Diverse Leadership in Higher Education: Time to Get (More) Serious

Most institutions of higher education today are “very serious” about developing diversity among their top administrators, believes Witt/Kieffer senior partner Oliver Tomlin. That’s a vast improvement from the past, he says. But it doesn’t mean that schools and search committees still can’t learn a thing or two about developing diverse leadership—a recent American Council on Education (ACE) survey noted that minority representation among higher ed leadership has slightly declined, in fact. Colleges and universities must learn to be more inclusive as well, Tomlin says.

Tomlin has tracked the arc of leadership diversity for more than three decades both as an executive and as a search consultant. He is an active member and former trustee of the National Association of Health Services Executives (NAHSE) and a founding member of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. He has also worked extensively with the ACE and the Institute for Diversity in healthcare on key initiatives.

Oliver Tomlin

Oliver Tomlin

In our interview below, Tomlin discusses the nuances of how diverse leadership is defined in this day and age, and how progressive schools are prioritizing diversity when they undertake a leadership search.

What does diversity mean today in the context of higher education leadership searches? Is it more nuanced than in the past or has the definition of diversity expanded or changed?

Tomlin: The short answer is yes. I think not too long ago diversity was defined primarily as gender, ethnicity, religion, and maybe disability and sexual orientation, but I think it’s gotten even broader today. In fact more and more institutions aren’t even using the term diversity as much as they are referring to the office or the initiative as inclusive. They want to be known as an inclusive environment and accepting of all differences in every aspect. Some can even define it as being inclusive of differences in ideas and diversity of thought. So yes diversity has more nuances and is defined differently than in the past.

Do you think most higher ed institutions today are really serious about developing and maintaining diversity and/or inclusiveness in their top leadership positions?

Tomlin: Yes, I think they are very serious about it. I think the more serious institutions are those that have board support for their diversity or inclusion efforts. And it’s also a function of the type of institution. For example, institutions that have a large minority population or international population are much more conscious of diversity at the senior leadership level. Those that are not are still interested but probably have less teeth behind their initiatives.

Within these “serious institutions,” so to speak, do you view it as colleges and universities proactively fulfilling their missions or responding to pressure from stakeholders and constituents to place diversity and inclusivity at the top of the priority list?

Tomlin: It’s both. It is in their mission statement but has to be supported by board support and board encouragement. It’s a combination, not either/or.

What’s your view in terms of the diversity of candidates who are available for top positions within higher ed? Is it stronger today than it was five or 10 years ago?

Tomlin: Yes, absolutely. We haven’t made a lot of progress but certainly the available candidate pool has increased with the number women in senior leadership positions, people of color in senior leadership positions, and people that are open about their sexual orientations. Yes, the pool is larger. If you take a look at the numbers, it hasn’t changed dramatically but I think it will continue to increase as we go forward.

What do you see that is working in terms of the development of diverse leadership in higher ed?

Tomlin: I think there are more support programs now. ACE [American Council on Education] is taking more of an active role. The Institute for Diversity is taking a more active role in helping to cultivate and develop leadership. More fellowships are being funded and supported to do so. I think it’s just a matter of time before we begin to see more of the fruits of those efforts.

It takes time for people to get more and more comfortable working in an environment that is different from what they had experienced previously. It’s a behavioral change. You constantly push the envelope but you can’t force it and expect results to happen overnight. It’s more of a derivative process.

For leadership candidates who want to work for an institution that truly values diversity and inclusivity in its leadership, what do they look for? How do they know for sure?

Tomlin: That’s part of the candidate’s due diligence when they are on campus and also when they are talking to colleagues and peers around the country. In a lot of ways, higher education is a small industry and everyone knows a lot of people across different institutions. Through these networks they can ascertain what a school’s true commitment is. Of course you can review the institution’s mission statement and diversity statistics, but it’s really more about the informal process of investigating which employers are committed to diversity.

How does the search committee ensure that it has diversity top of mind throughout the recruitment process?

Tomlin: More and more search committees now have someone from HR or from the chief diversity office either on the search committee or sitting in on discussions. With their presence and our raising the issue of diversity of the candidate pool, that ensures that these issues remain at the forefront. In addition, some public institutions have reports that they have to complete during the search process. That’s very formal and that’s an exception and not the rule.

Explain a bit more about how the idea of inclusivity is prioritized and present throughout a leadership search?

Tomlin: Inclusivity is more of the search committee’s reaction to a situation.  It refers to the committee’s willingness to look at candidates from all types of backgrounds, and to even look at candidates outside of the academy—for example, presidential candidates that have not had experience within another institution of higher learning. It is when you are willing to consider candidates who are “off spec,” if you will.

Is that something a search committee has to train itself to look for?

Tomlin: Some do that. In the commencement of a search, some committees have to go through a tutorial that’s done by their institution or a third party—about how to keep an open mind, how to be inclusive in the process, how not to prejudge, or so forth. So there are formal processes to go through and over time individuals and institutions grow to understand what it means to be inclusive in looking for leaders.

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In short, Tomlin says, while progress has been made in regards to diverse leadership in academia, there is plenty of room for improvement left.

By Paul Thomas, Witt/Kieffer Senior Writer (@PaulWThomas)

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