Welcome to Race on Campus. Being a campus diversity officer is often challenging and exhausting; in fact, the work can sometimes feel impossible. Our Sarah Brown talked to a University of Kansas professor who edited a new book chronicling the raw experiences of DEI administrators.

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

Lessons From the Field

A dozen years ago, a drunk white student had hurled racial slurs at another student, a Black woman, causing a campus uproar. As part of the white student’s discipline, the university asked LaTanya N. Buck, then director of the cultural center, to work with the perpetrator of the incident.

Buck wanted to say no. As a Black woman, she had been angered by the racist comments, and she knew the pain Black students were experiencing at the institution, which she didn’t name. “Working with the offending student sort of felt like a betrayal,” she said.

But Buck ultimately agreed. She assigned him to research the history of lynching in the state and its impact on the Black community, and to present his findings to an African American studies class. Right before graduating, the white student wrote her a thank-you note.

After this incident, Buck’s view of her job changed. She’d started in higher ed as a director of multicultural student services, where her primary purpose was to support students of color. But she now saw that diversity administrators must find ways to engage all students.

Buck, the current dean of diversity and inclusion at Princeton University, shared the anecdote in a chapter of a new book, Becoming a Diversity Leader on Campus. Buck co-wrote her chapter, which blends research and personal narrative, with Brighid Dwyer, who was an associate dean at Princeton and just became vice dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences.

Scholars have studied campus diversity offices and how they’re structured, said Eugene T. Parker, the book’s editor and an associate professor of higher-education administration at the University of Kansas. But little research has centered on the experiences of diversity officers themselves, particularly at the senior level, Parker said.

Each chapter was written by one or more diversity officers, offering practical tips and advice for navigating such jobs. Buck and Dwyer, for instance, listed 27 concrete steps that administrators could take.

Here are three other key themes that diversity officers explored in the book:

Diversity officers can’t fix everything.

In one chapter, four administrators in the University of Kansas’s diversity office reflected on how they set out to create an “ideal” campus, one that was welcoming to people of all backgrounds. They began their roles in 2017 as optimists, “in a relatively new field, with minimal resources, during a time of student unrest.”

Two years later, they’d created a vision and a foundation for change — but not a model campus, which “was beyond our capacity.” In the chapter, titled “Doing Diversity: Steps Toward the Impossible,” they outlined in detail what steps they’d taken, and why they felt that the university wasn’t fully committed to revamping its culture. They also described the difficulty of advancing diversity efforts on a decentralized campus with roughly 25,000 students and 10,000 faculty and staff members.

Often, chief diversity officers are hired “as a reactionary step” to a protest or controversy, Parker said. They take on the roles out of passion — for helping students and creating more-welcoming, diverse environments, he said. But they come into brand-new roles that aren’t properly defined, with unclear expectations.

Many on campus believe that diversity officers can fix everything, Parker said. “When you appoint a diversity leader, that person cannot come in and suddenly erase 100 years” — or 200, or 400 — “of exclusion.”

More white allies are needed.

Many chief diversity officers are people of color driven to serve by their backgrounds. Several of the book’s contributors wrote about intersectionality and how their race, gender, and other identities inform their work. One of the book’s contributors was a white man: steven p. bryant. (He spells his author byline all lowercase.)

“I firmly believe more white people need to engage appropriately in antiracist work,” bryant wrote in his chapter, titled “Becoming a Diversity and Inclusion Leader Was Not the Original Plan.” Then bryant shared the first time he noticed race — as a third grader in an all-white school in rural Michigan, when two Spanish-speaking Mexican students joined his class.

Early in his higher-ed career, bryant wrote, he had to reckon with his anger and frustration at what he described as “the intentional White washing of history throughout my primary education” and his ignorance of “how my own thoughts and actions upheld White supremacy.” He felt he wasn’t qualified or equipped to be a DEI leader.

Today, bryant serves as director of diversity and community involvement at Eastern Michigan University. While he has become more confident in his work, he said he remains committed to continuing his personal growth. “If I get to the point where I begin labeling myself as a ‘good White person,’” he wrote, “I will have failed drastically.”

Diversity work can take a toll, especially on women.

Five women of color serving in DEI roles co-wrote a chapter about how “the personal is political is professional.” The women wrote about the “power and pain” of rising through the ranks in higher ed, as well as the “courage and persistence” necessary to succeed in their jobs. They discussed microaggressions, imposter syndrome, and the need to be hyperaware of their body language, appearance, and tone of voice.

“We constantly have to negotiate whether we should speak up about the experiences we have,” the women wrote, “or risk experiencing the further marginalization which works to minimize our already limited institutional power.” —Sarah Brown

Read Up

  • Company boards are getting more diverse. Racially diverse members take up 25 percent more board seats than they did in the end of 2020, and nearly 50 percent more than at the end of 2019. But for colleges, governing boards remain mostly white. (The New York Times, The Chronicle)
  • The three white men who were convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery while he was jogging through a neighborhood in Georgia were sentenced to life in prison.Two men were sentenced without parole. (The Washington Post)
  • Last week, Sidney Poitier died at the age of 94. Poitier led the way for Black actors and broke barriers in Hollywood. Here’s his story. (Los Angeles Times)

—Fernanda