About a year and a half ago, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro attempted to hire a new chief diversity officer. The university sought an administrator who would focus on increasing appreciation for racial differences on campus—even though UNCG already had five administrators in its Office of Multicultural Affairs tasked with a similar mission. When the news surfaced, many people (some of them writing in the Greensboro newspaper) expressed anger, arguing that the new administrator was unnecessary, especially in a time of financial hardship.
Initially, UNCG chancellor Linda Brady defended the new position (which would have cost the school roughly $200,000 in salary and benefits) as a cost-cutting measure. In a letter to a local lawyer obtained by the Pope Center, Brady wrote that the new position would save money by fixing “an environment that doesn’t sufficiently embrace inclusion and equity.” Without that fix, she wrote, UNCG would continue to lose money through additional spending on remediation programs, responding to grievances, and the cost of students dropping out. By March 2011, however, Chancellor Brady officially abandoned the search for a new chief diversity officer, maintaining the office’s current staff level.
UNCG’s Office of Multicultural Affairs reflects the general trend in diversity offices. Every school in the UNC system that isn’t historically black (and even one that is) has an administrative staff dedicated to diversity. Over the last two years, most have either maintained their current size or expanded slightly, weathering the recent financial storm quite nicely. (See the chart below.)
What do these offices do? At first glance, it is not very easy to tell. Indeed, some are reluctant to even define “diversity,” as I pointed out in a Pope Center article last year. In “The 2005 Report of the Chancellor’s Task Force on Diversity” at UNC-Chapel Hill, the authors refused “to apply a narrow definition of the term, one that could become limiting or outdated, but [chose instead] to adopt a framework for understanding the concept of diversity relative to the work of the university.”
Diversity offices go by different names, but they have two functions: hosting events that attempt to increase appreciation of ethnic and racial diversity and serving as special academic counselors for minority-group students. Some of the diversity appreciation events include training seminars, such as the one at UNC-Chapel Hill that former Pope Center intern John Eick wrote about a couple of years ago. If participants listened to a two-hour lecture and attended four “diversity events” on campus, they would receive a Diversity Advocacy Certificate. Another event, which I experienced at NC State earlier this year, was a “tunnel of oppression,” designed to sensitize me to my own oppressed past.
These offices are controversial. Liberals tend to see diversity appreciation as a key to solving social inequality; conservatives tend to see such focus on race as unhealthy. In some cases, conservatives argue, diversity offices further divide races, and in any case they are wasteful, attempting to solve a highly exaggerated problem.
Despite the controversy and recent cuts to the UNC system’s budget, a Pope Center survey revealed that diversity offices in the UNC system are relatively immune to down-sizing. Over the past two years, some offices have grown in size, most have stayed the same, and a couple have been reduced, although not necessarily because of budget stringency.
This survey was conducted using campus websites and email communication with the offices of diversity. It did not include historically black UNC colleges, except for NC A&T State University, which has a Multicultural Student Center. Only administrative offices dedicated to promoting ethnic or racial diversity were included in the survey—offices dedicated solely to gender or sexual orientation issues were left out. The survey focused on changes in total numbers of employees at the offices over the last two years.
Three campuses increased diversity staff:
- UNC-Wilmington added one employee, making nine in total. Chief Diversity Officer Jose Hernandez said the increase was a response to growth in student enrollment.
- While East Carolina University’s five-person Office for Equity and Diversity did not add any people, the university’s Brody School of Medicine added a new Office of Diversity Affairs with two full-time staff.
- UNC-Chapel Hill has been the most aggressive in adding diversity staff lately. Its Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs is in the process of recruiting four new employees. (The website lists seven current employees).
The office’s previous director, associate vice provost Archie Ervin, left the school in early 2011. His replacement, Taffye Clayton, has a higher rank—vice provost rather than associate vice provost. According to the office’s communications specialist Miki Kersgard, this new rank shows diversity has become a “higher priority” at UNC.
Four schools stayed the same:
- NC State, which has the largest diversity office in the UNC system with 31 full-time staff, did not add employees, although the office underwent reorganization.
- UNC-Pembroke’s Office of Multicultural and Minority Affairs kept two people on staff.
- UNC-Charlotte’s Office of Multicultural Academic Services did not add to or subtract from its four-person staff.
- UNC-Greensboro (after the public controversy mentioned earlier) did not add to or subtract from the five-person Office of Multicultural Affairs.
A couple of offices shrank slightly.
- At Appalachian State, one of the four members of the Office of Multicultural Student Development quit and was not replaced.
- NC A&T State fired the director of its Multicultural Student Center, leaving only one employee.
Based on the Raleigh News & Observer’s database of UNC employee salaries, these diversity offices cost the state about $4 million per year in salaries alone.
These offices have been given a comparative pass in the midst of budget cuts, but their stability could be short-lived. The Supreme Court is set to rule on the Fisher v. Texas case, which challenges the use of racial preferences or affirmative action. One of the few remaining justifications for such action is the assumed benefit of diversity on campus.
It is possible that the Supreme Court will overturn its past support of affirmative action, deciding that racial or ethnic diversity does not support racial preferences. If so—especially given the likelihood of continuing tight budgets—diversity offices may be at the center of controversy once again.