Diversity leaders urge new strategy

A commission’s plan aims to coordinate efforts to recruit more minorities to MU.
Sunday, May 9, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:38 a.m. CDT, Saturday, June 7, 2008

The recent report on MU’s diversity programs and services, or lack thereof, may provide the motivation for MU to launch its long-in-the-works “diversity strategic plan.”

Without one, MU is behind many other institutions in addressing diversity, said Robert Weems, interim vice chancellor for equity.

For about a year and a half, a commission at MU has been working on such a plan to coordinate its efforts of recruiting and retaining minority students, faculty and staff. Weems, who coordinated the diversity assessment, hopes the report might provide the impetus to get the plan off the ground.

MU’s diversity plan, said Handy Williamson, vice provost for minority affairs and faculty development, “would have laid out responsibilities for each, ideally, vice chancellor, vice provost, each faculty director, staff and students on campus because diversity is the collective responsibility of all of us.”

What MU already has, Williamson said, are summer programs in almost every school and college oriented toward minority students, staff organizations for minority faculty, minority scholarships and research grants, minority research training programs, and religious and student cultural centers, such as the Black Culture Center and the Islamic Center.

But without a plan to coordinate and assess programs and to push diversity to the forefront of administrators’ minds, that’s just not enough, Weems said.

“Quite frankly, because this institution has never done it, we’re sort of at ground zero,” Weems said.

The diversity report makes several recommendations for prerequisite steps for creating a diversity plan. The suggestions include:

n Housing oversight of a diversity management plan in a single office. The university should specifically target African American students and faculty as well as address all minority groups.

n Senior leaders, such as the chancellor, president and provost, must be “diversity champions,” and have a clear idea of long-term diversity goals. There should also be widespread involvement throughout the campus when creating a diversity planning process.

n A number of measures should be taken to add more African Americans and other minorities to the faculty and staff.

Such measures include holding deans responsible for the diversity of their schools and colleges; placing higher value on work “of interest and concern to faculty of color as well as scholarly work on institutional diversity,” such as Black Studies courses; providing a special fund to hire and retain minority faculty and possibly their spouses or partners “where such hiring will increase diversity”; expanding faculty recruiting efforts from minority-serving institutions and scholar caucuses; and providing further mentoring programs for minority faculty to assist them through the tenure process.

n Minority student recruitment programs should be enhanced by adding admissions administrators who are “familiar with minority students and their demographics,” hiring experienced minority recruiters who specialize in recruiting students from a target population, and offering more special pre-college programs for minority students.

n Retention efforts should also be improved by diversifying staff at the Student Success Center and creating better coordination between the Student Success Center and Academic Services

All students should be provided with cross-cultural communication and interaction skills — most likely through the addition of race and ethnicity-centered classes to the curriculum and possibly requiring all students to take a number of race and ethnicity-related credits, Weems said.

“The bottom line, affirmed by the Supreme Court this past summer, is we’re in an increasingly diverse world, and the more we can operate in an increasingly diverse world, the better we all will be,” Weems said, referring to a Supreme Court ruling upholding the University of Michigan’s use of race as a factor in its admissions process.

Williamson disagrees with a number of findings in the report and says they’re too centered on the demands of a small number of black faculty, and not inclusive of other minority groups. The Black Faculty and Staff Organization, which first requested a report in 2001, did so because members wanted an assessment of recruitment and retention programs for African American faculty, staff and students, and not because they were concerned about a comprehensive plan, said former organization President Charles Nilon.

However, a May 7 news release from the organization states, in response to the findings in the report, that its members anticipate working closely with university officials “to develop a plan to address the issues revealed in this document.”

“Primarily, we seek to move the institution forward as a national champion and model of access, diversity and equity,” the release states.

Williamson said he is happy the report was conducted because “it cast light on a significant problem and challenge,” and “it may propel the university as a community forward in aggressively developing a genuine diversity strategic plan.”

Although he sees room for improvement, the university already has a number of effective services in place to address the needs of African American faculty, students and staff, as well as other minorities, Williamson said.

Numbers put MU at the top of the Big 12 for the proportion of black faculty members in 2002, at about 3.3 percent, according to information compiled by university relations. There are currently about 50 black faculty members. Its percentage of black students is also third from the top of all Big 12 schools, at 5.2 percent, according to those documents.

Williamson said for reviewers not to notice all that the university has done so far may be a misstatement.

“Most universities around the nation are struggling with the same things: How do we develop and strengthen our diversity initiatives?” Williamson said. “And we’re well on the way to that here.”

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