AGB Search Principals Monica Burton, Peggy Plympton, and Kim Bobby, in partnership with Lyn Harper, Senior Principal for Mercer, hosted HR & DEI – An Integrated People Strategy, a virtual breakfast session held to discuss how human resources and diversity, equity, and inclusion leaders in higher education are working together to foster a true sense of engagement and belonging among faculty, staff, students, and alumni. This was the fourth event in the recently launched series, Leadership Connections in Higher Education.
The discussion was led by moderators Bobby and Mary George Opperman, Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Cornell, and engaged Kimberly Goff-Crews, Secretary and Vice President for University Life at Yale, and Robert Sellers, Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer for the University of Michigan. During the session, Goff-Crews and Sellers shared strategies and outlined the various conversations taking place around the hiring of outstanding faculty and administrators, the invisible work that is often expected of those in human resources and DEI offices, and the hierarchies at play that impact the progress on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging on campuses.
The session began with how human resource leaders can explore and analyze their institutional systems and structures. We hear broadly about structural racism in higher education administration, so when it comes to recruiting and retaining diverse talent, how do we start the process of evaluating the structural barriers that exist in our systems? One consideration that is often overlooked is an internal reflection on evaluation criteria: there is an underlying inference that when discussing a candidate’s “excellence,” the subtext is more about the candidate’s background and education rather than the work they have performed, said Sellers, which results in excluding many candidates whose social identity is not included in the criteria. Human Resource leaders would do well to consider what criteria point to excellence and advancement, particularly the candidate’s qualifications and individual assets and the context in which they’ve been able to demonstrate those qualifications. In addition, it’s important to be conscious of advertising and marketing efforts in recruitment, and whether those efforts lead to diverse candidate pools. As Opperman stated, “These systems don’t just come down or change,” they are altered with intentional leadership.
In discussing qualifications and criteria, the conversation turned to the idea of invisible work within diversity, equity, and inclusion being performed by faculty and staff who are members of underrepresented groups. Sellers maintained that resources should constantly be in the back of the mind when discussing the moral imperative of invisible work and the burden that it brings, as well as careful consideration of who is being asked to perform the work. It should not be assumed that just because a leader has a certain connection to an issue that they are necessarily the best person for the work to solve it. There should be intentional efforts made to appoint the right people to perform unseen or additional work that benefits the institution, as well as to ensure that these leaders are appropriately compensated and supported.
Likewise, faculty should also be empowered to turn down invisible work requests that do not align with their early career goals, insisted Goff-Crews, who reminds faculty at Yale that their priority is publishing and tenure and discourages them, if possible, from accepting work that prevents them from achieving these goals; however, Goff-Crews also notes that minority faculty should always be encouraged to contribute as they wish, and there are a multitude of methods to contribute and take on more assignments post-tenure. While on the surface this may seem counterproductive for a university’s diversity goals, the fundamental principle of “belonging” that underlies DEI work is that it’s the work of everyone, which allows the administration to determine others who can perform the work and provide a pipeline for professional development, offering pathways for new leaders and showing value and deference to established leaders. Intentional consideration of appropriate leaders and skills ensures that the institution has a wide range of voices and resources at its disposal to perform beneficial work in diversity, equity, and inclusion.
When it comes to university culture and inclusion, there is inevitably a discussion that arises around the hierarchical divide between faculty and staff. The “inclusion” aspect of diversity, equity, and inclusion brings up the challenges of how staff and faculty perceive their engagement in the university. The needs of faculty are usually discussed with greater frequency than the needs of staff and administrators, though staff is considered to be the backbone of an institution that keeps everything functioning. This can result in a differential view of belonging not just between faculty and staff, but along race, class, and gender lines. It is imperative to acknowledge these differences while recognizing that for minoritized members of the staff and faculty, belonging remains pivotal to retention. The strategies to create an inclusive culture may differ, but the goal should be an integrated sense of community, with opportunities for growth and progress. Faculty leaders such as deans and department chairs should be involved while remaining conscious of daily professional commitments, as they are often discouraged from joining committees or taking on work outside the scope of their responsibilities; conversely, staff should always be considered for committees, as it enables them to have visibility across the institution, giving them more exposure and opportunities for leadership and professional growth. Goff-Crews and Sellers stressed the need for leaders to engage with their entire workforce, recognizing that the identification of varied skills and abilities that are needed for DEI work to occur, as well as offering leadership and participation to a diverse range of committee members, will support positive progress in the institution’s work.
Ultimately, the success of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at a college or university is dependent on the institution’s prioritization and adoption of DEI strategies in the organizational strategic plan. With a fully integrated strategic plan, it’s more likely that institution leaders will advocate for DEI hiring priorities, such as expanding and diversifying pools of leadership candidates or developing leadership capabilities and opportunities for existing personnel.
AGB Search and Mercer have collaborated to bring important and relevant topics and discussions with subject matter expert panelists to a wide range of higher education leaders. Participation in the Leadership Connections in Higher Education series is by invitation only to facilitate small-group discussion; however, inquiries to participate and topic suggestions are welcome. To learn more about the sessions, please email Monica Burton (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Margaret “Peggy” Plympton (email@example.com).
About AGB Search
AGB Search, based in Washington, D.C., specializes in providing tailored services, including permanent search, interim search, and compensation evaluation, to higher education institutions. Founded by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) in 2010, the firm has a unique understanding of the qualifications critical for effective higher education leadership. The firm has conducted more than 950 searches at institutions ranging from small, private colleges to large public institutions and research universities. www.agbsearch.com.
Mercer believes in building brighter futures by redefining the world of work, reshaping retirement and investment outcomes, creating true health and well-being that benefits all. Mercer’s approximately 25,000 employees are based in 43 countries and the firm operates in 130 countries. Mercer is a business of Marsh McLennan (NYSE: MMC), the world’s leading professional services firm in the areas of risk, strategy and people, with 81,000 colleagues and annual revenue of over $19 billion. Through its market-leading businesses including Marsh, Guy Carpenter and Oliver Wyman, Marsh McLennan helps clients navigate an increasingly dynamic and complex environment. www.mercer.com.