- Diversity's Promise for Higher Education: Making it Work
Over the past quarter century, colleges and universities have been challenged to create environments that fully embrace the diversity of students, staff, faculty and other stakeholders. Yet, traditional response to this challenge has focused primarily on the degree to which students from underrepresented populations are admitted and their retention to graduation. In her inspiring and carefully researched book, Diversity's promise for higher education: Making it work, Smith (2009) argues that our current focus on students' success, however important, is insufficient. Diversity should be built into "the center of higher education, where it can serve as a powerful facilitator of institutional mission and societal purpose" (p. 3). This volume is useful for presidents, provosts, and enrollment managers as well as student affairs administrators since it avoids simple exhortations to be more sensitive to diverse populations. Instead Smith uses sophisticated analyses of demographic and historical trends to convince readers that structural attention to diversity is essential for institutional effectiveness in addressing societal needs. Fundamentally, Smith successfully advocates for a paradigm shift that transforms the conversation about diversity from concern about student demographics to a vital institutional imperative.
In the first section Smith masterfully builds a context that confirms educators' responsibility to embrace the inevitable pluralistic nature of higher education. She carefully outlines the systemic processes inherent in organizations that lead to success or failure in meeting demographic changes. Smith eloquently analyzes concepts such as tokenism, micro-aggressions, colorblindness, identity threat, and the importance of discussing diversity from a lens of intersectionality. Her examples are straightforward, undebatable, and expand the discussion beyond higher education to society at large. Smith's critical analysis of the operationalization of the GI Bill, which was effectively affirmative action for white veterans, exemplifies her carefully constructed illustrations.
Section 2 begins with an analogy for a diversity imperative by examining the largely embraced technology imperative. Smith argues that the same technological strategic and capitol planning that has gone on for decades should inform diversity planning on our campuses. She outlines diversity efforts of the past 40 years and effectively addresses the nuanced tension that exists between directing attention to a few specific identities (e.g., race, gender) and "plethorophobia," the fear of focusing on everything as a facet of diversity and thereby becoming unfocused in programming or institutional planning. Smith asserts that, "rather than engaging diversity as a list of identities or creating a uniform set of policies and practices, framing diversity in terms of how the institution's mission and goals can be improved through the lens of different groups or issues provides an opportunity for both inclusiveness and differentiation" (p. 63). This focus on mission and goals helps educators get past diversity as a "numbers game," and look at institutional capacity for authentically engaging the diversity imperative.
The title of section 3, "Building Capacity by Interrupting the Usual," is an apt description [End Page 601] of the author's intent to inspire educators to think more expansively and boldly. For example, in chapter 5, Smith outlines the paradoxical and the explicit reasons for building a diverse cadre of faculty and administrators. An oft-cited reason for hiring diverse faculty and administrators is to provide mentors for students who are underrepresented. Smith skillfully expands this argument by outlining the paradox that increasing diversity can facilitate environments where individuals can be judged on their merits rather than their ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. She states that more diverse leadership decreases stereotyping because, for example, "one may experience a women who is caring and one who is not, a person who is effective as a teacher and one who is not, an Asian American who is a scientist and one who is a poet" (p. 141).
Innovative strategies to make diversity an enacted rather than an espoused priority are a key component of the latter portion of this volume. Smith offers various actions that can be undertaken by individual faculty, by academic and student affairs departments, and...