Back To School: Reflections on the APLU Diversity Panel

Last Monday, I was invited to participate in a panel called “Leadership Development for a More Diverse and Capable Leadership Pool” at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities Annual Meeting. The panel was moderated by Peter K. Dorhout from Kansas State University and my fellow panelists were April Mason, a provost at KSU, and Dale Wesson, the vice president for research at Virginia State University

The purpose of the panel was to address two questions:

“Who has the responsibility to help diversify the research office leadership on our campuses?”


“What can VPRs/VCRs and other university leaders do to promote diversity in research leadership?”

Academia vs. Corporations

I was the only member of the panel (and one of the few people at the conference) not in academia, which meant that I had a chance to both offer a new perspective and learn a little bit more about this space myself. It turns out that the demographics of management roles in academia are not very different from those demographics in the corporate world. A national survey of vice presidents and vice chancellors for research found that the demographic makeup is 91% white and 80% male.

Like my usual audiences, most of the attendees were genuinely interested in making headway for a more diverse and inclusive environment for the institutions they lead in AND they want a set of clear and actionable items that will help make that happen significantly and quickly (don’t we all?). In contrast to my usual, I think the tenure track and role descriptions and expected experiences are even more mandated in academia than the corporate world. Transferable skills seem to be more accepted, but the entire talent development and talent investment examples seem less consistent and broad than in business.

Where is opportunity?

As is often the case, there seemed to be a different perspective between the decision makers and the people vying for leadership roles. I was surprised by how strong the sentiment was from multiple academics surveyed that they strongly disagree or disagree that there is an equitable succession planning process in place for leadership positions of importance. On the management side, there was a robust discussion about extensive efforts done to improve diversity recruitment, only to lose these talents too soon for reasons like geography (many universities are not in the most fun places), the competitive nature of academia and the quest for tenure. Those recruiting talent felt they were losing quality hires for both personal and professional reasons. Two examples given were a black leader in Oklahoma who left because he found it difficult to find community in the city and instances of leaders hired at an HBCU in the south who left because they saw better professional opportunities elsewhere.

What are you solving for?

So this tension exists. Up-and-coming academics feel like they aren’t being given enough opportunity, while the universities feel like they’re putting a lot of effort into providing opportunity, only to lose talent due to reasons that seem out of their control. A big topic of discussion in the panel (and a big way to resolve this tension) was trying to identify exactly what the goal of diversity and inclusion is for your specific organization. What are you solving for? In order to figure this out, there needs to be structured, intentional dialogue that apparently isn’t happening enough in academia. Part of the reason this dialogue isn’t happening is the nature of academia. The goals of a university are very different from the goals of a business, so there’s not necessarily a talent machine that’s grooming academics for new roles or outlining long-term promotion and succession strategies. Toward the end of the panel, we had a good conversation about a CDO or diversity leader being the person who “fixes” things. I see this in corporate (and, in fact, once was a CDO) and it was interesting to hear that concept from the audience. I think the fact that we had this panel and that academics are starting to think intentionally about diversity and inclusion is a great sign of things to come!