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Will a Chief Diversity Officer Fix Salisbury?

Following discoveries of racist vandalism at Salisbury University, the administration is creating a brand-new position.

December 9, 2019
 
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After multiple cases of racist and sexist vandalism on the Salisbury University campus, the university is creating a brand-new position: chief diversity officer.

President Charles Wight announced last week that the position was created following the incidents, and the new officer will act as a member of the newly formed president’s cabinet task force alongside student, faculty and staff leaders.

“The CDO, who will report directly to me, will provide executive leadership, oversight and vision in the administration of services, programs, policies and procedures related to advancing SU’s commitment to diversity and inclusion,” Wight said in the university’s press release. “The CDO also will lead the implementation of a university-wide strategic plan for diversity and inclusion that will provide students, faculty and staff with educational opportunities informed by multiple points of view, life experiences, abilities, ethnicities, cultures and belief systems.”

Eli Modlin, chief of staff at the Maryland university, clarified that Wight had always intended to create this position, but the process was sped up following the discovery of the vandalism. In fact, Wight has emphasized his commitment to supporting diversity since the beginning of his tenure as president. Wight was appointed in July 2018.

“He himself [Wight] has a strong commitment to diversity,” Modlin explained, but this new officer will be the strategic and day-to-day leader “ensuring we are living our commitment to diversity and inclusion.”​

Earlier this semester, Salisbury officials responded to several incidents of racist vandalism found scrawled in an on-campus stairwell on Nov. 4. One message included a racial slur and a threat referencing a 2012 school shooting, reported DelmarvaNow.

In response, the university added more security cameras to the existing 900 cameras on campus. SU also created new social media to better interact with students; held regular meetings for discussion between students, faculty, staff and the president; deployed additional resources in conjunction with SU Police Department; increased the number of emergency preparation trainings on campus; scheduled regular community office hours with administration; and updated imagery on campus to better reflect SU’s population.

Additionally the university set the goal of 100 percent faculty and staff compliance on required diversity and sensitivity training, and it is working with faculty to evaluate the curriculum to be attentive to the diversity of the student population.

On Wednesday Salisbury students submitted a list of demands for the university to improve the campus climate. One of the demands was for a CDO-type position to be created. The students acknowledged this came after Wight had made his announcement. It is unclear whether the university will be meeting the students' other demands.

Salisbury welcomed its largest and most diverse class this semester. African American and other minority groups make up a quarter of Salisbury's students.

Equity roles have had a lot of traction in the past few years, said Modlin. This new Salisbury officer will assist the institution in providing strategic leadership related to its already existing strategic plan.

“We want this person to set the strategies and strategic goals,” said Modlin.

In conjunction with the CDO announcement, Wight and SU officials also formed a diversity and inclusion task force comprised of students, faculty and staff. The task force has been commissioned with providing Wight a list of findings and recommendations by early March.

“The task force will work across campus to help identify opportunities and help us formulate goals and solutions,” Wight said in a press release. “We expect to immediately implement some of the work from the task force, while the SU Diversity and Inclusion Consortium Committee will continue its work following the report.”

“While we have some broad goals and ideas of what this person might do -- what this office might do -- we are very much relying on input [from the community] to help us shape that role,” Modlin said.

Modlin said that this officer will “absolutely” hold a lot of influence, as the position is at a senior administrator level and will report directly to Wight.

“I have tremendous respect and appreciation for chief diversity officers -- for people who occupy those roles as well as for the roles themselves,” said Shaun Harper, a scholar on issues of race and equity in higher education, who is both a professor and the executive director at the Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California.

“However, I do not think that the hiring of a chief diversity officer is the solution to the cultural and systemic forces that compel students and others to vandalize property and behave in racist ways on campuses. In other words, what I’m saying is the CDO is not the solution.”

The creation of chief diversity officer positions has been as widespread and frequent as the racist, sexist and intolerant incidents that inspire their creation. While some see this as an alternative path to the presidency, critics are cautious about how effective these roles really are.

“Chief diversity officers are oftentimes ceremonial appointees,” said Harper. “Meaning that it is in vogue for companies and campuses to create the position, but without very much influence and power and oftentimes very few resources. That certainly is not going to lead to any version of systemic change.”

Harper said that one of the biggest challenges he’s seen CDOs face is not being treated as the experts they are when issues arise, such as racist vandalism appearing on campus. Harper said colleges need to be proactive about the use of CDOs and actually engage them.

“What I have seen work best is a ‘both and’ approach,” said Harper, outlining a CDO role that is sufficiently supported existing alongside a larger, multidimensional all-campus approach to supporting diversity. Harper emphasized that one person alone cannot solve all of a campus’s issues.

To Harper, some institutional leaders believe that issues happening on other campuses wouldn’t happen on their own. This prevents them from knowing how to respond beforehand. Harper drew on Inside Higher Ed’s survey of college presidents to point out the disparity between the low percentage of presidents who think campus race relations across the country are good compared to the higher percentage of presidents who feel race relations on their campuses are good.

Earlier in November, a coalition of Syracuse University students and alumni pushed the university to make changes after a series of racist incidents shook the campus.

A 2018 study found that students of color tend to feel less of a sense of belonging on their campus when compared with white students.

Harper said that college and university leaders need to move away from responding to racist incidents with just a condemnation letter. They need to have follow-up. Without committed follow-up, students view credibility as lost.

Salisbury officials are already conducting their search, looking both within the university and outside it. Modlin said that the university wants the new officer to start as soon as possible, but they don’t want to rush the process.

“With a position of this importance and significance, we will be conducting a national search,” said Modlin. “I really do believe this person will serve as a leader.”

“Because we do a lot of work with presidents, I am sensitive to the reality that their jobs are so complex,” Harper said. “Presidents ought to hire strong chief diversity officers.” Harper said that presidents need to stop seeking out officers who won’t challenge them or the institution, instead hiring CDOs that are willing to do the hard work and be honest -- sometimes in ways that are difficult.

Modlin reports that they’ve already heard positive feedback from the campus and broader community on the creation of the new role.

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