On college campuses around the nation, students have exerted pressure for progress to be made on diversity and social change. Student demonstrations that began in 2014 and 2015 have taken place in an increasingly hostile national climate and in the face of intervention by conservative legislators in the governance of public higher education. Student activists have expressed impatience with the pace of diversity change and have requested leadership support, policy changes, and systematic diversity training. On some campuses, pockets of resistance to diversity have stymied progress, and efforts to implement change have been met with skepticism by alumni and external stakeholders. One of the most salient examples is the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK), where the withdrawal of state funding for diversity by the conservative state legislature caused the shuttering of the diversity office and led to high-level administrative turnover.

Diversity culture change in higher education is difficult. Shifting the organizational tides of institutional norms, attitudes, and assumptions can often be a lengthy, uphill battle fraught with political minefields. There is clearly no “quick fix” to building more inclusive learning, living, and working environments. Establishing a sense of urgency about diversity can be challenging in a divisive political climate. As Robert Nelsen, president of Sacramento State University, explains:

“Our university is sometimes too content with where we’re at. There isn’t a sense of urgency, urgency to bring diversity issues to the forefront and to have people say that this is important. That’s been the biggest obstacle that we face. . . . Meanwhile, on the outside, we have people asking, “Why are you wasting money and efforts on this? Your job is to graduate students, not to make them feel like they belong at the university.” They don’t understand the connection between belonging and graduating: there is a direct, deep connection there. So, unfortunately, there’s a modicum of resistance at the university, and there are outside politics surrounding discussions regarding inclusion and diversity.”

In Leading a Diversity Culture Shift: Comprehensive Organizational Learning Strategies in Higher Education, we foreground the role of organizational learning as an indispensable and powerful component in implementing and institutionalizing a sustainable diversity culture shift. The core thesis of our study is that courageous and committed institutional leadership is a sine qua non for implementing a diversity cultural shift. Without such support, attaining a diversity cultural shift will remain an aspirational goal, enshrined in rhetoric but lacking concrete and measurable outcomes. We also emphasize the ways that tenured faculty leadership and faculty senates have served as a significant counterbalancing force to external pressures and legislative intrusions into the governance process.

In the interviews conducted for the book, we asked academic and administrative leaders, diversity officers, faculty, and students about the ways that diversity learning and education were shifting mindsets and cultural assumptions across the decentralized contours of their campuses. A question we often received from campus leaders was, “What do you mean by organizational learning?” For example, a female diversity dean at an elite university observed that faculty are skeptical of knowledge not produced by the institution itself. As she explained:

“There is nobody here who has a concept of organizational learning. . . . We are in a place of very, very smart people who I think care in some very abstract way about this issue. . . but are unconvinced that they don’t already have the answers to the problem. . . . We are functioning at a level that is not as strategic as it is reactive. I don’t think we are unique.”

The research literature identifies organizational learning in higher education as the process by which an institution learns and changes that is linked to the core work and identity of the organization. Cross-institutional organizational learning takes place by generating ideas that have an impact across multiple units, helping stakeholders reflect on actions, behaviors, and processes and enabling a critical mass of individuals to operate in new ways.

The structure of diversity learning itself is somewhat problematic because at many institutions it relies heavily and rather exclusively on the chief diversity officer (CDO) as the purveyor of diversity education outside the curriculum. Yet, as our interview subjects emphasized, CDOs often play a more symbolic role and may not have the authority, leadership support, or resources necessary to implement a diversity culture shift. They are frequently untenured, serve at will, and may not have the organizational clout to effect significant change. As Yekim, an Afro-Latino CDO in a western university, put it, “The role is in itself a risk. . . .The reality is that this work challenges power.”

In a positive development, over the last few decades, the CDO role has further evolved with an increasing number of these officers reporting to the provost and handling a portfolio that emphasizes faculty recruitment and retention. In addition, at a number of larger institutions, diversity officer positions have been established within the largest colleges and schools. Typical barriers to diversity organization learning that inhibit forward progress include the following:

  1. Lack of leadership commitment and a supportive infrastructure of resources and staffing
  2. Stand-alone, piecemeal programs that lack coordination across institutional units
  3. Failure to include faculty in the development of diversity education

By contrast, successful diversity organizational learning programs are designed in an iterative process that involves needs and gap assessment, program delivery, feedback, postassessment, and evaluation of the transferability of learning to workplace settings specific to faculty, administrators, and staff. Collaborative initiatives represent an important avenue for accomplishing diversity learning such as through the partnerships of academic affairs, student life, and human resources with the CDO.

Our book includes in-depth case studies of five private and public institutions that provide insight into concrete approaches that will catalyze diversity cultural change. Take, for example, the case study of Lehigh University and the creation of an academic infrastructure that supports diversity and interdisciplinary learning. As an institution strongly influenced by tradition and its former emphasis on engineering and business, Lehigh has benefited from the following factors: seasoned academic leadership at the helm of the university, an ambitious ten-year strategic plan that addresses the need for increased faculty and student diversity, and an interdisciplinary approach to undergraduate education that emphasizes the attainment of a global mindset. Despite incidents of racial harassment a number of years ago and the need to further implement diversity goals in terms of student communication and faculty tenure and promotion, Lehigh is aggressively moving forward with its diversity agenda. Lehigh’s recent cluster-hiring initiative resulted in the appointment of five new faculty members to Africana Studies. Educational programs on inclusivity are run by faculty and an annual campus climate survey is providing results that will be used to enhance the living, learning, and working environment. The university’s “Principles of Our Equitable Community” represents an aspirational touchstone for further progress. While academic leaders still acknowledge that there is much work ahead in shifting cultural norms, Henry Odi, deputy vice president for equity and community and associate provost for academic diversity sums it up this way:

“I use the metaphor of a journey. It is a journey, it is not an end game that we can say we have arrived: there is no such thing, because the community and country continue to evolve and change.”

As illustrated in the case studies and interview findings, the intentional and systematic process of diversity organizational learning will help institutions of higher education build more inclusive and welcoming environments that value, nurture, and respect the contributions and talents of all members of the campus community.

This article first appeared in Academic Leader on February 1, 2018. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.

Edna B. Chun, DM, and Alvin Evans are award-winning authors, each with more than two decades of experience in higher education. Edna Chun is chief learning officer and Alvin Evans is higher education practice leader for HigherEd Talent, a national HR and diversity consulting firm.