Diversity czars lead the charge for change

Colleges seeking multicultural growth hire new coordinators

The Houston Chronicle
September 18, 2004

Universities seeking to diversify their student bodies are doing more these days than holding recruiting fairs and hiring minority professors.

They're depending on so-called "diversity czars" or high-ranking administrators who coordinate the school's multicultural efforts, from the curriculum to the availability of a wide range of religious services on campus.

"It's a fairly recent phenomenon. It's quite widespread," said George Leef, director of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a North Carolina think tank.

The Houston Community College System hired its diversity specialist one month ago. The University of Texas at Austin wants someone in place before May, and Texas A&M University hired its expert, James Anderson, in November.

"It's about new programs, new initiatives and enhancing the existing programs," said Anderson, Texas A&M's vice president and associate provost for institutional assessment and diversity.

The push for these experts comes as the nation's campuses continue to become more diverse and as the state seeks to boost minority enrollment and graduation rates by 2015.

"We believe that all of us are growing up in a world that is a bit different than the one we grew up in," said Sheldon Ekland-Olson, UT's executive vice president and provost. "There is a very important educational value in the notion of diversity."

At HCCS, 29.1 percent of the students are Hispanic, the single largest group attending its schools. This fall, Baylor University enrolled its most diverse freshman class ever, with minorities making up 30.3 percent of the population. That's up from 25.5 percent in 2003.

Minority numbers increase

At Texas A&M, minorities account for 15 percent of the university's campuswide enrollment of 44,571. Though minority students account for less than 20 percent of freshmen, their numbers increased this fall after a seven-year downward trend.

Compared with last year, the school enrolled 55 more black students for a 35 percent increase; 177 more Hispanics for a 26 percent increase; and 34 more Asian Americans for a 15 percent increase.

The most dramatic rise came when the university enrolled 11 more American Indian students, for a 41 percent increase.

University officials say it's too early to attribute the changes to its diversity expert, yet Anderson said his focus will soon make a difference.

In particular, he's encouraging departments to take note of applicants with diverse backgrounds as Texas A&M pushes toward hiring 400 new faculty members by 2008.

He is also involved in conversations about whether Texas A&M students should be required to take more diversity courses.

"With some of the things we were doing, maybe we aren't getting the bang for our buck," said Anderson, who is also a tenured psychology professor.

Not convinced of need

Even though these experts draft ideas for bigger diversity efforts, Leef isn't convinced universities need them.

"The mania for diversity is deflecting schools from their true missions," Leef said. "Students learn about diversity in the course of living."

James Corona, HCC's new diversity recruiting manager, said a school's function is not that simple anymore. Corona is trying to create partnerships with minority organizations. He's also working on an initiative that will give more HCC employees the chance to attend cultural awareness and sensitivity training.

"This is definitely not a one-man show. It's a teamwork process," Corona said. "I'll need the rest of the management to help me reach these initiatives."

Other times it takes money. In Austin, UT President Larry R. Faulkner said he's ready to spend $ 500,000 on programs that his new vice provost would oversee. The 50,403-student university, which is trying to create a more diverse campus, saw modest increases among its 6,800 incoming black, Hispanic and Asian American freshmen this fall.

"We're delighted that the numbers were going up, but we wish they were going up faster," Ekland-Olson said.

Although minorities comprise about 40 percent of the incoming students, Ekland-Olson said, the university is especially troubled that blacks made up only 4.5 percent of the class. The university hopes that its new hire will be able to change that.

"Our objective is to create a richly diverse environment so students can engage in the world that they enter," he said. "If we accomplish that, we succeed."


A look at the racial makeup of some state and local schools as of Sept. 16:

University of Texas at Austin

White 57.4%
Asian 14.3%
Hispanic 13.3%
Black 3.5%
Other 11.5%

Texas A&M University

White 75.7%
Asian 3.1%
Hispanic 9.3%
Black 2.5%
Other 9.4%