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Officials: Diversity officers important to universities’ mission

BY JOSEPH BELK | APRIL 21, 2010 7:30 AM

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With University of Iowa officials in the midst of hiring a new chief diversity officer, higher-education officials across the country say similar positions help pursue integral pieces of universities’ missions.

Just a few decades ago, the role was virtually nonexistent.

But today, a growing number of institutions are employing officials charged with fostering diversity among students and employees.

“I think it’s a very important position for any organization as large and complicated as the University of Iowa,” said law professor, Marcella David, a former UI associate provost who was also the special assistant to the president for equal opportunity and diversity. “The importance of diversity and diverse perspectives really is key to the innovation we like to have in an academic environment.”

The UI’s chief diversity officer has wide-ranging responsibilities, monitoring equity efforts among students, staff, and faculty members. The chief diversity officer also oversees offices that implement programming for underrepresented populations and mediate discrimination and harassment complaints.

The position, which is in the President’s Cabinet, has existed at the UI in some capacity since 2004. The Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity was created under a different name in 1972.

American universities began employing these types of administrators around two decades ago, said Njeri Nuru-Holm, vice president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, of which nearly 200 schools are members.

A number of universities cite the job as a factor in increased diversity.

Indiana University’s vice president for diversity, equity, and multicultural affairs has helped spawn programs to increase minority enrollment.

At the University of North Carolina, the chief diversity officer oversaw updates to include diversity in general education curriculum.

Students at Penn State University now take six semester hours of diversity education after an initiative led by the school’s vice president for educational equity.

Officials at the UI, where 10 percent of students are minorities, say they’re looking to continue similar successes with a new chief diversity officer.

In recent years, UI programs have helped increase retention among underrepresented populations.

In 2007-08, the school’s minority retention surpassed that of non-minorities among first-year students.

Minority recruitment has also increased.

Latino enrollment jumped 30 percent, and African-American enrollment is up 15 percent over the past five years.

However, disparities in the six-year graduation rate between white and black students at the UI still exist. As of 2006, 45 percent of black students graduated within six years, compared with 67 percent of white students, according to a 2008 report by the independent think tank Education Sector.

Mettie Thomopulos, a co-head of the search committee for UI chief diversity officer, emphasized the university’s success in achieving more diversity.

UI President Sally Mason said officials will continue to focus on diversity as they develop a new strategic plan, calling the UI a “leader in diversity issues.”

“It’s always a challenge in places where people look around and say, ‘Well there’s not a lot of diversity there to begin with,’ ” Mason told The Daily Iowan last week. “Midwestern states tend to be states that don’t necessarily have a lot of innate diversity built into them, so that just means we have to work harder.”

UI spokesman Tom Moore said officials are not releasing salary information in the search. The fourth of five candidates will interview on campus Thursday.

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