This is What Mizzou Can Do to Avoid Another Diversity Disaster

November 14, 2015, 2:00 PM UTC
APTOPIX University of Missouri Turmoil
A woman passes a tent encampment set up by student protesters following an announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe is resigning Monday, Nov. 9, 2015, at the university in Columbia, Mo. Wolfe resigned Monday with the football team and others on campus in open revolt over his handling of racial tensions at the school. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Photograph by Jeff Roberson — AP

Earlier this week, the University of Missouri’s president resigned over allegations of turning a blind eye to racial tensions on its Columbia campus. Yale University is in the headlines for racial insensitivity claims among students, and the dean of students at Clarement McKenna College stepped down Thursday amidst accusations of racism. Similar protests and grievances are popping up at universities across the country, all of which seem to result in similar promises.

At Missouri, the administration publicly stated its plan to hire a diversity officer who will oversee racial issues among students and faculty, and then hired an interim black president. Yale’s president recently announced a plan to spend $50 million over the next five years to increase diversity on campus via targeted recruitment of minority faculty and students.

Will initiatives like these work? To answer this question, it’s necessary to first define the goal. Will they increase the number of minority students and faculty members? Resoundingly, yes. Research from the corporate sector has shown that the most effective way to increase workforce diversity is to centralize the responsibility (and accountability). Firms that hire diversity officers and create diversity taskforces are far more successful in increasing diversity than firms that devote similar amounts of resources to decentralized initiatives, such as diversity training and diversity evaluation.

But what about the kind of racial tension and insensitivity we’ve been reading about this week? Will Yale and Missouri’s initiatives be successful in stemming the disturbing behaviors being reported on? The answer to this question is far less clear. Racial diversity on university campuses has increased dramatically over the past 50 years, and yet here we are, in 2015, reading reports that sound as though they’re from another era.

As a professor of management who spends a lot of time thinking about how firms communicate with their customers, I can’t help but to think that part of the lingering problem lies in the way we’ve come to communicate and teach the idea of racial tolerance. In fact, I think part of the problem lies in the concept of tolerance itself. The dictionary definition of “tolerate” is to “allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of something that one does not necessarily like or agree with without interference.” What, then, are we communicating when we teach racial tolerance? Explicitly, acceptance. Implicitly, that it’s normal not to like what we are being asked to accept.

Perhaps it’s time for a different approach. Rather than urging tolerance, it’s time we communicate the real benefits that diversity brings—to society, to creativity, to efficiency, and to the “bottom line.” Enterprising human resource managers in the corporate sector did just this beginning in the early 1980s—largely in response to the Reagan administration deemphasizing enforcement of equal opportunity regulation—by replacing what had been a legal rationale for equal opportunity with a business rationale, touting the substantive benefits of diversity management.

Diversity among people, perspectives, and opinions engenders creative problem solving by increasing the breadth of information that a group, team, or organization has at its disposal, allowing for new ideas to emerge at the intersection of multiple domains of knowledge. To put that more simply, the most creative and innovative ideas seldom emerge from individuals or homogenous groups, but rather are born from people with differing skills, experiences, and perspectives coming together. Research on the topic is definitive: When properly managed, diverse teams combining multiple perspectives, skillsets, and functional backgrounds tend to outperform those lacking in diversity.

When managed incorrectly, or when not managed at all, diversity has a tendency to work at odds with interpersonal cohesion, and can lead to power struggles, conflict, financial mismanagement, retention difficulties, and misunderstanding—not unlike the kinds we’ve been reading about this week—and can undermine the real benefits that diversity brings.

Centralizing the role of diversity management is a step in the right direction, but the goal of this centralization should go beyond addressing numbers alone. In my own research, I have identified several common “failure points” of diversity, or reasons why groups, teams, and organizations are sometimes unable to experience the benefits of diversity among their workforce. Two of those failure points—that diverse groups tend to either homogenize or fragment over time—are particularly relevant given this week’s news.

When racial tensions are mismanaged or left unaddressed—as the central grievances in both Columbia and New Haven seem to suggest—minority group members often respond by either minimizing their differences, so as to blend in as best as possible, or, conversely, withdrawing. Either way, we lose out on experiencing the many tangible benefits of diversity. Rather than teaching people to simply tolerate differences, the increasingly centralized role of diversity management should take on the task of teaching the benefits of diversity as well as the many determinants of allowing diversity to be undermined.

Ned Smith, Ph.D, is associate professor of management and organizations at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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