KALAMAZOO — Diversity and inclusion on college campuses throughout Michigan and the United States remain at the forefront of efforts to ensure a welcoming environment for all students.
In the past decade, an increasing number of administrative positions have been created at higher education institutions to take a deeper dive and develop strategies focused on an environment where students of all ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations and nationalities feel safe and included.
Candy McCorkle is the most recent addition to the growing local roster of administrators. She officially joined Western Michigan University on Aug. 1 as vice president for diversity and inclusion, replacing Martha Warfield who was the university’s first chief diversity officer.
McCorkle, who had served in a similar role at Alma College, said diversity and inclusion have been part of her academic career. Early on, she frequently found herself as the only faculty member of color or one of the very few in her role as a professor.
“Officially, this has been part of my work for the past five or six years. Unofficially, I have been doing this work for 20-plus years,” she told MiBiz. “You’d start to see these positions created about 10 years ago. In the last five years, you see that every school is adding them.”
In response to this sweeping change, the Michigan Association of State Universities (MASU) in 2016 added a Diversity Officers Committee to its lineup that includes individuals representing 15 of the state’s higher educational institutions.
Meanwhile, the Florida-based National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE) formed in 2006 and has 700 members. That includes 400 senior executives with titles such as vice president or chief diversity officer, said Archie Ervin, president of NADOHE’s board of directors and the vice president of Institute Diversity at the Georgia Institute of Technology. More than 150 of these senior positions were created across the U.S. in 2015 and more than 90 were created in 2016, he said.
“Most notably since 2014 and 2015, there’s been tremendous unrest on college campuses across the country,” Ervin said. “As a result, we’ve seen a huge spike in the number of these positions being created.”
He said the creation of a place at the table for diversity officials provides a way to orchestrate institutional-level strategies, programs and priorities. They are intentionally higher-level positions that strategically position diversity so that there is leadership from senior ranks on this issue.
“While issues of inclusion and diversity have long been a focus for the state universities in Michigan, there has been both a combination of long-running trends and more recent developments that have raised the importance and profile of issues of diversity on the campuses,” said Daniel Hurley, CEO of MASU. “This has led to the creation of the role of chief diversity officers, although the job title has varied from institution to institution.”
Hurley is aware of several institutions that are in the process of creating diversity positions. Of the existing diversity administrators, many of them report directly to the school’s president, he added.
David Pilgrim has held the position of vice president for diversity and inclusion at Ferris State University since 2001 and also serves as director of the school’s Jim Crow Museum. For 17 years prior to that, he was a professor of sociology at FSU.
“Initiatives in higher ed don’t get done without champions or accountability,” he said. “You have to find a way to infuse ideas and strategies and have a place that helps to lead that effort.”
While a Chief Diversity Officer position is likely more common in the corporate world, colleges and universities in the last decade or so have decided that they need someone who will lead the strategic efforts to conceptualize and cultivate diversity at an institutional level, Pilgrim said.
“Most universities had offices focused on specific ethnic groups or multicultural offices,” he said. “But they did not have someone at a higher strategic level who sat in the president’s cabinet where they had resources and were an integral part of creating institutional change.”
These changes include broadening the definition of diversity — which had primarily encompassed African American and Hispanic students — to include a much more varied group that includes populations such as the disabled, LGBTQ, and people of different nationalities, said WMU’s McCorkle. The terminology has been changing to reflect the need to allow everyone to have an impact on the system.
McCorkle said she prefers the term inclusive because it means including everybody.
“More and more college campuses are offering more LGBTQ services and understanding that disability is part of that diversity work,” she said. “They’re also realizing that with international students.”
At Ferris State, Pilgrim said his office has partnered with Wesley House, a United Methodist on-campus ministry, to create a pantry for students who struggle with food insecurity. He said they also created a “First Ladies Attic” to provide free professional clothing to any student who needs it, as well as launched a mentoring and coaching program for students who came through the foster care system.
To MASU’s Hurley, the initiatives highlight that diversity and inclusion efforts are no longer solely about race. He cites other groups’ needs, such as rural students attending urban universities.
“Part of the instigation of Chief Diversity Officers was in response to issues and incidents that involve a particular race,” he said. “But diversity is not simply about ethnicity. It covers all types of individuals.”
DIVERSITY OF THOUGHT
Officials at colleges and universities know that they must foster a more inclusive environment in response to changing demographics at the national, state, and local level, McCorkle said.
“We realize we are no longer a homogeneous society and we’ll never be one,” she said. “There won’t be a dominant group. We recognize that if we don’t start moving with the change, we’re going to get run over and you’ll see that with schools not wanting to make the change.”
In addition, McCorkle said when representatives of college accreditation organizations are making their decisions, they are paying close attention to the climate on campus. She said it’s not just about the students, but also the school’s faculty and staff.
“There’s a whole population of faculty and staff that may not be experiencing campuses the way we think they are,” she said.
This can often lead to difficult discussions and a divergence of opinions, but Ervin of NADOHE said environments need to be fostered where people with different points of view can come together in a safe space to engage in civil discourse.
“We see the need to have inclusive conversations that are inclusive of different perspectives, but done in ways that do not go beyond the boundaries of permissible behavior,” Ervin said. “Diversity of thought and perspective from intellectual positions, all of that is important in a university community.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to note that MASU’s Diversity Officers Committee has representatives from 15 institutions. A prior version of the story said the committee represented 17 institutions. The group has 17 individual committee members, but two institutions send a pair of members.