Tuesday, September 15, 2015

New President Interview -- Part 32 – Diversity


Q:  “Diversity” is often used in both academia and in corporate institutions.  “Diversity” is intended to describe a methodology that creates ways to make the institution more reflective of the community. What is the College diversity policy?

A: Briefly we believe that having a diverse student body, faculty, and staff is essential for helping student face the world.  The College actively promotes diversity. The richness of the educational experience is enhanced by diversity and leads to understanding, tolerance, and an appreciation of the differences embodied in each of us.

Q:  That sounds very lofty.  Most of the time people think that having students of many races is diversity.  Having a 37% black, 35% Hispanic, and 18% white student population is someone’s idea of a diverse population. I know that is not your opinion. What is diversity?

A: Diversity means that one recognizes that no one person has a monopoly on the truth or a particular way of thinking.  People should be judged on the power of their intellect, the kindness of their heart, and the generosity of their spirit.  The forms that ask about racial diversity are silly.  Diversity has many layers because we belong to different communities simultaneously.   Examples of the basis or commonality for communities include: geographical proximity or groups based on religious, ethnic, physical, gender, intellectual, professional, or recreational interests.  Creating a diverse organization is difficult because it takes people out of their comfort zone. People tend to like those whom they share some sort of common interest or other commonality.  People can respect a person who is different as long as they conform.

Teams need several kinds of people.  Leaders don’t need people who always agree with them.  They need many points of view to create solutions that work. Diversity brings new information to the organization.  In a 2014 article Katherine W. Phillips says, “Being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working.” [1]

One of reasons we teach the humanities is to demonstrate both the similarities and differences of the human spirit.  The human spirit is both the same and different in each one of us.  If one person has strict religious based dietary rules, you can’t say to them, “Don’t worry God with forgive you this one time if you eat x-food with me.” God may forgive, but perhaps the person will never forgive you or themselves for a weak moment?

There is an unresolved question, “Does diversity cause better results and innovation or is the correlation just a statistical anomaly?”  It is difficult to devise an experiment that would be conclusive.  I diverge a bit to a sport analogy about cause and effect.  Baseball keeps all kinds of statistics.   For example how do pitchers fair against right-handed or left-handed batters based on a pitcher’s dominate throwing arm?  Does a left-handed pitcher do better against left-handed batters?  Are there scientific proofs involving measurements and the physics of a thrown ball? Or is the correlation only an interesting data set?  The skeptic may ask, “Who cares?  The data are just counts of the results.”

In the 1950 book, Social pressures in informal groups: a study of human factors in housing [2] Leon Festinger, et al discuss the functioning of groups.  Small groups influence the behavior of their members.  People in close proximity form groups that support each other.  This is the basis of the science of social psychology.  Proximity may start friendships and they may continue after the geographic proximity ends.  Group behavior is influenced by the institutional culture, relevant laws, as well as interpersonal connections.  In the 1950’s they didn’t talk much about diversity and were concerned about what kept groups together.  This group cohesiveness leads us to understand how diversity enables groups to be smarter than the sum of the individuals.

Festinger describes a situation in the book (starting at page 8) about a 1946 housing project named Westgate.  They studied how residents made friendships.  These observations were so important in the field of social psychology, more than 25 years later they were still studied in undergraduate psychology courses.  The fact that these were new housing projects, the residents had no prior connections, and they were all MIT married engineering students, gave the researchers an opportunity to study friendship with many methodological controls.  One of their results was that proximity was important for the formation of personal friendships. Electronic communications breaks down the barriers of time and place and allow new kinds of friendships and continuation of proximity initiated relationships. Festinger did not predict the extent of the influence of increased electronic communications.  Friendships were not connected to diversity or the need to have diverse relationships.  While people who liked each other became friends, proximity was the best predictor of friendship.

For diversity to be a factor in the increasing of corporate well being and intelligence, people have to be willing to step away from a comfort zone.  On Face the Nation on August 30, 2015 Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal talked about assimilation of immigrants into American society.  His often repeated line, “Immigration without assimilation is an invasion” sounds like the cadence of a politician.  It is meaningless and is disconnected from learning through diversity.  In the College, we have written rules and policies that people are supposed to conform to.  We have a corporate culture that has the expression or interpretation of the rules.  However, diversity is a concept that can not be legislated.

Q: Getting to some cases—what is the interpretation of respect for those are different? What are some accommodations to allow for diversity?

A: Some aspects are controlled by state and federal laws. The  Illinois Human Rights Act   (775 ILCS 5/) states that all individuals within Illinois the have the right to freedom from discrimination based on his or her race, color, religion, sex, national origin, ancestry, age, order of protection status, marital status.  The law then elaborates on what this means.  Compliance is sometimes a delicate balance between the needs of the College and the individual.  For example no teacher may schedule a major exam on a religious holiday without making a reasonable accommodation to members of that religious group.   In my college years some professors were more accommodating than others.  One scheduled a final on a Saturday.  The class never even met on Saturdays.  He refused to reschedule a test on another day for the Sabbath observers in the class.  The class had many Sabbath observers. The professor said, “God will forgive you.” After complaining to the dean, the accommodation was to take the test on Saturday night after the Sabbath ended.   While technically that was an accommodation, even the non-Sabbath observers thought that was unjust.

Here at the College, we try to treat students, faculty, and staff with respect concerning their religious holidays while keeping in mind that we have to watch out for those taking advantage of an observance that is not theirs.  In high school a few non-Jewish students missed class on the Jewish holidays because they knew the teachers would not cover much material in class on those days. Here we require verification that a person is a legitimate observer.  The verification process is left to the discretion of the teacher or supervisor.

Q:  How do you deal with meetings that may happen on holidays or the Sabbath?

A:  With every group there are those who have time conflicts.  If no one objects, Saturday and Sunday meetings are allowed.  If a committee meeting has a regular time to meet each week and a member can’t attend because of a conflict, the members must decide how to deal with the situation.  For example for a routine meeting, a substitute may be sent.  Other times, the meeting is rescheduled.  I have heard of colleges scheduling graduations on Saturday.  Those Sabbath observers who wanted to participate in the ceremonies had to have an accommodation.  At the May 16, 2015 commencement at Binghamton University, State University of New York, Don Greenberg, of Teaneck, New Jersey, was selected by his classmates to deliver one of the student commencement addresses.  As an observant Jew, he could not use electricity on the Sabbath and so couldn’t use the microphone.  Speaking without a microphone was impractical.  Rescheduling the commencement would have caused too many hardships for everyone involved. [3]  Greenberg pre-recorded his speech three days earlier and stood at the podium while it played on the big screen to the audience. The speech included the reason for the recording.  He challenged graduates to pursue greatness as opposed to a pre-determined path.  His family stayed within walking distance because they do not ride or use a car on the Sabbath. [4]  This was an accommodation that was a proud moment for all involved.  The University’s office for diversity and inclusion let people know that this happened and showed how without compromising the Sabbath or the University’s needs, diverse needs can be met.

Here at the College we do not have a tradition of weekend commencement exercises.  Commencement is usually scheduled for the first Tuesday after the end of the spring semester classes.

Q:  What meetings would cause difficulty with religious accommodations? 

A: A major decision making meeting should take into account religious observances.  We do not schedule major meetings from Friday afternoon through Sunday. 

A while ago a major state university in another state was searching for a president.  The search committee was charged by the chancellor of the system to find someone who would lead the university on a new course.  The board of trustees had some major policy changes that would need to be implemented by the new president.  Programs were going to be changed, moved or consolidated.  New buildings were proposed or scheduled to be built and old ones re-purposed.  All of these activities would be under the supervision of the new president.  The university needed a president who had experience in the academic and community arenas.  The new president would need to build bridges and gain support from the faculty, staff, community and students so that the changes would help them all.  A president's responsibility includes providing leadership and vision for planning, operations, and compliance with local, state, federal, and accrediting body laws, rules, regulations, and legal interpretations.  The provost provides similar leadership for the academic programs and student services of the College. The provost works to create a climate which enhances student learning, stimulates creative approaches to teaching and learning, and motivates both staff and students to optimum levels of student success and community achievement.

The process of choosing a president requires a balance between information to be made public and information that is kept private.  A person who applies for such a job has to be careful with his current job because the current employer may view him/her as disloyal.  If not appointed to the new job, the candidate can lose respect and power and become ineffective in the current position.

To choose a new president, that state university appointed a “diverse” committee of faculty, alumni, staff, administrators, and a student representative.  The committee tried to include constituents and diverse types of personality styles to see if they could form a committee that represented the campus.  The president of the faculty senate, who is supposed to represent the faculty voice, was not invited to be a member of the committee.  The committee’s job was to discover and codify the campus thought as what qualities should be in a new president and then find candidates.  After a self-study to determine the needs and want of the campus, the committee advertised the position and received applications.  This campus interview was a time to get to know the candidate and listen to them as they explain their thought process and vision as to how they would be able to lead the university.  The on campus interviews included meetings with special groups and open sessions for the students and faculty. 

The committee met for several summer months and identified three candidates they wanted to interview. They vetted the candidates and choose three finalists to be invited for on campus interviews.  After one declined the interview, a fourth candidate was identified and invited.  The three candidates were scheduled from September through the second week in October.  Getting acceptable dates for the candidates took a lot of negotiations and planning.

The first candidate was scheduled for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  The president of the faculty senate objected and was supported by a resolution of the senate executive. The person making the arrangements and scheduling said that was the only day the candidate was available.   This was a power play.  What is more important following the university guidelines for respectful and diverse campus and following the law for non-discrimination or the interviewing of a candidate?  Arguments about time and money are really about power.  People like to have power over their situation and over others.  A healthy relationship is where the parties are more interested in win-win situations than “I’m right, you’re wrong” dramas.

Scheduling another day proved impossible.  What possible accommodations could be made was a heated discussion.  One suggestion was to stream the interview and allow those who couldn’t be there to chime in with questions.  That did not work because if the faculty senate president couldn’t be there in person, he could not be there via teleconference either.   Since body language and other non-verbal communications convey messages beyond the words,   for someone is to be taken seriously, they have to look and feel the part.  Listening is an art and one needs to observe both how the candidate moves and looks as well as the words in his answers.  Does the candidate treat the faculty and other with the respect they deserve?  One does not need a candidate who agrees with everyone and every idea, but getting to acceptable answers is part of the job of a president.

The next offer was to allow the faculty senate president to submit written questions. This means the questions will definitely be asked, but the body language would not be viewed and there would be no follow-up questions.   In the end the compromise was -- written questions would be allowed; the faculty senate was allowed to teleconference additional questions on a future date; and the university administration agreed never to schedule an important university meeting on a day that limited participation because of a religious holiday.

In the end the first candidate was totally unacceptable. He had a great resume with all the appropriate education and experience.  The president of the faculty senate read between the lines.  The written questions made the candidate uneasy.  He was not a good listener and the committee could tell from his body language that he was not a good fit.  They had a hard time believing anything he said.  He did not get the job.  Another candidate not only had the right words, but was an active listener and before the end of his two days of interviews already was able to build relationships.  People believed him.  He was offered the job and now many years later the university is a better place because of him.

Q:  Thank you very much.


Part thirty-two of imaginary interviews with the president of the College. After more than 30 interviews the president is no longer “new,” but since we are all works in progress I am continuing the series as if s/he were a “new president.” Please feel free to suggest new ideas for interviews and presidential comments. This article is for your information, amusement, and edification. Everything is true, but some details have not yet happened. Any connection to a real college or president is strictly coincidental.

[1] Phillips, Katherine W. "How Diversity Works." Scientific American 311.4 (2014): pages 43-47. Retrieved from Ebsco Academic Search Complete.   27 Aug. 2015. The Ebsco citation for this article has the wrong author attribution.  Ebsco’s citation has “Paul Caleb” as the author. I verified authorship with the real author.  She gave me another source, the Scientific American web site: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-diversity-makes-us-smarter/.  The title there is:  "How Diversity Makes Us Smarter."  The author has no idea of a reason to change the title.  All of this causes problems for those of you who want to read the whole article that I used.

On Sept 20, 2015 Ebsco sent me a message saying that the indexing and citation for this article was corrected.

[2] Festinger, Leon; Stanley Schachter; Kurt W Back; Social pressures in informal groups: a study of human factors in housing.  Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1963, 1950.

[3] Don Greenberg was not the only Sabbath observant Jew to deliver a commencement speech.  Jacob Dorfman, was the School of Management’s selected student speaker.  His speech was not scheduled on the Sabbath.

[4] For more information see:  Religious News Service:  http://www.religionnews.com/2015/05/13/orthodox-jewish-commencement-speaker-finds-shabbat-workaround/  While the open microphone was the visible problem, his rabbi determined the actual problem was the sound board.  Every moment someone speaks lights go on or off on the sound board.   While the university was willing to find a solution to the lights, they were unable.  The story made the national news in the Washington Post and New York Times.  The commencement speech can be viewed on YouTube   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmXh2U7v2RA .   This was a proud moment for the student and the university. 

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