The academic department chair is positioned to be the engine of change in diversity progress in higher education today. Serving at the core of the academic enterprise, chairs work collaboratively with faculty to empower students with the needed skills, knowledge, and competencies to participate as leaders and citizens in a diverse global society. Their diversity leadership is essential in recruiting and retaining diverse faculty, addressing curricular content, facilitating student access and success, creating inclusive classrooms, and championing innovative pedagogies that support diverse learning styles. As such, chairs contribute to the institutional tapestry of inclusive excellence that is focused on student intellectual and social development.

While all these statements would appear to be self-evident, almost no research literature addresses the chair’s role in diversity progress. Chair handbooks are notably silent on this issue. And, for the most part, institutions of higher education have not provided a clear mandate for diversity transformation that both recognizes and operationalizes the chair’s concrete role in the change process. In fact, little direction is provided to chairs in this arena: it is not a part of chairs’ professional calling or professional training.

Our forthcoming book, The Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader: Building Inclusive Learning Environments in Higher Education (Stylus, 2014), addresses this major gap in the literature as the first research-based study of the department chair’s diversity leadership role. The study draws on extensive survey and interview research findings from a substantial sample of chairs from all geographic regions in public and private universities and four-year colleges.

First and foremost, the striking lack of diversity in academic leadership positions is in sharp contrast to increasing minority student enrollment. Chairs in our study reported that among the 1,641 chairs in their respective schools, only 10 percent are minorities or of Hispanic ethnicity. And available studies indicate that the dean’s role is still predominantly held by white males. Yet, at the same time, minority students represent approximately one-third of the total enrollment in private and public universities and four-year colleges and over the next two decades will likely become the majority. All indications are that higher education is not ready for this dramatic shift.

A particular focus of our research is on the experiences of chairs from nondominant groups, including minority, female, and lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered (LGBT) chairs who lead predominantly white and often male departments.The narratives of these chairs reveal that isolation and marginalization can occur not only in the classroom and departmental environment but also in the surrounding communities in which chairs live. As a white female chair in a predominantly white, religiously affiliated university in a relatively isolated geographical location explains:

I think there are only half a dozen faculty of color on our faculty. … Feeling isolated and invisible comes with the territory. … [F]eeling isolated and invisible in our city is unavoidable. Unless we do things like change the way we evaluate faculty, at least think about what role gender and race play in student evaluations, that’s going to be a problem. … [O]n a largely white Protestant campus, many of our students come in without significant diversity experience themselves. They relate well to young white men teaching their classes, despite the fact that we have a majority female population. People [faculty] have trouble in classrooms here if they don’t fit that profile.

Chairs in our study reflected a high degree of sophistication when defining optimal diversity for their departments. In some cases, their understanding of diversity moved beyond traditional definitions of the broad palette of diversity to implicate notions of power, privilege, and social stratification. Chairs of psychology, sociology, educational leadership, and women’s studies were particularly aware of the impact of differential power based on demographic differences. Some had done groundbreaking work in the field of diversity themselves. For example, a white female chair of higher education in a western public research university identified two distinct strands in the definition of diversity:

When I think about diversity I think about it in two ways. One is equated with difference, in terms of race, in terms of class, in terms of sexual orientation, and also even diversity of ideas and disciplinary differences. … Another component of diversity goes way beyond difference, in that, when I think about diversity I also really think about power and privilege difference and sort of underlying constructs that go with diversity that privilege certain groups over others. …

Yet despite this level of sophistication among individual chairs, our overall findings indicate that the implementation of diversity in higher education still remains, to some degree, uncharted territory. The area of department chair leadership is a prime example. Institutions of higher education often may not have clearly identified a clear and cohesive institutional strategy that recognizes, supports, and operationalizes the chair’s critical role in diversity transformation. As a result, the chair’s diversity journey can be compared to setting out on a lonely, dirt road rather than a paved highway, without clear directional signs and a lack of certainty as to where and when he or she will arrive at the destination. Such journeys are inevitably bumpy, at best, without the guidance of institutional markers and resources to guide the chair toward an institutional destination.

Further, our research indicates that four key reasons account for stalled diversity change at the institutional level:

  1. Lack of clear definition of diversity. As the elephant is in the parable of the blind men and the elephant, diversity is variously defined by different stakeholders, without necessarily arriving at a common understanding for the university or college of the meaning of diversity.
  2. Absence of an evolutionary, systems-based approach. Without a systems-based approach, diversity efforts will be sporadic, hit-or-miss, redundant, and piecemeal. A cohesive system for diversity necessarily involves new mind-sets, structures, and operational models that work together synergistically under committed university or college leadership.
  3. A mistaken algorithm for diversity. We contend that the algorithm for diversity is frequently expressed in reverse. Too often, the goal of representational diversity among the faculty and staff is viewed as an end in itself, rather than the means to an end. This focus often causes substantial pushback among faculty and administrators who may even view such efforts as a form of reverse discrimination. In actuality, the algorithm of inclusive excellence focuses on student intellectual and social development as its ultimate goal. In this respect, diverse faculty in the classroom are needed to prepare students for their participation in a demographically diverse society. Diverse faculty serve as role models for students as well as mirrors of diverse identities and can offer different perspectives that enrich the learning process.
  4. Lack of systematic, institutionwide organizational learning programs. Many institutions have not adopted sustained, institutionwide approaches to organizational learning that address underlying cultural norms, assumptions, prevalent behaviors, and institutional blind spots. Such programs need to also include the development of diversity competencies and address ways to support identity development for diverse students.

Finally, a major concern identified by chairs in our study is the lack of formal chair training in diversity-related issues and programmatic development in areas such as student identity development. For example, an African-American male chair of history in a private religiously affiliated midwestern university noted that none of the workshops he had attended ever addressed chair leadership in diversity:

I’ve been to a lot of these department chair workshops. And I have never been to one that ever had a session on what we are talking about. I think it is a big mistake. I think there is a perception that because we are in academia and because we are professors that we have had these conversations, and that’s not true. … Even if you may have a kind of enlightened position, there’s a whole other realm of dealing with this institutionally as a chair, deans, provosts, and boards of trustees…

Clearly, the role of department chairs in diversity progress transcends discrete activities such as hiring new faculty and instead encompasses a broad array of responsibilities with direct impact on student learning outcomes. In this regard, a white female chair in an undergraduate public college recommends a proactive approach that does not merely deal with isolated situations as they arise, but addresses underlying issues and problems before they arise through institutional policy:

When you see a problem and point it out, that feels negative and sometimes there is nothing that you can do. You can try. But one of the things that does work pretty well or at least better (it’s a lot of work, though) is to try to find policy solutions to the problems that you perceive and try and prevent them in the future.

While in the past, institutions of higher education may have seen administrators as the galvanizing force in diversity progress, we argue that the academic department chair is likely to be the real locus of such change. For this reason, resources and programs that support the department chair’s leadership role will, in turn, promote inclusive campus environments that support the access and success of diverse students.

This article first appeared in Academic Leader on June 1, 2014 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

Edna Chun and Alvin Evans are award-winning authors and HR and diversity leaders in higher education. Two of their books, Are the Walls Really Down? Behavioral and Organizational Barriers to Faculty and Staff Diversity(Jossey-Bass, 2007) and Bridging the Diversity Divide: Globalization and Reciprocal Empowerment in Higher Education(Jossey-Bass, 2009), were recipients of the prestigious Kathryn G. Hansen Publication Award by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.

Recent books include Diverse Administrators in Peril: The New Indentured Class in Higher Education(Paradigm, 2012),Creating a Tipping Point: Strategic HR in Higher Education(Jossey-Bass, 2012), and The New Talent Acquisition Frontier: Integrating HR and Diversity Strategy in the Private and Public Sectors and Higher Education (Stylus, 2014); the latter was recently awarded the Silver Medal in the Axiom Business Book Awards. Their forthcoming book, Department Chairs as Transformative Diversity Leaders: Building Inclusive Learning Environments in Higher Education (Stylus, 2014), will be released later this year.

Edna Chun is associate vice chancellor for HR at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Alvin Evans is associate vice president for human resources at Kent State University.