Talk centers on Chief Diversity Officer criteria
As part of the early process of hiring a Chief Diversity Officer — a senior administrator to oversee all matters of diversity at the University — the consulting firm in charge of finding candidates for the role held a student discussion on Monday night about how they would like to see the role develop. This discussion was part of two days of discussions to help the firm understand what type of candidate would be best for Brandeis.
The event opened with remarks from Interim Provost Irving Epstein, who explained, “What this is about is to allow you the opportunity to convey your thoughts, hopes, wishes about the new Chief Diversity Officer, what sort of person we should be looking for, what you hope that person will accomplish, what you think the challenges for a person in that position might be.” He explained that he was simply introducing the event and would then leave the room, so as to allow for unrestricted conversation.
Members of the search firm, Witt/Kieffer, then introduced themselves and explained their process. Oliver Tomlin, a senior partner at Witt/Kieffer explained that he understands the Chief Diversity Officer need, as he is a founding member of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, a growing organization with a mission “[t]o lead higher education toward inclusive excellence through institutional transformation,” according to its website.
Charlene Aguilar of Witt/Kieffer said that she has worked in higher education for much of her career and has also worked as a college counselor, visiting Brandeis multiple times throughout the years. Finally, Christine Pendleton explained that the job of Witt/Kieffer would be to develop a leadership profile detailing the desired characteristics that she and her colleagues learn from these discussion sessions. They then would sell candidates on the job using the profile they compile as a baseline job description to base their search on. Later in the discussion, Tomlin added that they would not only accept applications but that they would actively search people out who they believe would be good in the position, whether they are already employed or not. He said that the “usual suspects” already hold similar positions at other universities or are consultants on diversity but that there are always applications from all over the map.
After Witt/Kieffer compiles all of the applications and sorts them based on which candidates they think would be best for the job, the applications will be passed on to the search committee, made up of four faculty members, four staff members and four students (two undergraduate, two graduate), and they will narrow the applications down. Once there are three or four final candidates, they will come to campus to meet with students, faculty and staff for their input. Finally, incoming University President Ronald Liebowitz will make the final decision — with input from the rest of the University community — by the end of July, explained Epstein. While it is unclear exactly what the duties of this position will be, Epstein wrote in an email to the Justice, “In general, we see this individual as the focal point of a wide range of campus-wide efforts to enhance diversity, inclusion and equity at Brandeis, including strategic planning for future initiatives. Since the CDO will report directly to the president, these issues will have a prominent voice in discussions at the highest levels of the university.” This is the same position that was referred to earlier in the year during Ford Hall 2015 discussions as “Senior Vice President for Diversity,” according to Epstein’s email to the Justice.
Students then raised concerns that the presence of the Justice at the event would inhibit free conversation and prevent students from speaking openly. Epstein, along with several students and a member of Witt/Kiefer, urged the Justice to leave and then declared that this reporter would only be present as a student and not a reporter.
The Justice chose to remain at this event due to the fact that it was open to the entire University community and that the University had given no indication before the event that it was closed to press. Epstein wrote in an email to the Justice, “After my initial remarks, I left the event, stating that I wanted students to feel free to express themselves candidly without concerns that their comments would be monitored by the administration and that all comments would be confidential. The search firm made the same point about confidentiality.” He added, “Soon after, I received a message that several students had expressed concerns that a reporter was present and that her presence would inhibit their ability to speak freely to the representatives of the search firm. I therefore returned to the meeting and had a conversation with Hannah, during which I told her of the students' concerns and also told her that while she was free to attend as a student, she needed to limit her reporting to a general characterization of the meeting and not report specific remarks or individual students' names, unless they chose to speak with her after the meeting.”
After the process was explained, Epstein left the event, and it opened up to a general discussion about what students hope to see the CDO accomplish and what qualifications they hope the candidates have. One of the primary student concerns was that the CDO represent the diversity of the students, both in his or her academic and cultural background. One student voiced concern that the administration is primarily made up of white, Jewish men and that this position should not necessarily fit that mold. Another student hope voiced by several attendees was that the incoming CDO be willing to interrogate the subject of diversity at all levels, from the administration down through student groups and everything in between. Students explained that this also needs to be addressed within the classroom and in University pedagogy, as well as that diversity of ideas and perspectives need to be included in and accepted in curriculums and in classroom discussions.