From Affirmative Action to Strategic Diversity Leadership: A New Model of Diversity in the Academy -

Posted: 4/14/2014 2:09 PM
Filed under: equitable education

Damon A. Williams // 2013

As we consider the key diversity issues of access, equity, and inclusion, it is clear that the sun is fast setting on affirmative action.  From the end to quotas and dualistic processes to the rise of holistic review and diversity as a “black box bonus factor”, the power of affirmative action has been, since its inception, gradually eroded.  And though the need for some form of equity framework remains great, the spirit of the times, the voice of the courts, and the commentary of public opinion signal the end of affirmative action—particularly as it relates to race consciousness.
Groups like the Center for Individual Rights and the Center for Equal Opportunity are organized and coordinated in quickening the pace of affirmative action’s demise.  They operate under the mantle of “equity”, co-opting the traditional language of “equal protection and individual rights” and funding litigation, conferences, ballot initiatives, political lobbying, and other strategies to dismantle the legacy of the civil rights movement.  In the last several years, they have been quick to argue that we live in a “post-racialized” America, falsely pointing to the successes of President and First Lady Obama, Jay-Z and Oprah as prima facie evidence that race is no longer a social deterrent to success.
Proponents of this perspective ignore the fact that only eight African Americans have ever served as CEOs in the Fortune 500, and there is a glaringly persistent absence of wealth in the black community.  They choose to overlook the epic crisis engulfing African American males and the drastic implications this holds not only for the black community but American society.  Insisting on a post-racialized America, these groups are oblivious to the intersecting challenges of race, access, and nationality that will become an even more pressing reality as the Latino community grows exponentially and the educational needs of the undocumented fully mature.

A Paradigm Shift to A New Model

While the social and moral imperatives of diversity remain critical, the educational and business cases for diversity have the potential to ignite an even more powerful movement.  Diversity in the new economy is rendered imperative by factors that range from socio-environmental sustainability, to economic vitality, global competitiveness, student learning, and organizational excellence. Diversity can no longer be a secondary or tertiary priority abstracted from what matters most on campus like affirmative action has for so many years. 
Whether college or university, top corporation, or leading non-profit, the organizational reality of the 21st century requires a conceptual shift in our understanding of why diversity matters. This means thinking about diversity as both an end—in terms of diversifying the demographics of our student, faculty, administrative, and staff bodies; and as a means—of improving the organizational bottom line.  That bottom line may variously be defined as student learning, research and the expansion of knowledge, providing services of relevance to new consumer audiences, retaining the best and the brightest faculty, staff, or administrative talent, or creating an organizational culture centered on innovation and team work. 

Strategic Diversity Leadership in the Academy

While some will engage their work using classic models of affirmative action and social justice, most will need to paradigm shift into a new model—Strategic Diversity Leadership. This paradigm of leadership must build upon what remains of the affirmative action paradigm while reframing the conversation within the context of the world we live in today.  Strategic diversity leaders must know more than issues of identity, “isms”, and the legal terrain of diversity if they are to harness the momentum of our current age.  Strategic diversity leaders have to be as equally adroit applying the latest concepts from the Harvard Business Review as they are the latest concepts from the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, Hispanic Outlook, and Diverse Issues in Higher Education. They must cultivate this kind of intellectual versatility if they are to have the mindset required to open up a powerful new line of questioning about their efforts on campus. 

Winning On and With Diversity

Some institutions can win on diversity in such absolute terms as, “We are the number one producer of ethnic and racially diverse PhD’s,” or, “Our faculty have raised the most research money focused on exploring issues of racial and ethnic health disparities”.  But how we define winning in higher education is rarely so narrow, finite and tactical.  The notion carries with it a complexity that goes beyond simple, tactical outcomes.  Hence, the student who earned an A is not necessarily the most learned person, nor will they necessarily become the most accomplished professionally; the scholar with the most number of publications is not necessarily the most gifted, nor the most relevant to their field.  What if no one applies or further explores the scholar’s research? Is the scholar more relevant than the person who writes one book that changes the landscape of their area of inquiry forever? Even if they never publish another piece?
The term “winning on and with diversity” is used because truly achieving success requires a multi-faceted agenda.  It must focus upon winning on diversity by maximizing the numbers and success of diverse individuals on campus.  At the same time, institutional leaders must create an environment that integrates diverse ideas into the technology of our institutions:  how we make decisions, plan for our future, build capacity, create accountability, teach courses, educate, engage research, set priorities, and lead in a 21st century context.  This is winning with diversity as a matter of institutional excellence. 
As affirmative action continues to erode and the world continues to change, institutional leaders must confront these questions and issues in an effort to evolve toward the strategic diversity leadership paradigm.  To do anything less is simply to throw money at a problem, or replay the same broken record.  It would forestall any new actions to break the cycle of failure, exclusion and deprivation.  It would echo the clinical definition of insanity—repeating the same actions over and over while expecting a new result!

Dr. Damon A. Williams, is Vice Provost & Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity & Climate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He holds a doctorate in organizational behavior and management from the University of Michigan Center for the Study of Higher and Post-Secondary Education and is nationally recognized in the areas of diversity, leadership and organizational change. He has served as a scholar in residence for the Association of American Colleges and Universities and recently published a monograph with the American Council on Education (ACE) titled "The Chief Diversity Officer: A Primer for Presidential Leadership.

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