San Diego, and worked her entire career in student affairs, until now. She’s now an associate recruiter at UC-San Diego.

Her parents are both immigrants from Egypt. She wanted to work with underrepresented students after her own struggles, she said. Whether it was in her job title or not, minert was always involved in social-justice work.

At Thurgood Marshall, minert’s supervisor left, she said, and she felt as if her work wasn’t valued. At the height of the pandemic, her department had open positions, but there were hiring freezes, so she was saddled with more assignments.

The pressure was mounting, and her doctor told her to take a medical leave of absence, she said. During that time she looked for other jobs and accepted her current HR position. She’s still coming to terms with how stressed she was at Thurgood Marshall, she said.

Now minert’s social-justice work is dedicated to her family and community, not her job. Recently, in her life-coaching side business, minert helped someone going through a similar experience at her job. Minert cautioned her not to throw all her creativity and passion into a job where she wasn’t being adequately recognized. Minert told her not to internalize what was going on at work.

As for Mitchell, she isn’t ruling out working at a college again, once she earns her doctorate. She said that not having a terminal degree limited her work on campus. In her program, she’s reading about higher education’s institutional structure, and realized that there are other ways to improve equity at colleges that don’t involve work in a DEI office or position.

Update (November 1, 2021, 12:24 p.m.): Comments by Malcolm S. Hill, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Bates College, have been expanded with a quotation.

Read Up

  • Halloween is just around the corner. Here’s a primer about the difference between wearing a costume and taking someone’s culture. (The Arizona Republic)
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  • In this episode of The Ezra Klein Show, a podcast, Martha S. Jones, legal and cultural historian at the Johns Hopkins University, explains her research on how Black Americans had to fight to establish birthright citizenship. (The New York Times)