Higher Ed: How to Retain Diversity After Hiring

Colby Haverkamp
June 10, 2022

Diversity in staffing at higher education institutions is an imperative as student bodies become more diverse. For higher ed, how to retain diversity is as crucial asthe hiring process itself, affecting the student experience, student learning outcomes and whether students feel seen and included.

Yet diversity in the higher ed workforce has failed to keep pace with the diversity seen among student populations. As of 2020, only a quarter (25.8%) of faculty members were people of color, compared with 46% of students

In recent years, many colleges and universities have taken steps to attract and hire a more diverse workforce, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle. With a wider spectrum of backgrounds and experiences on staff, institutions need to provide an inclusive atmosphere and equitable work arrangements to keep diverse talent happy and engaged. 

Here’s some suggestions for how to manage faculty and staff in higher ed to retain diversity in your workforce.

Update Your Operating Model

Colleges and universities have relied on the same operating model for decades — one in which students come to campus for instruction — but COVID-19 shook up what students have come to expect from higher ed. For instance, changes in how instruction is delivered have great potential for retaining diverse faculty and staff.

The pandemic also pushed many higher ed institutions to invest in hybrid and remote education models. In fact, over 90% of chief business officers surveyed by EY-Parthenon increased budget spending on digital instruction technology in 2021, with additional increases expected in ensuing years.

Investing in online instruction can help in hiring and retain a diverse workforce, as well. Faculty with disabilities may find getting around campus challenging, for example. Giving those employees a virtual course load allows them to work from home, which is a reasonable accommodation to ensure employees with disabilities can carry out their jobs with less personal hardship.

Committing to online instruction options allows you to expand your job search to include more diverse candidates, which will aid in recruiting and retaining diverse faculty members.


Provide Greater Flexibility

Much like shifting to hybrid and remote learning models, flexible work arrangements can also help you to attract and retain diverse faculty and staff. Enabling the workforce to have autonomy over their schedules helps people remain employed regardless of their personal circumstances.

Women are statistically more often caregivers, for example. Providing flexibility as to when, where and how they show up for work allows them to find a better balance for family obligations while still maintaining a full work schedule.

Systemic factors, such as disparities in generational wealth, may also affect an employee’s ability to be on campus full time. Black employees, for example, may face longer commute times or rely more heavily on public transit, making it more challenging to retain a full-time on-campus role. But a flexible work arrangement allows these employees greater control over setting their schedule, empowering them to perform at their best.

Regarding benefits, going beyond traditional health care plans can promote greater flexibility for(and diversity in) your higher ed workforce, too. 

For instance, caregiving benefits can help working parents and individuals who care for elderly relatives. Asian American, Black and Hispanic caregivers tend to be younger than white caregivers, and caregiving duties can have a disproportionate effect on faculty and staff with diverse ethnic backgrounds. Benefits to assist these employees with caregiving duties can reduce stress and hardship, allowing them greater flexibility to maintain employment.


Empower Your Chief Diversity Officer

Chief diversity officers (CDOs) are becoming more common in higher ed. As of 2016, more than two-thirds of major universities had named a CDO or equivalent, Russell Reynolds Associates reports. This signals an important shift from diversity being managed via a minority affairs department under the student services umbrella to elevating diversity to the strategic level with a CDO reporting to top leadership.

But there’s more to empowering your CDO than giving them a position near the top of the organization. They also need authority, resources and metrics to truly drive change.

The CDO position can’t just be symbolic: Everyone among the faculty, staff and leadership team must recognize the CDO’s authority in matters relating to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). HR teams tend to work closely with the CDO to execute their plan, which often intersects with HR’s role. Department heads, hiring committees and direct managers are also responsible for executing the CDO’s plan for how to retain and promote diverse faculty and staff.

Include the CDO in your annual planning meetings. Have them weigh in on a budget for diversity-related activities based on the business plan and goals they’ve set for improving DEI across the institution. 

Clear metrics help bring lofty goals to life and sustain your commitment to diversity. In order to be successful, your HR team must collaborate with the CDO and other related departments to set viable metrics for retaining diverse faculty and staff.


Listen to Diverse Perspectives

Higher ed leadership can easily fall for the “illusion of inclusion,” wherein individuals with more privileged backgrounds perceive greater progress than is actually occurring. A recent report from the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education found that, while 73% of white faculty agreed that leadership is visibly supporting and promoting on-campus diversity, only 55% of Black faculty members agreed with the same statement.

To gain a clearer picture of the true state of diversity, you need a diverse leadership team, in collaboration with your CDO, to define what progress actually looks like at your institution.

This work also speaks to the need for an established line of communication with faculty and staff from diverse backgrounds. Employee resource groups (ERGs), or affinity groups, have been common in corporate settings for decades, and they can be beneficial to higher ed institutions, too.

ERGs give employees opportunities to come together, typically along shared identities (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) or shared interests, such as sustainability. These groups facilitate opportunities for professional development and have a budget they can allocate for members to attend conferences or to host events.

ERGs provide safe spaces for employees while empowering members to escalate their voices and perspectives to leadership. Organizational leaders can learn much more about what employees from diverse backgrounds need from the higher ed institution. Ideally, each ERG has a sponsor on the leadership team to help advocate for that group.

With ERG leaders providing institutional leadership with a direct line of communication to diverse faculty and staff, you can make better decisions that truly reflect what the workforce needs, improving retention.


Offer Targeted Opportunities

One of the best ways to retain diverse faculty and staff is to set them up for success within the institution. But many employees from historically marginalized groups are overlooked for promotions, leading to frustration and turnover. 

Additionally, paths to advancement aren’t always clear in academia. It’s important to develop a job architecture that allows faculty and staff to carve out their ideal path, whether it’s from adjunct faculty to full professor or professor to administrator. Many higher ed institutions have cut back on tenured positions. Because tenure has traditionally been the standard in academic progression, it’s important to provide new standards for advancement within the institution.

Create targeted opportunities for diverse faculty and staff to learn more about where they’d like to move within the organization. Answers may include mentorship programs between faculty in the roles that employees want to attain or sponsorship from an institutional leader. Work with your CDO to put metrics around growth opportunities, and pair them with your leadership diversity goals.

Most post-secondary institutions provide free classes to faculty and staff for continuing education. Advertise these opportunities to your ERGs, and be sure to build time into daily schedules to allow employees to pursue further education. Because most advanced academic positions require doctorates, work with faculty and staff interested in pursuing that route to fit rigorous educational programs into their schedules.

Advertise open positions internally so that existing faculty and staff can have a shot at changing positions within the institution. Set standards for search committees to consider a certain number of internal candidates per opening, and ensure that candidates selected represent a diverse pool of talent within the institution.


Continue Innovations in Higher Ed to Retain Diversity

There’s no magic formula for retaining a diverse workforce in higher education. The process of finding the right mix of benefits, workplace innovations and HR solutions is specific to each institution. But one key element to retaining a diverse workforce is the willingness to embrace change.

Academia tends to move more slowly than its corporate counterparts, but for higher ed, how to retain diversity should be a priority to act on. Keeping your faculty and staff engaged signals the importance you place on employee satisfaction and retention. And the faster you’re willing to explore changes, the easier it will be to refine and adapt your processes to promote DEI at your institute of higher learning.

Colby Haverkamp
Enterprise Sales Executive
Senior Sales Professional with 5+ years experience in providing software solutions across public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Colby also has a background in public policy, global governance, and organizational management both at the international and domestic levels. He thoroughly enjoys opportunities to learn more about the missions of organizations and what makes them effective, so individuals are more than welcome to contact him for a virtual coffee if you'd like.

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