Diversity Part II: Lack of progress hurts employee recruitment, retention


Mitch Stomner

Diversity Part II: Lack of progress hurts employee recruitment, retention

By Associate Editor

According to recently reported racial and gender demographics, Columbia’s faculty, staff and administration reflect far less diversity than that of its student body.

The data, which shows that approximately 50 percent of the student body identifies as white non-Hispanic, also reveal upwards of 80 percent of full- and part-time faculty are white non-Hispanic along with 70 percent of full-time staff, including 14 out of the college’s 18 administrators and two of three deans.

While representation is important for students of diverse backgrounds to see among their faculty and staff, it hardly exists, according to Luther Hughes, a senior creative writing major and Student Government Association president. In addition to being the only black student in some of his classes, he has only had one black professor within his own department.

Instead of just teaching about classic black poets like Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, that professor, C.M. Burroughs, offered a unique perspective within Hughes’ poetry workshop course because she taught about black contemporary poets and all the books she assigned were from non-white writers, he said.

“Other than that teacher, I won’t get that,” Hughes said. “I might get one book, and that book is usually taught in every class as the go-to person-of-color book. It’s weird because if I didn’t have that class I wouldn’t have known how to write from this kind of gauge. I would be taught to write like a white poet.”

The college’s lack of comparative diversity can indicate that the campus fosters a poor environment for people of minority backgrounds and could stunt the progress of the college’s diversity initiatives.

Daryl G. Smith, a senior researcher fellow in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University who studies higher education diversity practices, said fostering student diversity and hiring practices for faculty and staff must be prioritized to ensure proper representation.

“The absence of diversity in leadership begins to raise questions about honest commitment,” Smith said.

Columbia’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness keeps annual records of the college’s demographic diversity based on gender and ethnicity from each fall semester, as required by the federal government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. The data is later posted to the college community online. The most recent data, published in February, reflects the college population at the start of the Fall 2015 Semester.

However, several “clerical” and other errors were found dating as far back as 2012, consequently adding more minorities into certain groups in full-time faculty and staff demographics, some of whom were meant to be listed in the white category and others simply overcounted. The datasets from 2012 and 2014 were updated in March after being questioned by The Chronicle.

College spokeswoman Cara Birch said these mistakes were due to human error after transferring the data from IPEDS to the online datasets. President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim said the errors are a reflection of a larger issue of miscounting college data.

Of the college populations the demographics measure—undergraduate and graduate students, full- and part-time faculty, and full- and part-time staff—students displayed the most racial diversity.

As of Fall 2015, the undergraduate student body consisted of 55 percent white non-Hispanic students, 15 percent black non-Hispanic students and 11 percent Hispanic students. The graduate student population reported similar numbers, comprising of 56 percent white non-Hispanic students, 15 percent black non-Hispanic students and 8 percent Hispanic students. Student demographics by department were not made available to the Chronicle.

Columbia’s administrators, who are recorded as staff rather than faculty, consist of 18 vice presidents and assistant or associate provosts—excluding those who have left since the Spring 2016 Semester began. They include only three employees belonging to minorities: Sharon Wilson-Taylor, associate vice president and dean of students, Patricia Olalde, interim vice president of Human Resources and Cindy Gonya, assistant vice president of Budget, Planning & Analysis.  

Of the school’s deans, Onye Ozuzu, interim dean of the School of Fine & Performing Arts, is  the only one who is not a white male. However, all of the employee racial demographic data is self-reported and undisclosed.

A total of 82 percent of full-time faculty were white non-Hispanics, with 85 percent of part-time faculty and 70 percent of full-time staff also identifying in the same category.

Columbia’s part-time staff workforce most closely mirrored the racial demographics of students. As of Fall 2015, the college’s part-time staff is 56 percent white non-Hispanic, 23 percent black non-Hispanic, 13 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian. Smith said this could be because more of them were locally hired and they are lower ranking employees, whereas faculty and administrative positions can be the product of national searches or have higher degree requirements.

Elio Leturia, an associate professor in the Communication and Media Innovation Department and one of 13 Hispanic-identifying full-time faculty members at the college out of a total of 324, said not only can it be “isolating” for diverse students to not see representation in their professors, but it can also be a struggle for the faculty and staff members who are minorities.

Leturia, who also teaches the “Reporting for Spanish-Language News Media” course and is one of two Hispanic journalism professors, added that colleagues have said he speaks too often about Latino issues and he  now makes a conscious effort to avoid it.

“I make myself not talk about that because I don’t want to be seen as imposing a Latino agenda,” Leturia said.

Coordinator of Asian-American Cultural Affairs Ramona Gupta said aside from programs offered by the Center for Innovation and Teaching Excellence like “Teaching to Transgress” and “Practicing Diversity,” there are no collegewide support services for diverse faculty and staff members. She said she thinks the lack of support systems for people of diverse backgrounds negatively affects the environment for faculty and staff.

Diversity support system services could possibly be a charge for the new associate vice president of Human Resources Kim said he plans to hire soon. However, the position’s main charge will be to investigate new hiring strategies, on the heels of the college’s recent hiring freeze.

Asked about the disparity in hiring minorities for top positions, Kim said diverse life experience—whether it be due to gender, race or sexual orientation—is an important qualification of candidates, but the college is looking for the most qualified candidate.

“We’re trying to find the most qualified people and what I’m thinking a lot about is how do we at the policy level incorporate language around diversity that helps us guarantee a broader set of outcomes than we currently seem to have,” Kim said. “We don’t have that yet.”

Smith said colleges argue that they hire only “qualified” candidates in response to questions about whether they hire women and racial minorities.

“Obviously, you want qualified people and the students want qualified people, but how we understand ‘qualified’ and the way diversity is played into that is terribly important,” Smith said. “It’s not just about a box that you put somebody in, but the more you embed that as imperative in your hiring, the more likely you are to get excellent people who know how to help students function in a diverse society and know how to teach in a diverse society.”

Smith conducted a study in the late ‘90s debunking myths about hiring diversity. The study, which Smith said still applies today, rejected claims there is a smaller pool of minority candidates and that it is more difficult to recruit them from prestigious schools, calling them “excuses” that disguise larger issues that can also play out in retention.

There’s also a widespread recognition in the many university diversity recruiting handbooks online that search committees must do outreach to seed the pool, so to speak, and Columbia has honored this practice, although a diversity “toolkit” has not been compiled.

Employers cannot wait for potential diverse hires to come to them, according to Nancy Day, a professor in the CMI Department who served as chair of the then-Journalism Department from the Fall 2003 Semester to the Spring 2014 Semester. During former hiring processes, she and hiring committees recruited from several groups that represented people of diverse backgrounds, including the National Gay and Lesbian Journalism Association, Journalism & Women Symposium and several racial minority groups. This resulted in four tenured faculty hires under her leadership, including Leturia.

“You have to broaden the [hiring] pool,” Day said.

Birch said all full-time faculty postings are required to be placed in publications, including Diverse Issues in Higher Education and Hispanic Outlook’s online version as well as the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.

Kim acknowledged the disparity between faculty, staff and administrative diversity and student diversity, but said he does not yet fully understand why it is important for diverse students to see racial and gender representation among their faculty and staff.

“I don’t know how important it is,” Kim said. “I think it’s important but I can’t tell you based on what …. It’s important because we want to guarantee our students are being exposed to multiple perspectives, but I don’t know if it’s actually the case that every student should expect to see someone who they feel represents their experience.”

According to Institutional Effectiveness, the college’s latest retention rates show that beginning in Fall 2012, the college retained more than 58 percent of white non-Hispanic students while approximately 55 percent of Hispanic and 44 percent of Black/African-American Students remained at the college.

According to Smith, giving students—or even faculty and staff—representation makes them feel less like a “token” and creates an easier journey at the college.

“Part of what happens with sufficient numbers in critical mass is the individual gets to be an individual,” she said. “If you’re the only one in a group, you become a representative of the group. Who you are as an individual sort of gets lost in all of that.”

Sheila Baldwin, a professor in the English Department who teaches several African- American literature classes, said diversity initiatives have been slow at Columbia for several years, but Kim’s promise to address diversity and even discussing racial issues at the collegewide faculty forum before the Fall 2015 Semester are positive signs.

“It takes a different kind of leadership to say you’re going to put racism on the table,” Baldwin said. “It takes leadership to do that. What it says to the campus is, ‘Forewarn, [race] is the subject I am going to address.’ It was marvelous to hear.”

 In January, Kim appointed 11 members of the college to a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee who will make recommendations regarding the Strategic Plan’s diversity initiatives. Chaired by Ozuzu, the committee began meeting March 2 and will continue to do so through May 11.

According to Kim, the group’s job will be to analyze the college’s current environment and tell him what the best future practices are. The committee’s recommendations will include discussing whether the college should hire a Vice President of DEI outlined in the Strategic Plan. Kim said he is unsure whether one will be hired until he hears what the committee has to say.

Unlike the Strategic Plan implementation committees—which the DEI committee is not part of—the group can continue working together in future semesters, Ozuzu said.

However, the committee’s progress has been slow. After beginning work six months after the Strategic Plan implementation committees started, the DEI committee also had its scheduled March 7 collegewide town hall and presentation postponed to April 11, giving the group more time to meet, Ozuzu said.

“It makes sense [for] our presentation to Columbia to happen when we’ve had a little more time under our belt to know what we’re doing,” Ozuzu said.

Ozuzu also said the Provost’s Office hired the People’s Institute—an organization that holds workshops on correcting institutional racism for employers—to visit Columbia beginning in May. Administration, faculty and staff will be given opportunities to work with the organization, similarly to when Ozuzu brought its members to work with the Dance Department in 2013.

“It will very quickly give our working bodies shared language and a rigorous framework to engage one another and get work done versus wondering what each other means by the words we’re using,” Ozuzu said.

Gupta, who sits on the committee, said she is unsure if the college needs a diversity vice president to make effective change. Gupta said her desire to see urgent changes to the college’s approach to diversity has not fully been met by the committee’s formation.

“The committee’s charge is not to deal with all of the issues in a piecemeal way,” Gupta said. “We’re looking at the systemic problems that exist at Columbia, to look at the structures and how we can improve them so in the long-term we’re doing better. It’s not a way to address all the issues that are happening right now.”

Nic Ruley, an adjunct professor in the Television Department who teaches “Culture, Race and Media,” said he does not think the DEI committee will be effective because its members were picked from the self-nominee pool by Kim, and all the members report to him as well, giving the president too much power.

“The very notion that one man handpicks a diversity council literally spits in the face of a diversity council,” Ruley said. “One guy picks a diverse group of people who make suggestions, and then the one guy decides if he’s going to take the suggestions or not. That’s hard for me to say there’s any initiative in place.”

Gupta said with the idea that DEI is a “standing committee,” she hopes it has full support of the administration to have their voices heard.

“It’s my hope that the work that we do and the recommendations we make are honored because I think everyone on the committee understands what the issues are at Columbia,” she said. “We’re doing it with the best intentions.”

While he sees the effort being put forward at the college, Leturia said creating a diverse climate among all members of the campus community will not only take work but a collegewide desire to improve.

“Cultural change is something that’s going to not only take time, it has to have support and people who are open to change,” Leturia said. “If you’re not open to changing, it doesn’t matter … the intention and desire to go there, it is [there]. We need it because if we are diverse, we are going to serve our diverse student body.”