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Q&A: Race and Diversity: Student Demands and Presidential Imperatives

3/15/2016

Benjamin D. Reese Jr.

 

​In this exclusive Q&A with The Presidency, Benjamin D. Reese Jr. draws insights and early lessons from a season of campus activism.

Benjamin D. Reese Jr. is president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education and vice president and chief diversity officer, Office for Institutional Equity, at Duke University (NC) and Duke University Health System.

In the wake of top-level resignations at the University of Missouri, and as students, faculty, and administrators at colleges and universities across the country grapple with racial discrimination, what diversity lessons do you think higher education has learned so far?

It’s hard to accurately assess what we’ve learned until more time has passed and we can be more reflective, but two areas of early learning stand out. One is what I call the “priority lesson” and another might be labeled the “diversity-race error.” Past ACE surveys have suggested that although presidents value student and faculty engagement, much of their time is actually spent in other activities. Presidential priorities often come down to fundraising, budgets, community relations, and strategic planning. There’s no denying that in today’s environment these are critical tasks and key metrics as trustees gauge a president’s success, or lack thereof, but it’s clear to me that the task list is in need of adjusting. More direct engagement with students and issues of diversity, race in particular, must be a priority for today’s leaders.

Now, clearly some presidents do this juggling better than others, but for many, this crisis is an opportunity for self-evaluation. “What are my top priorities?” “What are the costs-benefits related to how I spend my time?” There is no textbook formula for deeper student engagement, but the sight of presidents and chancellors joining students in protests and senior level administrators agreeing to students’ list of demands is perhaps an indication of a different relationship. I acknowledge that some of the locking of arms between presidents and protesting students may simply be reactionary, but I have a feeling, and a hope, that priorities have shifted.

The promulgation of the term “diversity” has brought with it so much that is important in the academy. It signals the importance of an ever-broadening list of human characteristics that can contribute to the richness of interpersonal and team interactions. Increasing numbers of research studies and student surveys point to the ways in which frequent interactions between students who differ along significant dimensions prepare them for living and working among the cultures, religions, sexual orientations, ages, races, and individuals from a range of economic backgrounds that occupy so many of our nation’s and the world’s workplaces and communities.

I could go on and on describing the value of a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives in solving the complex challenges of our planet. All this is good. This is what I deeply believe. It’s the work I do. But, I hope that leaders begin to seriously examine how we often conflate “race” and “diversity,” as if we can subsume race under the rubric of diversity and then talk about all of the many ways we differ and are similar. The history of race in this country and on college and university campuses should bring home the systemic, long-standing nature of race and racism. As our students are teaching us, intersectionality is important, and race is important. It’s both/and. The reality of our nation is that intersectionality is critical. It speaks to the complexity and fluidity of our identities, but it’s an error to focus exclusively on our multiple identities at the expense of a full appreciation of the historical and current context of race in America and on our campuses.

What lessons have yet to be learned?

My hope is that we begin to revisit the skills, competencies, and experiences that adequately prepare presidents and chancellors for what is often referred to as the new normal. I don’t personally believe that we’re going to see a major shift in the preparation of presidents and chancellors. So much of what we currently see as preparation for the presidency is solid and relevant, but there will definitely be discussions about important tweaks to the preparation of chief executives. Let’s get a little distance from the current national shifts, and then, I hope, we’ll see working groups and think tanks examining and creating models for successful presidents. Clearly there won’t be one model that fits all environments, but a place to start is for presidents and chancellors to examine the competency areas described in the Standards of Professional Practice for Chief Diversity Officers (http://www.nadohe.org/standards-of-professionalpractice-for-chief-diversity-officers), developed by the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. To some extent, they apply to all leaders in the academy.

If you were to give one piece of advice to a president who is looking for a way to meaningfully deepen her or his campus’s diversity, what would you say?

Look around the executive conference table of the cabinet. Does it represent the widest range of diversity, along a host of dimensions? You never want to prescribe any particular mixture of backgrounds, but ask yourself, “How broad a range of perspectives and backgrounds do I have as my advisors?” For example, during the current discussions of race and racism, look around the table and ask yourself whether your advisors have experiences that can substantially contribute to the understanding of race and racism.

How can diversity officers best help inform presidents’ decisions about campus life and campus-wide policy as a whole?

As protests unfolded on campuses across the country, two of the most frequent comments to me by chief diversity officers (CDOs) were, “Why didn’t my president ask me before?” and “This is what I’ve been telling him/her all along.” A president fully utilizing the skills and competencies of a CDO, ensuring that the CDO is a true member of the senior leadership team, is critical. Clearly, the president and other leaders also have responsibility for diversity and race issues on campus, but the CDO is the expert, the one who is engaged full time in working on these issues. I often think of the analogy of the chief financial officer. Everyone has the responsibility of being a good steward of institutional funds, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t need a chief financial officer. The expert, the institutional leader, doesn’t replace the broad responsibility of all executives, but this individual, ideally, is the primary leader.

Looking ahead, what are the major diversity challenges that campus leaders need to recommit themselves to substantively addressing?

I think that our students have raised a number of systemic issues that will require substantial and authentic engagement by leaders. Sometimes the statements by students take the form of seemingly unrealistic demands, but so often they are symbolic of broader, long-standing issues and concerns. Removing a statue or renaming a building might seem like an attempt to rewrite history, but it may be indirectly probing the question of the extent to which institutional symbols align with stated values of an institution. Mandated workshops for faculty might seem unreasonable, but a discussion of implicit bias in the classroom or the capacity of given faculty members to understand current issues of intersectionality or transgender experiences may well be worth a serious investment of an institution’s time and resources. Demands for specified percentages of women or minority faculty might seem mechanistic or even illegal, but the gender and racial make-up of senior leadership and the faculty, as well as presidents and chancellors, are certainly areas where significant progress is long overdue. As I look ahead, I, like many in my generation, should not be so focused on our parental stance as critic of every seemingly unreasonable student demand. Rather, we should struggle to seriously examine and eliminate ingrained structures and processes of inequities and privilege that all too often have existed for generations and generations.

 
 
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