One of the biggest changes in higher education is reflected in its participants. From their, in many cases elite and privileged origins, today’s campuses are increasingly being comprised of the populations who most closely reflect the larger society. As admissions directors and provosts seek to boost enrollments and widen recruitment for their institutions, they’re also faced with new challenges in how they can prepare a welcoming and supportive campus for an increasingly diverse student body and faculty.
“I think of it in terms of a journey we’re all currently embarking on,” explains Dr. Henry Odi, Vice Provost for Academic Diversity and Adjunct Professor at Lehigh University. “It’s a road we’ll continue to travel, and (at Lehigh) we’ve made significant progress. We have a ways to go, and given the changing demographics and climate after the last election, we’re being presented with both challenges and opportunities.”
Dr. Odi recently created one of those opportunities with a workshop entitled, “The Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader,” based on research conducted in a book of the same name by Edna Chun and Alvin Evans. With the goal of encouraging more deeply inclusive and diverse learning environments at Lehigh and beyond, Dr Odi hoped to show the invited audience of department chairs, and academic program and center directors, the critical role they can play in the endeavor. “I thought it could be incredibly useful to bring the authors to campus in a workshop to discuss some of the issues identified in the book,” he says.
The event was well-attended and provided an opportunity for the participants in raising the awareness of their role in diversity through respective department programs. It was also an opportunity to voice concerns and challenges, and to identify the kinds of help they’d need to begin to address and overcome those concerns. “A major challenge is in recruiting and retaining faculty,” Dr. Odi points out. “How do you create the climate that will create welcoming environments for a faculty member? What’s the value of engaging in diversity and inclusion that will help that faculty member in career advancement and tenure, for example, or will help in cases of dual career partnerships where a spouse or significant other will see all of those climates as welcoming, supportive and inclusive, and can help them find employment,” he says.
Dr. Odi also acknowledges that the University faces the same challenges in both its teaching and student populations. “Similarly, we need to be able to examine the role of the department chairs, academic director program or center directors in recruiting graduate and undergraduate students, and create roles for those leaders in a diverse and inclusive environment,” he adds.
To be able to measure the impact of the journey Dr. Odi describes — and to be able to strengthen and expand its course in creative ways — isn’t easy. He admits it’s not an objective colleges and universities can easily achieve on their own. “It must be a partnership with industry, with healthcare institutions and not-for-profits,” he says. To that end, and assisted by an endowment from Barnes & Noble College, Dr.Odi has developed a Certificate Program for Inclusive Excellence taskforce, which includes both academic course components, and co-curricular and service-learning programs, with the objective of helping students develop the kind of cultural competency skillsets that will prepare them for leadership post college. “As a partner in the higher education experience, Barnes & Noble College is extremely proud of this initiative, which reflects the values and culture we share — that all students deserve a supportive, illuminating academic experience,” says Lisa Malat, Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for Barnes & Noble College, who also attended the workshop.
Dr. Odi sees these kinds of initiatives as a beginning. Later this month, he will be inviting executives from the world of industry, federal agency and healthcare onto campus to review the program and provide thoughts and suggestions. “We want these kinds of partnerships to speak from their perspective and show us the value-add,” he says. “We’ll be relying on some very influential folks.”
The argument for promoting diversity, particularly in the academic setting, is overwhelming. America’s workforce is more diverse than at any time in the nation’s history, and the working-age population represented by members of minority groups is expected to increase from 34 percent to 55 percent by 2050.
In addition to enhancing the social development and interaction of students, diversity and inclusion initiatives can also build deeper self-awareness and help prepare students for life after graduation, while attracting more diverse faculty can add to the learning culture of the institution and experience of its participants. “Ensuring this kind of student support in the college environment is one of the major issues facing educators and administrators across our country,” Malat says. “The important work Lehigh is doing to not just identify those students, but to also make the investment in changing perceptions and attitudes at their institution, is truly inspiring.”