A Diverse Faculty is Key to Creating a Culture of Inclusion on CampusElsa Núñez | President, Eastern Connecticut State University
Two years ago, the news media was replete with stories about discrimination lawsuits and the lack of diversity in the Silicon Valley corporate world. Companies there and elsewhere continue to grapple with diversifying their workforce in keeping with company values. As corporate America seeks a more diverse workforce, colleges and universities across the nation can play a significant role in the process.
Our students are graduating and joining a workforce where they must collaborate, work together and innovate. In many industries, especially in STEM areas, companies are drawing employees from across the globe. Today’s employees must be comfortable working with peers from different cultures and perspectives, as cultural awareness and sensitivity becomes an essential part of a worker’s employability profile.
Developing a professional workforce that values and practices inclusion can begin on our campuses, where educators have spent decades working to diversify the faculty for the benefit of students.
One can make the case that college campuses are more diverse than the high schools that most students attend, and that college life is the ideal time for students to grow their cultural perspectives and appreciation for inclusive environments. On my own campus—Eastern Connecticut State University—most of our students are from Connecticut and most of the towns in our state are not diverse. Students of color from our inner cities, as well as affluent white students from communities like Greenwich, Darien and Avon, go to high school with students who look like them. Coming to our campus is often the first time they have the opportunity to study with, live with, and become friends with people from other cultural and racial backgrounds.
To help students adapt, our campus life professionals offer a host of programs to help students begin to feel comfortable relating to students who are not like them. Even so, perhaps the most important factor in creating and supporting a diverse student population on campus is to ensure a diverse faculty. My own campus has been recognized as having the highest percentage of diverse faculty among Connecticut higher education institutions—more than Yale, Wesleyan, the University of Connecticut or any other college or university in Connecticut. We are proud of this fact, because it has a number of positive impacts on our campus.
Students of color, like all prospective students, look at college websites and promotional materials for familiar faces—people who look like them. Once on campus, these same students seek validation, mentors and role models. “Do I fit in?” “Who can I turn to for help?” And, on a positive note, “If Dr. Garcia can be a successful professor, perhaps I can succeed as well.”
The degree to which an African American student or Hispanic student can look to the front of classroom and see someone who might have come from the same background can be the difference between that student dropping out of college or staying in school to finish their degree. Having adult role models who are also successful in working and living in an inclusive environment send students from all backgrounds a powerful message that their lives are fuller when they can share ideas with people who have different perspectives.
A diverse faculty also contributes to cultural life on campus. Faculty from a variety of backgrounds seek out guest speakers, faculty-in-residence and other visitors from across the globe and the cultural spectrum. At Eastern Connecticut State University, we have been enriched by guest artists-in-residence from Puerto Rico, Cuba and other countries, brought to campus by one of our Latino professors.
Of course, cultural diversity is not limited to race or ethnicity. One of our philosophy professors is an expert on eastern religions, and once brought Mahatma Gandhi’s granddaughter to campus for a conference on comparative religion. Still another art professor brought Tibetan monks to campus to demonstrate how they craft a mandala. Cultural perspectives and the quality of life on our campus are enhanced when diversity is celebrated in all its forms.
Hiring faculty from all walks of life takes diligence, patience and a willingness to wait for the right person to present themselves. We have delayed faculty hires when the pool of candidates was not sufficiently diverse. Hiring faculty of color, however, is only the first step in ensuring a diverse faculty. Retaining faculty of color also requires a formal, supported mentoring program. At Eastern, we have an active Minority Recruitment and Retention Committee that provides support, mentoring, and professional development opportunities for faculty and staff. This is an important point—if a campus’s faculty ranks are diverse but the staff and administration is not, you cannot sustain a culture of inclusion on campus.
As much as we focus on overcoming discrimination and prejudice in the areas of race and ethnicity, college campuses are a perfect place to broaden the definition of diversity and promote a more encompassing culture of inclusion. Gender equity, respect for people of different faiths, and support for the LGBT community must also be components of a diverse campus culture.
By creating a culture of inclusion on campus, where being respectful of all members of the campus community is expected and promoted, our students truly learn to value the world’s rich human fabric. They see how classroom discussions are enriched by a variety of perspectives. They enjoy learning about other cultures from their peers. They sit together at concerts, picnics, lectures and other events that celebrate the cultures of the globe. They learn to appreciate that they are preparing for a world that is at least as diverse as our campus is, and a workplace that demands that they collaborate across cultural lines. On our campus, that begins by having a faculty and staff that represents the world community.
Author Perspective: Administrator