Diversity is hard to find among the highest paid leaders at elite research universities

On the face of things, diversity and inclusion seem to be sacrosanct values at our nation’s colleges and universities. Today’s students, part of the most multicultural generation of Americans ever, demand gender and racial equity on their campuses, and academic leaders signal their commitment by implementing policies, requiring trainings and preaching the gospel of acceptance and inclusivity.   

But if you follow the money, as we did, you might end up wondering just how deep that commitment goes. Our new report, a collaboration of the Eos Foundation and the American Association of University Women, found that the highest-earning professionals at the nation’s leading colleges and universities — arguably those wielding the most power — are still overwhelmingly white men. 

Diverse leaders exist but aren’t tapped

We collected data on the 10 highest-paid professionals at each of 130 elite research universities, known in the academic world as the R1 institutions. Looking at the salaries of core executive staff (excluding athletics, finance and medical personnel), we found that women account for just 24% of those top earners — and women of color make up only 2.5%. A mere 3.5% are Black men, and just about 3% are Latinos. That’s hardly the model of diversity that academic institutions so vociferously promote. 

Some might try to explain this away by suggesting that change at the top takes time, that we need to wait for a more diverse pool of potential leaders to work their way up before reaching the uppermost ranks. But that’s simply untrue: The leadership pipeline has been diverse for years.

The University of Louisville on Oct. 13, 2009, in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo: PR NEWSWIRE)

Consider women, for instance, who represent 57% of students in our colleges and universities and who have been out-earning men in master’s and doctoral degrees for close to two decades. (About 16% of today’s Ph.D. students are women of color.) Add to this the fact women account for 60% of all higher-ed professionals yet only 18% of the number-one earners, and it’s hard not to sum it up with a question: Why so few? 

At just 11 colleges and universities, women make up half or more of the top earners, and at only eight schools, underrepresented minorities comprise at least 20% or more those with the highest salaries, our survey found. The percentages are small, for sure, but that’s proof positive that parity can be achieved. Still, it’s hardly a naturally occurring phenomenon—it takes commitment and accountability.

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Case in point: When Neeli Bendapudi, Ph.D., took over as president of the University of Louisville, Kentucky, in 2018, she vowed to make the school’s leadership reflect the diversity of its student body and the city it serves. Less than three years later, 47% of her top team is female and 42% are people of color. “We put our minds to it,” said Michael Wade Smith, Bendapudi’s chief of staff and external affairs. “Intentionality was at its core.” 

Be proactive to make genuine change

The university implemented a range of new policies, including creating a core set of diversity principles, training hiring managers and requiring them to set accountable goals. For staff hires, the university relies on job boards aimed at diverse candidates, and for higher level personnel, they partner with search firms with a track record of placing women and people of color. The University of Louisville is also in the midst of a university-wide compensation survey with the goal of making sure salaries are equitable.

We need this kind of proactive approach for genuine change to happen. Without it, even the best institutions default to business as usual, which is why so few have succeeded in achieving the diversity and inclusion they profess in values and vision statements. The pipeline of diverse talent in higher education is plenty crowded, so moving up more women and people of color requires a serious examination of the systemic barriers and biases that persist within institutional cultures. Leaders must make bold and transparent commitments to achieving diversity — and then work hard daily to make that happen.

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Education has long been considered the great equalizer, and the Ivory Tower stands tall as a symbol of the ideals and goals society strives to achieve. Our elite institutions, especially, have the clout to not only drive change within their own ranks, but to inspire action and motivate other industries as well. It’s time for colleges and university leaders to step up and become the true champions of diversity, equity and inclusion they say they are. Their actions will speak far louder than their words.

Kim Churches (@ChurchesK)  is the CEO of the American Association of University Women, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit that advances equity for women and girls through advocacy, education and research. Andrea Silbert (@AndreaSilbert) is the president of the Boston-based Eos Foundation whose Women’s Power Gap Initiative aims to dramatically increase the number of women from diverse backgrounds in top leadership roles.

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