Maegan Pollonais recognized a concerning trend among Manchester University students: Minority men were more likely to cut their educations short at the independent liberal arts school.
So Pollonais, director of student diversity and inclusion, started a program to support those students. Brothers Speak Out has connected them with alumni who could relate to their struggles and share advice on topics including mental health and belonging in a rural Indiana community.
It's important for students to have such conversations with alumni who look like them because it creates an attitude of, “If they can do it, we can do that as well,” Pollonais said.
Manchester isn't unique in having someone dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion. Pollonais has counterparts at institutions including Indiana Tech, University of Saint Francis, Ivy Tech Community College, Grace College and Purdue University Fort Wayne, which hired its first chief diversity officer this month.
Purdue Fort Wayne's need for the cabinet-level position emerged while developing the 2020-25 strategic plan, Chancellor Ronald Elsenbaumer said.
“It became very, very clear to all of us on campus that we want to have an open and accepting university, one that clearly welcomes all people, locally and from anywhere in the world,” Elsenbaumer said.
The trend of hiring chief diversity officers has been gaining momentum, according to a 2018 report published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. More than 66% of universities studied – research and master's degree-granting institutions with at least 4,000 students – had such a position in 2016.
Before hiring executive-level officers to coordinate diversity initiatives on campus became common, it was typical for colleges to have multicultural and diversity offices as a division of student services, according to the study, which focused on diversity officers' effect on hiring.
Having someone lead diversity efforts is important because equity and access doesn't happen organically, said JoAnne Alvarez, the diversity lead for Ivy Tech Community College Fort Wayne.
She likened it to walking alone into a cafeteria with only a few open seats at full tables with different groups at each table. Most times, she said, we will choose to sit with those who look most like us because like attracts like – it is comfortable. However, she added, choosing the uncomfortable choice could lead to learning, new friends and gaining another perspective.
“To make that choice, and to go into the unknown, we must be intentional,” Alvarez said by email. “That is what makes this position so important. We are being intentional. With that intentionality, we are establishing a culture of policies and practices that are promoting a sense of belonging and inclusivity for our students, faculty and staff.”
Ivy Tech, for example, has developed an African American male initiative to address declining recruitment and retention in that demographic. Ivy Tech is also is working to increase Hispanic and Latino enrollment, which is lower than other groups, Alvarez said.
Lisa Givan agrees the work of diversity officers is more than the food, fun and festivities of diversity.
Givan joined Indiana Tech in July 2018 as chief diversity officer and associate vice president for diversity and inclusion. Her promotion to vice president for institutional diversity, equity and belonging takes effect Jan. 1.
Along with offering traditional programming for marginal awareness celebrations like Black History Month, Givan's efforts have addressed the retention gap between minority students and white students and diversity training for university employees, among others.
“It's doing the educational, support and awareness programming that will stick around and have sustained impact,” Givan said.
In her new role, Givan will be responsible for integrating diversity initiatives across the university and in the communities Indiana Tech serves. President Karl Einolf expects the school will better support students and employees with diverse needs.
“We will build additional collaborative environments that value open participation from people with different ideas and perspectives, and we will continue to welcome and listen to people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized,” Einolf said in a statement.
Purdue Fort Wayne's nationwide search for a chief diversity officer generated 111 applications, giving the search committee the challenging task of narrowing an unusually large – and strong – candidate pool to three finalists, Elsenbaumer said.
The university selected MarTeze Hammonds, who has more than a decade of experience in higher education, including time as associate dean for diversity and inclusion at Arkansas Tech University.
He also is owner of MDH Consulting Group in Dallas and a senior consultant for diversity and inclusion for the American Cancer Society, according to a news release.
Hammonds, who is about a week into the role, said he seeks to add to and strengthen existing efforts on campus. The goal is to provide a place where students can be authentic and feel valued, he said.
Being a university's first diversity officer can be challenging because there's little to compare your ideas to, said Paul Porter, the first director of diversity and inclusion at the University of Saint Francis.
Since Porter's arrival in 2018, Saint Francis has launched a Black Student Association, started a Women's Empowerment Club and offered programs about topics including systemic racism, domestic violence and immigration, he said.
Long-term, Porter wants these and other planned initiatives to become embedded on campus, he said.
“We're up, we're standing and we're walking, but the landscape is so big,” Porter said. “We have a long way to go solely because we're young.”
Diversity officers stressed their offices can lead the way in fighting such discrimination as racism, homophobia and transphobia, but efforts to create an inclusive campus isn't their work alone to bear. It's a shared responsibility.
“Everybody has to be a diversity, equity and inclusion champion,” Pollonais said.