by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*
In few days or weeks, the University of Iowa will announce the hiring of new Chief Diversity Officer (CDO). The title makes the position seem powerful and decisive. That ostensible power is bolstered by the administrative authority that will come with the position–the CDO will be named either a Vice President or an Associate Provost. The person who will be hired will likely be a member of a historically disempowered social group. Combined, the title, the reporting line, and race, gender, ethnicity, or other personal identity marker are meant to give vulnerable members of the University community the sense that they will be treated justly at Iowa. But the persistence of the problems of discrimination, violence, racism, retaliation, harassment, and exclusion shows that none of these outward elements of the position really matter. They are window-dressing, with no capacity for positive real change.
The basic flaw in designing this position lies in ignoring three basic truths about issues of diversity and inclusion. One, a working and learning space can be made diverse and inclusive through adherence to principles of justice, equity and full compliance with University policies and state and federal laws related to civil rights, human rights, and labor and health matters. Two, the fact is that the executive branch of government, in this case the University Office of the President, is either the abuser or potential abuser of rights. Three, all instances and acts of discrimination, racism, harassment, threats, intimidation, and exclusion occur in the classroom or immediate workspace environment—the smallest administrative unit, not at the college or university level. These basic facts should be the guiding principles for configuring the position and allocating resources.
Diversity and inclusion is not about creating a “welcoming and respectful environment that enables everyone to perform at their full potential.” It is about creating transparent and just institutional policies that value relevant personal experiences (as much as it values the “prestige” of the degree granting institution) while complying with state and federal laws. To de-emphasize the importance of institutional policies and procedures, and the need for principled adherence to well-thought out internal policies is to create the perception that the CDO is tasked with creating exceptions to the rules to accommodate persons belonging to historically disempowered social groups. This erroneous perception creates deeper problems including stigma, stereotyping, and resentment. It suggests that members of social minorities are at Iowa not because of their qualifications but because of affirmative action.
Here are some basic facts. First, there are many members of disempowered social groups who are as qualified as any person belonging to the privileged social groups who can be admitted to work or study at the University of Iowa. Second, most, if not all, of these individuals want to be considered for admission and for work on the basis of their qualifications and, importantly, uniquely relevant life experiences, not based on personal identity. Third, members of disempowered social groups are rarely given the benefit of the doubt and they must perform better than the average employee to escape disparaging comments about quota and affirmative action whereas their “entitled” counterparts are often given the benefit of the doubt and enjoy the luxury of choosing to do an average job without fear of being stereotyped. To disregard these truths about historically disempowered social groups and legacy privileges and to continue to use them as props signal willful acts designed to preserve a flawed system and conscious persistence on injuring the dignity of vulnerable people. No person of any social group should be made to feel that they were employed or were admitted to a school because of some special treatment when they are where they are because they are qualified, and in many cases, more qualified than their average counterparts belonging to the dominant social group.
Knowing that the prevention of discrimination, violence, harassment, retaliation, and racism is the responsibility of the university government, the moniker CDO should be replaced by Justice and Equity Officer (JEO) to reflect the real mission of such a position: to monitor the government’s compliance with and enforcement of the rules prohibiting acts of discrimination, racism, harassment, threats, intimidation, and retaliation. Reconfiguring this position would endow a JEO with power and authority independent from the executive branch of the government. Furthermore, such a position must exist outside the normal University hierarchy. By making the officer for this position a member of the cabinet the appearance of independence–if not actual independence–is compromised. If all members of the University community could be confident that they would be treated fairly and equitably and could expect the rules to apply the same way to all, problems of diversity and inclusion would largely resolve themselves.
At a time when the University is facing serious legal and financial challenges hindering its ability to offer faculty and staff raises to match inflation, hiring a “Chief Diversity Officer” and increasing the number of highly paid administrative staff requires more deliberation. Diversity and inclusion is a function of the prevalence of justice and equity in the classroom and work space. By creating an environment that is fully committed to justice and equity, persons of diverse backgrounds and experiences will come (no need for recruitment) and will stay (no need for retention measures) of their own volition. Since it is often the case that acts of discrimination, racism, harassment, threats, and exclusion occur in the classroom or within the department (including dorms, training facilities, etc.), all resources and assets should be made available at the department/unit level. A step that does not require additional spending is to use existing resources and HR staff to ensure that departmental administrators and anyone with a supervisory role are not bigots themselves, and do not tolerate bigotry, racism, discrimination, retaliation, threats, intimidation, and violence. Another step could be the creation of robust tools and processes at the department level to report and deal with any event or act that may erode the principles of justice and equity early, before it becomes serious or costly.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he might be affiliated.